Burner laptops for DEF CON

Hacker summer camp (Defcon, Blackhat, BSidesLV) is upon us, so I thought I’d write up some quick notes about bringing a “burner” laptop. Chrome is your best choice in terms of security, but I need Windows/Linux tools, so I got a Windows laptop.

I chose the Asus e200ha for $199 from Amazon with free (and fast) shipping. There are similar notebooks with roughly the same hardware and price from other manufacturers (HP, Dell, etc.), so I’m not sure how this compares against those other ones. However, it fits my needs as a “burner” laptop, namely:

  • cheap
  • lasts 10 hours easily on battery
  • weighs 2.2 pounds (1 kilogram)
  • 11.6 inch and thin

Some other specs are:

  • 4 gigs of RAM
  • 32 gigs of eMMC flash memory
  • quad core 1.44 GHz Intel Atom CPU
  • Windows 10
  • free Microsoft Office 365 for one year
  • good, large keyboard
  • good, large touchpad
  • USB 3.0
  • microSD
  • WiFi ac
  • no fans, completely silent

There are compromises, of course.

  • The Atom CPU is slow, thought it’s only noticeable when churning through heavy webpages. Adblocking addons or Brave are a necessity. Most things are usably fast, such as using Microsoft Word.
  • Crappy sound and video, though VLC does a fine job playing movies with headphones on the airplane. Using in bright sunlight will be difficult.
  • micro-HDMI, keep in mind if intending to do presos from it, you’ll need an HDMI adapter
  • It has limited storage, 32gigs in theory, about half that usable.
  • Does special Windows 10 compressed install that you can’t actually upgrade without a completely new install. It doesn’t have the latest Windows 10 Creators update. I lost a gig thinking I could compress system files.

Copying files across the 802.11ac WiFi to the disk was quite fast, several hundred megabits-per-second. The eMMC isn’t as fast as an SSD, but its a lot faster than typical SD card speeds.

The first thing I did once I got the notebook was to install the free VeraCrypt full disk encryption. The CPU has AES acceleration, so it’s fast. There is a problem with the keyboard driver during boot that makes it really hard to enter long passwords — you have to carefully type one key at a time to prevent extra keystrokes from being entered.

You can’t really install Linux on this computer, but you can use virtual machines. I installed VirtualBox and downloaded the Kali VM. I had some problems attaching USB devices to the VM. First of all, VirtualBox requires a separate downloaded extension to get USB working. Second, it conflicts with USBpcap that I installed for Wireshark.

It comes with one year of free Office 365. Obviously, Microsoft is hoping to hook the user into a longer term commitment, but in practice next year at this time I’d get another burner $200 laptop rather than spend $99 on extending the Office 365 license.

Let’s talk about the CPU. It’s Intel’s “Atom” processor, not their mainstream (Core i3 etc.) processor. Even though it has roughly the same GHz as the processor in a 11inch MacBook Air and twice the cores, it’s noticeably and painfully slower. This is especially noticeable on ad-heavy web pages, while other things seem to work just fine. It has hardware acceleration for most video formats, though I had trouble getting Netflix to work.

The tradeoff for a slow CPU is phenomenal battery life. It seems to last forever on battery. It’s really pretty cool.

Conclusion

A Chromebook is likely more secure, but for my needs, this $200 is perfect.

This is a Security Bloggers Network syndicated blog post authored by Robert Graham. Read the original post at: Errata Security