Samsung, Linux and the Bothersome Bricking Problem

If Linux Girl didn’t have to spend such a large proportion of her salary dry-cleaning her cape each week, there’s no doubt she would invest those extra fortunes in some of the many purveyors of ibuprofen and other pain-relieving medicines.


Because of all the headaches FOSS fans are forced to endure here in the Linux blogosphere.

Not only have we been presented in recent months with the ongoing Secure Boot saga on Windows 8 PCs — migraine material if ever there was any — but now it looks like Samsung laptops can get bricked when you boot Linux using UEFI.

Believe it? Well read on.

‘Definitely Not Fixed’

“Booting Linux via UEFI can ‘brick’ some Samsung laptops” read the headline over at PCWorld last week, and it told a woeful tale.

“Laptop hangs up in black screen,” the user filing the first bug report explained on the Ubuntu bug tracker site. “If you force power-off, after it, [the] laptop won’t start — not even start bios — just black screen, no sounds, nothing.”

It’s reportedly a problem with a kernel driver for Samsung laptops that’s the culprit, but despite early efforts to circumvent the issue, it looks like all is still not well for users of these machines.

“Samsung UEFI bug definitely not fixed” was the headline over at The H on Friday.

Linux Girl knew she was in for a long weekend.

‘Monopoly: 2; People’s Rights: 0’

“Rather shocking that Samsung did a hardware design so bad that it could be bricked from software,”consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack opined down at the blogosphere’s Broken Windows Lounge.

“I can’t imagine how much this must have cost them in support costs and replacements, so I hope they learned their lesson,” Mack added.

“The fact some Samsung models just die is outrageous,” agreed Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

“The hardware vendor and the UEFI ‘maker’ cannot prevent us from using the system we want,” he added. “Where are our basic freedom rights?!?

“As far as I can see, this is a crystal-clear proof that the UEFI is not to protect us, it is to prevent us from using anything other than m$ Windows!” Gonzalo Velasco C. said. “Monopoly: 2. People’s rights: 0.”

‘Avoid Windows 8’

Indeed, “Microsoft pushed UEFI and Secure Boot onto OEMs under the guise of ‘security,’ when really it’s an effort to lock OEMs into Microsoft operating systems even more than they already are,” concurred Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone.

“In an effort to go around Microsoft’s restrictions, Linux developers have accidentally bricked laptops,” Stone explained. “As bad as that is in general, I’m also with Alan Cox on this one. If Linux can do it by accident, someone else can do it on purpose.”

Bottom line? “It’s safer for the end user to avoid Secure Boot and avoid Windows 8,” he concluded. “If you want a secure system, buy ZaReason or System76. Avoid anything that comes pre-infested with Microsoft.”

‘They Support My Freedom’

On the other hand: “Never attribute to malice that which can adequately be explained by stupidity,” advised Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien. “I doubt that Samsung is trying to deliberately sabotage Linux here, in part because I fail to see any upside for them in all of these reports.”

Still, “as someone who believes I have the right to own and control the things I buy, I would ask the question here of whether Samsung is really supporting you as the purchaser in owning your equipment,”O’Brien added.

“Personally, my next laptop is likely going to come from ZaReason because I have met the folks there, they are good people, and they support my freedom,” he concluded.

‘More Than 2 Dozen Sources’

And again, “so what is new?” offered Robin Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor. “Installing Linux on a machine designed for Windows has issues.

“Granted, this is a big one,” he added, “but why select a Samsung Windows laptop to run Linux in the first place?

“System 76 sells a 14-inch laptop priced a US$659, with Ubuntu pre-installed, and ZaReason will ship you a Linux-powered Ultrabook with your choice of Linux distro for $899,” he explained. “Oh wait, you can also buy a Dell.”

In short, “there are more than two dozen sources of laptops with Linux pre-installed,” Lim pointed out. “If the admittedly small Linux user base supported the small Linux pre-installed industry, who knows, you might see your favorite Linux distro in a Samsung laptop at you favorite retail establishment next year.

“Of course, that is not going to happen,” he added.

