Regular readers might be aware that I recently availed myself of the opportunity to buy a Microsoft Surface Pro at a discounted price. Not because I was necessarily thinking about switching to Windows as my main operating system, but because I saw it as an opportunity to try Ubuntu on what is an excellent touchscreen device.

After all, if it’s good enough for Gabe Newell, it’s good enough for me.

In this two part series I’m going to walk you through setting Ubuntu up on the Surface Pro, and then give you some of my thoughts on using it.

A couple of big caveats before we begin. Currently, the Surface Pro works with Ubuntu 13.04 but the WiFi is a pain to get started and buggy once you do. In 13.10 everything works as it should (or that I’ve seen so far) but you can only boot from cold with the power cable attached. Hopefully, this bug should be fixed by the time 13.10 is officially released.

Also, the power settings on the whole are a bit flaky, and shutting down may require pressing and holding the power key. For these reasons, I wouldn’t advise using Ubuntu on the Surface Pro yet if you’re going to be relying on the machine for important work stuff. Yeah, it’s buggy as hell, but it’s making me drool for the first proper Ubuntu tablet/phone.

Get yourself a copy of Ubuntu

Obviously the first step is to get yourself a copy of Ubuntu. Not just any copy of Ubuntu mind – the current release version (13.04) doesn’t natively support the WiFi driver in the Surface Pro, on account of the fact that Microsoft went with a really obscure radio chipset from Marvell. There are ways of making that chipset work on 13.04, but they’re an unbelievable ballache compared to the far simpler option of grabbing a pre-release version of 13.10, the next version of Ubuntu that will be launched officially in October. You can download it from here.

You’ll need the 64-bit version as the 32-bit one won’t work with the Surface’s UEFI bootloader. You’ll need to burn it to a USB key using either Ubuntu’s Start-up Disk Creator or, if you’re running Windows, something like Pendrive’s USB Installer app.

Prepare your Surface

You’ve got a few options for getting Ubuntu onto the Surface. You can overwrite Windows or dual boot both Linux and Microsoft’s own OS. Personally, I chose the former option, but not without taking a few precautions and making sure I can get back to Windows if I need to.

To start with, you’ll need to create a back-up drive to return your Surface to factory condition if needs be. This will require a USB drive with at least 7GB of storage free that you will never need to use again – you’re going to back up Windows on to it and put it in a safe place.

recovery

Create a back-up drive

Put the USB stick into the port on the Surface and follow the instructions here. You can delete the built-in recover partition when you’re done.

Disable secure boot

Now you’ll need to fiddle with the BIOS a bit. Shut down the Surface Pro from the Windwos menu, and then hold the Volume Up Key while you press the power button to reboot it. This will take you to a very basic BIOS menu with just two options. Set them both to ‘Disabled’ (ie. Disable the Trusted Platform Module and Secure

Read that bit again

Seriously, go back overt the last instructions several times and make sure you’ve done it all properly, because you’re about to go past the point of no return if that back-up drive isn’t working.

Ready? Then let’s continue.

surface pro ubuntu_1

Install Ubuntu

Shut down your Surface Pro, and put your Ubuntu boot drive (the first USB disk you created) into the USB port on the side. Now, hold down the volume down button and press power. This should take you to the Ubuntu menu – if you boot straight into Windows, turn it off and try again.

From this screen, you can choose to try Ubuntu in a live, working environment or install it. We’re going to install it.

Select the options

Installing Ubuntu is ridiculously simple – there’s steps that walk you through every key decision. It will even give you the option on the first page of downloading all the pieces of software that Ubuntu can’t include by default for legal reasons: like an MP3 decoder, for example. You’ll have to connect to the internet while installing to do that though.

Don’t worry too much at this stage is the installation screen looks a bit odd with repeated bars at the top. This isn’t a finished version of Ubuntu remember.

surface pro ubuntu_2

The big decision

The toughest choice is whether to install Ubuntu alongside Windows or to get rid of Microsoft’s OS altogether. I chose to erase everything, safe in the knowledge that I have a back-up and disc space is at a premium. Next, you have to name your computer and set-up a password.

For extra security here, you can choose to encrypt the hard drive (it’ll boot slower, but that’s the only downside). It’s also a good idea not to check the ‘Log in automatically’ option. While this is convenient, it’s a security nightmare.

While installing, Ubuntu will also ask you a few questions about your timezone and offer to set-up Ubuntu One – which is identical to Dropbox, essentially – if you want it.

And that’s it…

At the end of the installation, remove the USB drive and tap on restart. Your Surface should boot straight to Ubuntu’s login screen – although see the caveat above about cold booting without the power cable – it doesn’t work yet. There’s still a few issues with power management on the radio chip. If you do have problems, though, there’s one thing you can try.

…Almost

Boot from your USB key again using the ‘Power+Volume Down’ trick above. This should take you back to the installer menu. Select the first option, Try Ubuntu Without Installing, and you’ll go a temporary desktop. Press CTRL+ALT+T on your keyboard – this will open up a terminal. Type ‘sudo nautilus’ to open a file browser with admin privileges.

From here, navigate to your main hard drive (it should appear as a long string of seemingly random characters in the left hand pane) and navigate to ‘/usr/lib/pm-tools/power.d/usb_bluetooth’. Rename this file ‘usb_bluetooth.bak’ to prevent it running at boot. Now reboot the machine and remove your USB drive.

Getting started with Ubuntu

One thing Ubuntu does do well is touch support. Everything on the Surface Pro should work without much tweaking, but the one setting you should change is in Settings>Appearance>Behaviour and turn ‘Autohide the launcher’ on. Now, when you want to see the dock on the left hand side of the screen, just place four fingers on the screen and drag them to the left. You can hide the dock again by doing the same gesture in reverse.

The really important one, though, is called ‘Unity Grab Handles’. Tap any open window with three fingers, and you’ll see it highlighted with little orange markers over the corners, making it easy to resize with fingers rather than a mouse. You can also drag the window around the screen with the same gesture, and if you drag it to one side you can maximise it over half the screen.

You can make the window maximise across the whole screen by grabbing it with three fingers then flicking them apart – the reverse brings it back to normal size.

ubuntu on surface pro

Next Week

Check back at the same time next week for a follow up piece detailing my thoughts about Unity on a tablet and more tips for using Ubuntu with a touchscreen. I’ll also go through how to install the touch apps which will make up next year’s killer version of Ubuntu that’s designed for all devices from a smartphone up, and which add-ons to install for Firefox in order to make it work like a true tablet browser.

Adam is the Editorial Director at htxt media. He has been writing about technology for almost two full decades now. In a previous life, he was the editor of PC Format and Digital Camera Shopper in the UK, before going on to work as a freelance journalist for seven years. His work has appeared in or on Stuff, The Guardian, Linux Format, TechRadar, Wired.co.uk, PC Gamer, Green Futures, The Journalist, The Ecologist and The Review. Adam moved to South Africa in 2012 and loves 3D printers, MakerFairs and tech hubs. He hates seafood. None of his friends remember this when cooking.