Linux and SmartBoards

Regular readers may recall that one of my major activities is helping keep the technology going at St. John’s Episcopal School and Church.

We have four SmartBoards in the building.  A full SmartBoard installation requires the board (essentially a large touchscreen), a computer, and projector that projects the computer display on the SmartBoard.  Software on the computer interfaces to the SmartBoard, and interprets touches (as mouse clicks) and swipes (as various line draws, highlights, etc.).  The swipes are usually overlayed on whatever the computer is displaying.

The computers we have driving the SmartBoards are very old, 2004-vintage, and running XP.  I did an XP install from scratch on one, and it sped up a little, but it still would not play videos, and the SmartBoard drawing was very sluggish.

A buddy of mine from the Omaha area (thanks, Stan!) donated one of his computers to St. John’s.  It’s a dual-core 3GHz machine with 8GB of memory.  I decided to replace one of the SmartBoard computers with this one.  The license tag was for Vista.  I decided that since SmartBoard supported Linux, that’s the route I would go.

The requirements stated by Smart was a 1.2GHz machine with 1GB of RAM, and Ubuntu 14.04. I had the most recent Ubuntu 16.04 on a USB stick, so that’s what I used.  The install and setup were smooth, as expected, as this was the eighth computer I have installed 16.04 on.  Then I noticed in some fine print on the installation errata that the SmartBoard drivers would only work on a 32bit (386) architecture.  Well, crap, the install I just did was for a 64bit architecture.  So off I went and downloaded a 32bit version of Ubuntu 16.04.  That install was very smooth as well.

I had to go through a lot of gyrations with Smart to get a product key to allow me to download the Smart Notebook software.  I had registered one SmartBoard with them back when I first installed it, and while I registered the other three in the process, only that first registration got me an authorized product key (although, the terms for that key stated that the software could be installed any where in the building.  Whatever.).

I unpacked the Smart Notebook software and drivers, and started reading the installation instructions.  The files were in .deb archives, which are usually very straightforward to install.  There were a lot of instructions from Smart about setting up PGP, running scripts with their key and my key to sign the archives prior to installation, and the first time I followed their instructions to the letter, the process immediately failed with NO explanation except “signing failed”.  Hmmmm…

After about two seconds of thought, I said THWI, and started installing the .deb files as they were unzipped.  I did try to do this in a reasonable order (the common files first, etc.).  All reported installed successfully. Usually after this, I would try to start the service that would be installed, but I didn’t see anything like that in top, so I just restarted the whole computer.  When I logged in again, the status light on the board was and solid, which indicated that the board and computer were communicating.  I did some pokes at the board, and darned if the thing wasn’t working.  I aligned it, and all was well.

I fired up the Smart Notebook software, and got a splash screen, but nothing else.  It sat for a while, still nothing.  I went to the terminal I had open, and any command reported no child processes spawned, which is usually an indicator that all resources are sucked dry.  I restarted again (at least graceful restart was still there), got on terminal and saw the usual stuff I would expect (along with SmartBoard drivers, very cool), and then fired up Notebook again.  This time, ps -x showed more new processes spawned that I could keep up with.  When they got up to 20,000+, the machine basically threw up its hands.

I went off to research.  While I found the same question on a number of forums, the answer was on the very bottom of the errata sheet for Notebook 11:  Notebook will not work with Unity, which is the default desktop of Ubuntu (and was for 14.04, which is the baseline for Ubuntu for SmartBoards).  I installed a Gnome desktop, restarted with that one, and fired up Notebook, which ran perfectly.

I would say that Notebook running wild under Unity is a major bug that should be addressed by Smart.  I don’t think they will; the latest Notebook for Linux is 11, and the Windows version is 16.

Regardless, my favorite teacher likes the new computer, is comfortable with Linux, and likes that the new machine can run SmartBoard programs, annotate documents, and all the other cool stuff that SmartBoards can do.  She can also play YouTube videos and stream PBS and news programs for her kids to watch thanks to the zippy new computer.

So I’m calling Linux on SmartBoards a win overall.  Next, I will deploy Linux on the curernt machine on another SmartBoard (a GX270) and see if performance is better than the XP that’s currently on that one.


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