One of the things I've always wanted in a portable computer is the
ability to run Emacs. The main reason is that since 2005 or so,
my whole life has been run in org-mode, and, slightly before
that, in howm. So, of course, when I got a low-end Android
tablet, an Archos 70, of course, I...didn't install Emacs on
it. As EmacsWiki implies, there's no perfectly obvious way to do
so. And, there's MobileOrg-Android. When I first got my tablet,
MobileOrg-Android was pretty bad. But it got better. Today, it's got a
great user interface, syncing is fast and generally reliable, and
there's an active core group of developers who are constantly adding
features and contributing back to org-mode itself.
But...after quite a bit of trying, I still haven't made the MobileOrg
workflow work for me. I keep my org files in a Mercurial
repository on my home machine, and carry a clone with me. I run
org-mobile-push and org-mobile-pull from the home repository,
which requires it to be up to date, which usually can be done
without manual intervention, but not always. And both pushing and
pulling can make changes, which have to be committed. And you really
have to sync on the mobile device twice: once before you push/pull,
and once after, if you want the desired effect of pushing all your
changes and captures to the repository, and having them all reflected
on your device. The MobileOrg workflow is based on the idea that your
mobile device doesn't have the horsepower to compute agendas on the
fly. But is that true these days? I'll return to that issue later.
After seeing that some people had successfully run an Ubuntu
user environment in a chrooted loopback filesystem on a similar
tablet, I decided to try to get my Emacs that way. It didn't exactly
work out right a way, and it took me quite a while to make time for
the yak-shaving involved. Finally, I did, but with my preferred
GNU/Linux distribution, Fedora.
Overview (the short version, aka tl;dr)
My sdcard is formatted ext3, and has the Fedora 13 rootfs
unpacked into it. From a root prompt in ConnectBot, I bind-mount
some required special filesystems under Fedora's root, then chroot
into it, and start sshd. Then I can ssh into localhost with ConnectBot
and run Emacs (and other things).
Don't take this as a step-by-step instruction guide. What works and
doesn't work on my device is likely to be quite different from what
works and doesn't work on yours (unless yours is an Archos Gen8). This
is really more to give you an idea of the kind of yak-shaving involved
in getting this working.
First I rooted my tablet. I would have done this even if I
weren't planning on running Emacs. For reference, the tablet is an
Archos 70, running the latest version of the stock (Froyo)
firmware, with a rooted initramfs.
Then, I tried installing the Ubuntu loopback images mentioned
above. This didn't work for me, because the stock Archos kernel
doesn't include the loop device, and for some reason, even when I
built custom kernels with the loop device enabled, I couldn't get it
Fortunately, my device has a microSD card slot, which is above and
beyond the internal storage that the Archos firmware treats as an
sdcard for the purposes of App2SD and so forth. I formatted a card as
ext3, and tried to unpack the Ubuntu image onto it. This should have
worked, but for some reason, my tablet didn't like having so much data
pushed onto it over USB, and I lost the enthusiasm I needed to work on
Later, I unpacked the Fedora 14 ARM root filesystem more successfully, and
tried chrooting into it, only to find that my kernel was too old for
the version of glibc in Fedora 14. This also tragically sapped
my motivation, causing me to stop working on it again for a while.
When I got another round tuit, I started with the Fedora 13 ARM root
filesystem, and it worked pretty straightforwardly. This is what I
# umount /mnt/storage/sdcard
# mount -o noatime,nodiratime /dev/block/mmcblk2p1 /mnt/storage/sdcard
The sdcard is mounted with the options nodev,noexec,fmode=0666, and
several other options that would make running it as the root
filesystem of a normal linux slightly inconvenient. Some of the other
parameters could be reset with mount -o remount,blah,noblah, but
there doesn't seem to be a way to do that for fmode and dmode, so
unmount and remount it is.
# cd /mnt/storage/sdcard/fedora
# mount --bind /dev dev
# mount --bind /dev/pts dev/pts
# mount --bind /proc proc
# mount --bind /sys sys
Now mount the various special filesystems that Fedora is going to
need, that are provided by the kernel.
