- Lockdown Laptops

Technical FAQ for Cotswold Jam Lockdown Laptops

Cotswold Jam is one of the UK's largest regional family computing events. Prior to the pandemic, we ran five events every year at Gloucestershire University in Cheltenham, with upwards of 100 children and parents attending. We taught children to code, gave away free electronics kits and let people play with robots we'd built.

Here's an eleven-minute rambling video tour of one of our pre-pandemic events:

We're still looking to help children with computing during the pandemic. During lockdown, and when not in lockdown but if a child needs to be isolated, schools are teaching remotely, and we are trying to help by giving away refurbished old laptops. This service is not for those in dire need, for example families with no broadband and no laptop nor tablet whatsoever; the government and schools are already handling that. Where we come in, is for "stretched middle", "just about managing" families. Families that already have WiFi and maybe one laptop, but it's being shared between two or more children. Or their laptop broke, and maybe they could save up to replace it in a few months, but can't afford one right now.

Our goal is to provide an emergency, tide-you-over, refurbished, second-hand laptop, that has been donated by someone who has an old laptop sitting doing nothing in their attic.

Right now we are only covering pupils at Tewkesbury School (secondary) and its feeder primaries. See our list of other nearby schemes if your children go to school elsewhere.

Hardware specs

Minimum spec is: Dual core 1.6GHz x86 CPU, 2GB RAM

Ideal spec is: Dual core 2GHz x64 CPU, 4GB RAM

Usually this means a laptop that originally ran Windows Vista, 7 or 8. Some cut-down versions of Vista (Vista Basic and Vista Starter) ran on single-core machines which aren't powerful enough today.

We destroy the hard drive and replace with a small SSD.

We can usually upgrade RAM and storage, but not CPU. If you have any 1GB or 2GB DDR2 SODIMMs, or 2.5" SATA SSDs going spare (especially very small capacity SATA SSDs 30-120GB) then please get in touch. We also have an Amazon wishlist of cheap upgrades.

Software / Operating System

The goal is that the child will be able to work with Google Classroom, as that's what Tewkesbury Secondary School uses, and Showbie, which is what Tewkesbury Church of England Primary School uses.

We wipe everything and install Raspberry Pi Desktop for PC .

There's a bit of soul-searching going on here. Neverwhere Cloudready, at the time of writing in January 2021, just got bought by Google, with the goal of providing official Chromebook OS for old laptops. Also, Chromebooks are what the government/schools are giving to disadvantaged pupils. So that's clearly the gold standard for a brand-new lockdown laptop. But the laptops we're getting donated, aren't brand-new.

Speaking personally, I (AndrewO) have found Chromebook a pain to install. Not only is 32-bit no longer supported, but it can be very fussy about onboard graphics and boot procedure. If it works, it works, but if it doesn't there's almost no way to fiddle with it to get it to work. Furthermore, you can't test that it works, without logging in to a Google account, and whichever Google account gets used first after install, becomes the "owner" (admin) of the laptop. So I end up having to install it twice. I just don't have that much spare time.

Hence I have come to the conclusion that Debian + Raspberry Pi Desktop is the way forward. It kind of makes sense given that Cotswold Jam is all about the Raspberry Pi anway. Plus, being Debian underneath, it's easy to fiddle with to support unusual WiFi adapters, esoteric onboard graphics, etc. etc. And the documentation is extensive, superb and written with school children in mind.

The fly in the ointment is that Debian Raspberry Pi OS does not support the Microsoft Teams Liunx application, this appears to be due to the hybrid 32/64-bit nature of the RPi distro. Queen Mary primary school uses Teams, so this matters. I have provided a link to a video explaining how to use Microsoft Teams in the web browser instead.

Electrical safety

I do not perform a portable appliance test (PAT). Recipients are welcome to arrange their own PAT. I may be able to suggest qualified local volunteers who can perform a PAT.

I perform the following for each laptop:

In addition, the documentation accompanying each laptop, tells the user to keep the device's air vents clear, for example to use a tray when sitting in bed or resting the device on their lap, to ensure the duvet or clothes do not block air vents.

Chromium vs. Google Chrome Browser

One thing I have done with RPi OS for PC, is replace the default open-source Chromium browser with the official Google one. I know, I should hand in my open-source enthusiast card, but this is all about Widevine DRM. Chromium can't play copy-protected videos such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. Now I appreciate that our goal is laptops for school, but we're talking about children stuck in their bedrooms for weeks on end. If their family already subscribes to a video streaming service, or their parents want to take out a free trial, I really think the child should be able to access that. And, hey, The Great Escapists is educational, right?

