Ubuntu for Arm64 laptops (plus RISC kit)
Did you know there's an Asahi flavored Ubuntu? And Debian, too
Ubuntu Summit A subthread of the Ubuntu Summit was Ubuntu on Arm and RISC-V kit: a fast-growing area of interest for many people.
Arm is back in the spotlight, thanks primarily to Apple's new range of Apple Silicon Macs – but it's not the only game in town, either for RISC-powered laptops or indeed for Arm-powered ones. Two talks at the Ubuntu Summit in Latvia focused on running Ubuntu on two different types of laptops with CPUs that run the Arm instruction set.
The first talk, Running Ubuntu Desktop on Arm-based laptops, focused on one of the only open-market Arm-based lappies that isn't a ChromeBook, the Lenovo Thinkpad X13S. Of course, this device is old news to regular Reg readers, as the FOSS desk has reviewed it, not once but twice: once as a Windows device and then again six months later looking at how well it ran Ubuntu 23.04 and Armbian. (It can also run OpenBSD 7.3 so long as you don't need Bluetooth support.)
As such, this vulture was slightly startled to find he was answering more questions than asking them. The machine and its SoC enjoy better support in Ubuntu 23.10 than in 23.04, and there was considerable interest.
The Thinkpad's Snapdragon 8cx Gen 3 chip is ageing now, though: it was announced in late 2021 and shipped in Microsoft's Surface Pro 9 convertible tablet and the Windows Arm Dev Kit over a year ago. While Lenovo's official RRP doesn't seem to have changed, some specs of X13S are now available for around $1000 (£800) new. At a third less than when we first looked at them, they make a more attractive proposition.
Mentioned at the end of the talk, there is a new Qualcomm laptop chip coming, which we covered in the Reg last month: the Snapdragon X Elite. This is the first fruit of Qualcomm's 2021 acquisition of Arm SoC vendor Nuvia, founded by former Apple chief CPU architect Gerard Williams.
Back in 2022, Qualcomm promised Apple-beating SoCs by late 2023, and here they come.
Inevitably, Linux support will lag behind somewhat. These devices are built to run Windows, the result of a Microsoft partnership with Qualcomm that began around 2018, and which is reported to be an exclusive deal.
However, the X13S has relatively conventional UEFI firmware, and crucially, it's possible to disable Secure Boot – unlike a decade ago on the original Surface RT devices, which were locked into Windows. Between multiple devices, standard firmware which can be unlocked, and a larger than ever community of Linux users, we suspect that support will arrive while the machines are still being sold new.
Getting fruitier instead
For now, though, the best-selling high-performance laptops – and desktops – with the Arm ISA inside are Apple's M1, M2 and now M3 powered Macs. Famously, the Asahi Linux project is working on support for Apple Silicon Macs, and project leader Hector "Marcan" Martin jointly gave a talk on From Asahi Linux to Ubuntu: Running Linux on Apple Silicon, alongside OpenBSD developer Tobias Heider. Heider is working with the Asahi Linux project to deliver a version of Ubuntu for Arm64 Macs. It's called Ubuntu Asahi and builds of both 23.10 "Mantic Minotaur" and the current LTS, 22.04, which already exist.
Although it's often mistaken for one, Asahi Linux is not a distribution, even thought it does have an official flagship distro, Fedora. As "Marcan" put it, "our goal is to make Linux on Apple Silicon Macs as good as on x86 – or better." The project isn't just working on drivers and kernel support. For instance, he pointed out that Apple has smart, non-linear frequency modelling for the tiny speakers in its laptops, which is why they sound better than most PC laptops. This also includes dynamically limiting the volume levels according to the frequencies the speakers are playing, without which it's very easy to blow the speakers. The Asahi developers have to reproduce this, via a Rust program called speakersafetyd.
Although Asahi started out working on Arch Linux, then switched to Fedora, it isn't limited to just these distros. Apart from Ubuntu Asahi, which has installation instructions on Github, there is also an Asahi Debian build, as well as multiple other distros, including Alpine, Deepin, CentOS Stream, Gentoo, NixOS and Rocky Linux.
The talk is on Youtube – it begins at 5:37:55. It goes into considerable detail about all the work that Hector Martin, Alyssa Rosenzweig and the team are doing to support all of the Apple Silicon ecosystem, from drivers for the touchbar to a custom bootloader. It's an impressive effort, and it's not limited to users of any one distro. Co-presenter Heider works on Ubuntu for Canonical, but he is also an OpenBSD developer, and gave your correspondent a personal demo of both Ubuntu and OpenBSD on an M1 Mac. Even lacking much graphics acceleration, he told us that it's extremely fast, and is one of the very quickest ways to compile the OpenBSD kernel.
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Support for Linux and OpenBSD on the Arm architecture isn't the only RISC architecture that's exploding in interest and support. There were also talks on The RISC-V Revolution as well as how to join it. SiFive's John Ronco admitted to us that the performance is not quite at parity with high-end Arm systems just yet, but he said that a new generation of silicon coming next year would remedy that. Meanwhile, Christian Holsing's talk New Intel hardware and Open Source innovations revealed that Intel has no fewer than 19,000 software engineers these days, and trades places with AMD as the biggest contributor to Linux kernel development.