# chroot . /bin/bash -
# service sshd start
Now chroot into the Fedora environment, and start sshd. I've omitted
some other stuff, like setting a (new?) password on the root account,
and so forth. Technically, even starting sshd isn't necessary. You can
just chroot into Fedora and run what you want to. Having sshd running
makes it easier to reconnect to the Fedora environment without having
to go through the process of cd'ing and chrooting to the Fedora
From here on out, it's just installing stuff with yum. I've tried to
avoid installing anything except what I particularly need.
# yum install -y emacs-nox git mercurial aspell aspell-en \
diffutils patch man screen
Installing things with yum!
There are things in the Fedora repositories that aren't supported
on ARM, but I haven't had cause to install them yet.
Fedora 13 had Emacs 23.2.1, which is not exactly the latest and
greatest, but it's not old enough to cause serious compatibility
problems, either. I used hg to pull in my emacs startup code from
my desktop, then created a mobile branch to strip it down and
remove features I wouldn't be using, and to change paths to work
with my mobile setup. Everything works as expected.
Emacs startup is surprisingly snappy. I had slower emacs startup
times on my desktop as recently as 5 or 6 years ago, and this
isn't exactly a fast tablet.
You might think it would be hard to use Emacs with a mobile
keyboard, but Hacker's Keyboard takes care of that, by and
large. It's still an onscreen keyboard, but it's an onscreen
keyboard with all the keys you'd expect on a standard PC
Color themes work, as long as they would work under
xterm-256color. Sorry for not including a nice one in the
screenshots, but those were taken right after I got emacs
This was where I had some concerns going in. The design of
org-mobile was premised on the idea that mobile devices didn't
have enough oomph to generate agendas on the fly, so emacs pushes
pre-generated agendas. I have fairly large org-mode files. They'd
be smaller if I archived to file more often, but I don't. So, is
emacs on my tablet able to generate my agendas?
The answer is yes, mostly. The first time I run org-agenda, emacs
spends a very long time reading in my org-mode files; I suspect
that the slow sdcard I'm running this from may be part of the
problem. The first time, it was 30s, but similar 'cold' agenda
startups have been around 10s since then. Subsequently, however,
the agendas are generated perfectly quickly.
All in all, my orgmode workflow works perfectly on the tablet,
with the exception that hg tries to use vimdiff to do
merges, for some reason!
Also, one other issue is that since I am using emacs in a (local)
terminal window, I have to use the alternate tty keys.
What doesn't work well
Writing a lot.
This is not exactly a surprise. Unless I go to another machine and
ssh into my tablet (and what would be the point?), I'm constrained
to use the onscreen keyboard. And not only that, it's worse trying
to write with the onscreen keyboard in a regular Android app,
because the predictive text is not active in ConnectBot.
If I had a small hardware keyboard, I'd be more inclined to do
actual writing on this setup.
Another alternative is to let Emacs do the text completion, using
either Predictive Mode or auto-complete. However,
while both of those do prose completion fairly well (different
strengths), neither does autocorrection, which is just as
important with a soft keyboard.
Leaving an Emacs session running all the time
I'm used to never exiting Emacs. On my desktop/home-server
machine, Emacs is started for me by systemd, which runs it
with --daemon, and restarts it if it should ever crash. On my
tablet, I started out by running it under screen, and
switching back to it as needed. It turns out that this is fine, as
long as I want to stay in the Fedora environment, but it doesn't
leave enough memory for my usual set of Android apps to perform
I haven't tried the next logical step, which would be to install Xvnc
and its dependencies, and to run a local X session, to be displayed in
an Android VNC client. I may not do so, because it looks like the
keyboard situation in the main free Android VNC clients is not much
better (if at all) than in the terminal, in terms of having the full
set of keysyms available. And it is worse, in that in ConnectBot,
Emacs's screen gets resized to accommodate the soft keyboard, whereas
in VNC, the soft keyboard sits on top of part of the display area,
which is not resized.
On the whole I'm happy with this experiment. I don't think it will
replace my use of Jota for note taking, because of the text
auto-completion and auto-correction issue. I'm not sure whether it
will completely replace MobileOrg for me. I'm enjoying finding out.