The other option was Firefox. I love Firefox, it's been my daily driver since it was Netscape Mosaic, and I still use it as my primary browser at work, as I love its customisability, especially custom search engines. However the reality is that Firefox now has only a 4% market share and many websites are just not making sure that they're compatible. So, much as I love Firefox, it's just not a goer for a fuss-free child use case.

To add genuine DRM-enabled Google Chrome browser to 64-bit RPi OS PC (note will NOT work on real Pi hardware, only on PC):

Why not Raspbery Pis?

We have a fleet of 20 or more Raspberry Pi model 2 and 3s. Unfortunately we do NOT have a fleet of Raspberry Pi 4s, which is really what you need to handle remote learning. Remote learning in the browser is a much heavier computing task than, say, coding Minecraft with Python.

We might consider loaning out a few Pi 2s or 3s, but it's not a priority compared to getting children going with remote learning. Then there's the whole monitors and keyboards thing. We'll see, but not now.

Why don't you want money? Why aren't you a charity?

This is where it gets a bit political; the personal views of me, Andrew Oakley.

Firstly, I strongly believe that a successful, well-paying industry like IT, should be able to stand on its own without needing money from donors, and especially not from the taxpayer. If a bunch of IT bods can't club together and solve this without financial assistance, then really those people would contribute more to society by getting a better job and paying more tax. There are other important things that are more difficult to raise money for. I'm also personally dead against charities for "hobbies", the taxpayer should not be subsidising hobbies, especially not hobbies for relatively well-off people like computer geeks.

Secondly, I don't want the paperwork. I want to focus my efforts on refurbishing the laptops, and not having to account for money, or keeping records of expenditure, and especially not the paperwork required to be a charity.

Instead, we have an Amazon wishlist of new parts that are useful for refurbishing old laptops.

Why aren't you working directly with schools?

Schools already have a superior equipment loan scheme provided by the government.

I want to reach the families who are just over the threshold for government support, the "squeezed middle" and "just about managing".

Also I don't want to get involved with "organisations". They're full of talkers, rather than doers. "I've got a great idea!", well frankly I don't care. Show me what you've already done, don't tell me about things that haven't happened, and especially don't ask me to do stuff. I've been in computing since the 1970s, I almost certainly know what needs doing already. True to form for a stereotypical computer geek personality, I could not care less what you think or what your plans are.

I was a school governor for several years. The sum total of my achievement was to have the font for the prepared "unfortunately someone in your child's class died" letter, changed so it was no longer Comic Sans.

See? I told you this was getting political. I'm not actually a nice guy. I'm a computer nerd who does what he can and doesn't worry about what he can't.

What's your fascination with Facebook?

From seven years of running local family computing clubs, I know that it's what the vast majority of parents use, and in particular Tewkesbury Noticeboard has a huge following. Tewkesbury town has a population of around twelve thousand people, depending which satellite villages you count. Facebook Tewkesbury Noticeboard has a following of thirty thousand people.

Cast your net where the fish are, right?

From a safeguarding point of view, I want to get in touch with parents, not children. Facebook has a deserved reputation for having a middle-aged userbase. It's not where the cool young kids hang out, it's where the parents hang out.

Also, why didn't you accept my friend request on Facebook? Two reasons, firstly I prefer to keep my friends list to family and friends in the real world. Secondly because I discuss a lot of politcs (I'm literally a card-carrying member of one of the three mainstream UK political parties); I discuss politcs quite robustly, and if you don't know me, that might rub you up the wrong way.

If it were down to me, we'd all still be on Usenet.

I want to help / volunteer

Unless you are skilled at installing and bugfixing Linux using the command line, thank-you for your kind offer but I don't need your help. I've already got collections and deliveries covered. If this changes, I'll change the text here.

Good with Linux? Great. Please email my personal email address, stating your opinion on how you would partition a 60GB SSD for Debian with Raspberry Pi Desktop, given a 2 core, 2 thread, 64-bit machine with 2GB RAM, that may also have genuine Google Chrome installed. Yes, finding my personal email address and answering that question, is a test. If you can't, either because you literally can't, or just don't want the hassle (fair enough), thank-you for your offer but I need more technically skilled assistance. Sorry to be blunt but I only have so much free time.

Comments, errors and corrections to:
Public Domain - Andrew Oakley - 2021-01-11

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