Tedium - The AI Laptops’ Secret Feature 💻

Robust Linux support might make the AI laptops worth buying.

Hunting for the end of the long tail • May 22, 2024

The AI Laptops’ Secret Feature

Ignore the AI that Microsoft is selling everyone. The reason why the new ARM laptops are exciting is because Qualcomm did the work with Linux. Also: I built a site.

It will be hard to ignore the CoPilot button, I know. Back when I was daily-driving a Hackintosh, I had to grit my teeth for a bit to embrace a laptop with a Windows key after so many years of running a Mac.

But the Qualcomm-chipped laptops that finally got unveiled this week appear to have an amazing feature that isn’t getting a lot of attention. That feature is a company that seems to care about a high-quality experience for people who don’t use Windows.

As Tom’s Hardware reports, Qualcomm is deeply involved in ensuring basic features of the chipset are natively supported in the Linux kernel:

So far, Qualcomm has most of the critical functions working inside Linux, specifically version Linux 6.9 that was released not too long ago. These critical functions include UEFI-based boot support along with all the standard bootloaders like Grub and system-d. Dual-booting is also possible for users who want to run Windows and Linux installations simultaneously on their X Elite-powered machine.

Other critical functions that have already been implemented include the DWC3 sound driver, reference board support, ADSP/CDSP support, multimedia clocks, PCIe/eDP/USB Phy, and system caching through NVMe SSDs over PCIe.

Functions that are being worked on for future iterations of Linux include additions to battery support, on-board display connectivity, external DisplayPort connectivity, sleep and wake-up functions on the GPU, camera support, video support, better CPU frequency support, and speaker/mic/headset enablement. These functions are expected to arrive in Linux 6.10 and 6.11.

Here’s the thing. In the Linux world, ARM has had something like a 15-year head start over Microsoft’s own often anemic ARM efforts, thanks to the Raspberry Pi and single-board computers making the platform a good choice for more than just basic web-surfers.

Collectives like Pine64 have been building laptops with first-class citizen Linux support for years. (They’re admittedly not fast but they offer a good ecosystem to develop on.)

And then, we got fast ARM laptops from Apple, which smoked what’s already out there but come with the side effect of a Linux experience that is still somewhat immature, despite the strides already made.

I don’t mention this elsewhere, but we gotta talk about HP’s decision to rebrand its consumer laptops as OmniBooks, a revival of a name used for business laptops in the ’90s. Spectre and Envy were such great brand names. Why revive chopped liver? (via HP)

This is not a critique of the team working on Asahi Linux, which has done amazing work in making Apple’s unique hardware palatable as a daily driver for Linux in many cases. Rather, it’s a critique of Apple for not taking steps to make it easier for them. Maybe they might not have wanted the help, but Linux on a laptop should be an expectation at this point.

I have been diving into my M1 as a light surfing machine lately, and I have been running Fedora via the Asahi installers. It runs great. It is as fluid as my HP Envy, and it has three times the battery life. Score.

The only real problems I’ve seen have been with proprietary video codecs not properly supporting browsers in Fedora (it’s a whole thing that honestly has more to do with Fedora than Asahi), and a limited ability to use the Thunderbolt ports on my machine.

The former thing is a Linux/FOSS hangup, as you might assume. The latter, however, reflects the fact that a small team of volunteers had to build this themselves, and it’s taking them time to cover every feature of my nearly-four-year-old Mac.

The effective result of this is that the minimum spec to get monitor support for a Mac laptop out of the box completely leaves MacBook Air users out in the cold. Right now, I can’t plug in a monitor unless I buy a bunch of DisplayLink equipment that costs hundreds of dollars, which doesn’t feel like it will make sense in six months when Thunderbolt is finally, properly supported. (Presumably.)

Qualcomm appears to have seen the attention and energy that the Asahi team has generated, and just decided to help them out, to ensure Linux has nearly full support on this new chipset that they’re launching. If you ask me, that is the game-changing thing. We’ll have to see how HP and Lenovo do on the driver front, but if you’re guaranteed to get most of the niceties of an ARM Linux laptop without the growing pains of Apple silicon’s still-being-improved Linux driver support.

Now, one could see relying too much on a single corporation to get this all right as a problem, but on the other hand, I think it is a sign that major chip providers realize that ignoring Linux is just a bad idea—as is betting all their eggs on Microsoft.

There is perhaps a scrappy energy lost when the big company steps in to help, a scrappy energy that has made Asahi’s hacking (especially around 3D graphics) a joy to behold. They have helped highlight a lot of details about Apple’s fascinating hardware that would have never emerged otherwise. But Linux could really benefit from additional mainstream ARM laptops—and this is a shortcut to get there.

If this gets us slightly closer to the memetic “Year of the Linux desktop,” we’ll find a way to ignore the CoPilot button.

Branding A URL Code

Friday’s piece on Google search has gone incredibly viral since I posted it, and is our biggest piece in more than a year, closing in on 80,000+ unique visits as of this writing. It has popped off in a way we haven’t seen since Chris Dalla Riva’s excellent “The Death of the Key Change,” which became such a big hit that he now has a hugely successful newsletter of his own.

Originally it said “enshittification,” but I heard from a source no less than Cory Doctorow himself that it should be “disenshittification,” so I have changed it to reflect that.

I then decided that wasn’t good enough apparently, because today I built a pseudo-search engine that redirects to the Web-only Google search that I’m calling udm14.com. The brilliance of this name—including the literal URL code in the title and the name of the page—is that it tells everyone who uses it how to work around Google’s AI search. Someone on GitHub suggested I change it to make it less techie and more generic—but I refused. The name is honestly the point.

See, here is what happens with so many things companies like Google create—they bury important features behind dialog boxes, or make it so that you have to know secret views or codes to find them. By contrast, what this name does is draw attention to the fact that this is the secret code, and if the secret code changes, everyone will know that the company changed the secret code.

By making the trick known to as many people as possible, it neutralizes its obscurity.

I came up with this idea after talking to Matt Lee, who wrote a great piece for Tedium on the Z80 the other week. He suggested I make a T-shirt with the “&udm=14” code.

(I will offer T-shirts if people want them, by the way, but certainly I don’t think it’s a necessity.)

That got me thinking. Soon, I noticed that the URL was available. So I bought it, built the site in record time, and here we are. I uploaded the code to GitHub and gave it a Creative Commons Zero license, effectively putting everything in the public domain at the jump.

Not surprisingly, it worked. In the span of half a day, we turned an obscure code into a viral phrase that will ensure that if Google does decide to hide or bury this feature, a lot of people will know about it.

Let’s make traditional search on the Web hard to delete.

--

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