‘Buy AMD Laptops and Desktops’

One more time: “I find it kinda hard to feel anything resembling sympathy here,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet said. “I mean, you are buying a device with a locked-down BIOS in the form of UEFI and then complaining when it doesn’t work with anything other than what it came with?

“If the FOSS community wants to continue to have open hardware, it’s time for them to put their money where their mouths are and buy AMD laptops and desktops,” hairyfeet suggested.

“AMD has not only opened their CPU and GPU code, just as the community asked, but they have also been funding and are in the process of switching to CoreBoot, which is a free (as in beer AND freedom) alternative to the locked-down proprietary UEFI,” he explained.

“With CoreBoot you have the source — if you don’t like something, you can change it,” hairyfeet concluded. “But if you continue to buy proprietary devices, don’t complain when you find they only do what is corporate-approved.”

‘Fundamentally Suspect’

And yet again: “UEFI is a new technology, so this is not at all unexpected,” opined Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

“I would not be surprised if today’s firmware abstraction layers (BIOS, UEFI) are more complex today than the UNIX operating system was in 1980,” he added.

“I see UEFI as fundamentally suspect, as a second generation on the basic BIOS, probably over-engineered to solve all possible problems, and therefore overly complex,” Travers told Linux Girl. “It may be an improvement or not, but I suspect that whatever eventually replaces UEFI will be a much better compromise on all fronts.”

‘It Is Atrocious’

The biggest problem with UEFI “locked boot is that it is a practice that the consumer has to adapt to, instead the other way around,” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol opined. “And it is atrocious.”

Unfortunately, “some members of the community are even advocating this UEFI ‘secure’ boot practice and criticizing Chromebooks, which don’t come with a UEFI key signing system but a simpler switch, to enter in a developer mode,” Ebersol explained.

“I like Google’s approach waaaay better than the UEFI locked boot solution,” he added.

‘We’ve Seen It Before’

Last but not least, “no doubt bricking is ‘failing safely,’ but it’s hardly the desired outcome for the user,”blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. “Even a user-space application on that other OS can do the same, so this is not some negative for */Linux but Samsung’s failure to implement.”

In fact, “we’ve seen it before, as when some CD drives were bricked by normal probing by Linux,” Pogson recounted. “The manufacturer misused some features of a standard and didn’t tell the Linux crew.

“In this case, the code provided by Samsung actually caused the bricking, strongly suggesting Samsung needs to get its act together and contribute and test software for Linux for its new hardware,” he opined.

‘They Have Had a Free Ride’

The problem could be a symptom of the growing reluctance to focus on the desktop, Pogson suggested.

The Linux Foundation, for example, “used to have a desktop group, but it was no longer fashionable and members were writing that */Linux had lost on the desktop and that ‘mobile’ was the way to go,” he explained.

The reality, however, is that */Linux is not going away and had long ago won a good share of desktop computing, particularly in schools, governments and even a few businesses,” Pogson pointed out. “Desktop GNU/Linux is certainly thriving in emerging markets like BRIC countries.”

So, “Samsung should not be messing with desktop unless they are willing to invest a bit more in the development of hardware and software,” he concluded. “They have had a free ride in Android/Linux smart thingies thanks to Google, but they need to realize that desktop is a more challenging environment.

“Apple simplified that environment by sticking with it own set of hardware configurations,” Pogson added. “Samsung needs to simplify the desktop environment by sticking with standards that work.”

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.

1 Comment

  • It can happen easily…

    Anytime you update an EPROM/FLASH device.

    You used to only brick them when loading BIOS updates…

    Now, the UEFI is defined to allow (and use) the EPROM to store internal boot logs, boot parameters, arbitrary text…

    So any error in handling the data and putting it into flash can cause a brick – by having the hardware initialization attempt to identify used/free areas for more logs… and have an unhandled error.

    This can happen any time during the boot — such as a power failure at just the wrong point in loading a BIOS, now you have the SAME problem on every boot…

    The STUPID part is not catching (and handling) the error, and not providing a minimum of a "reset" that would put things back in a default setup.

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