Install and use Balsa

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This page is now largely obsolete, go here instead.

Balsa Prototype provides a description of the Balsa operating system, and instructions for using balsa-builder to build a standard Balsa system to run from an SD card.

NOTE: The balsa-builder is intended for use only by regional IT personnel who need to customize a standard Balsa system for local needs. Most users should instead download a compressed Balsa tarball from the link on this page.

This page guides you through the process of setting up the Balsa system and starting to use it. For help with individual programs and settings in Balsa see Configure Balsa programs and applications

Step 1: Set up the BalsaRoot SD card

Prepare a bootable SD card to run Balsa will guide you through the process of creating a Balsa system on a bootable SD card.

Step 2: Set up a computer to boot into Balsa

This SD card will boot by default if inserted into an unlocked OLPC XO computer. A non-XO system will need some separate preparation. See one of these pages:

Step 3: First time you boot into Balsa


Balsa is set up with two users.

full name is Advisor
password is admin123456 (case sensitive)
full name is BALSA User
password is balsabalsa

At the login screen select BALSA User at the left, or type "balsa" into the name field. Type the password, then ENTER. The first bootup for each user will be slow.

You will see a "tabbed desktop" which may be new to you. Along the top edge of the screen are tabs; each brings up a full-screen desktop containing program shortcuts, organized by category. Browse a bit.

A single-click activates the shortcuts, and most programs should open maximized to fill the screen.

Note that some of the tabs contain more shortcuts than you can see on a small screen. This is OK, because if you log in as Advisor you'll be able to hide shortcuts that aren't needed. See Customizing Balsa User's desktop below.

When you've explored a bit, log out and then log in as Advisor. Select this name at the left of the login screen, or type "advisor" into the name field.

Here you'll see a more traditional-looking desktop. The shortcut icons require a double-click to run. You may explore your Home folder or select an application to run from the Applications menu on the left side of the Panel (=taskbar).

The Applications menu includes everything installed in Balsa; the tabs in Balsa User's desktop contains just specific programs that a language worker might need; most "dangerous" settings and things that might cause problems are hidden by default.

Customizing Balsa User's desktop

While you're logged in as Advisor you may customize many aspects of Balsa User's setup. The tool for hiding/showing desktop shortcuts on Balsa User's tabbed desktop opens with the shortcut, "Edit Tabbed Desktop".

Double-click on this shortcut. When it asks, select Balsa User, then OK. Type the Advisor password. [Normally you should not edit Advisor's menu using this tool.]

You will see a window titled "Main Menu", that looks a bit like File Manager (Explorer). In the left-hand panel headed Menus:, under Applications you'll see the six Tabs that appear on the Balsa User desktop. Click on Work at the left to see the available programs for this category.

Click on the small arrow to the left of Applications to hide the tab icons.

The Desktop item contains settings and administrative applications. Usually Balsa User does not need most of these, but you may add items from Preferences or Administration to Balsa User's Settings tab, either temporarily so you can use them while logged in as Balsa User, or permanently so Balsa User may use them.

Change font size

Due to widely different screen sizes, the words on your screen may be either too small or too large for comfort. You must change this setting separately for each user.

  • In Balsa User, click on the Settings tab. Click on Customize Desktop, then on Appearance.
Choose the Fonts tab. Down under DPI tick the Custom DPI Setting checkbox. Now change the number in that box. Press the Tab button and the type size will change immediately so you can see the result.
The number you enter here should be a multiple of 6.
for the XO try 144. You may add or subtract 6 or 12 to this number, if you don't like it.
for a 10-inch netbook try 108 to start with. Add or subtract 6 or 12 to experiment.
When you are satisfied, close the Appearance box. Note: If the Custom DPI setting checkbox is already ticked, you may have to untick it, and then retick it, in order to type a different number into the box.
  • In Advisor you will find the Appearance box under the Applications menu--Settings--Appearance. Follow the same procedure.

Hide/show a program

Click on the Work tab under Applications. Note that there are two Adapt It items. Adapt It uses a separate startup command for the OLPC XO, to make the menus easier to read on that screen. If you are not using an XO, untick the Adapt It (xo) item. You'll see it change to italic type. Now this item will not appear in Balsa User's Work tab. If you are using an XO, untick the Adapt It item.

Untick ePDFViewer as it's not necessary: If you double-click on a PDF file it will open automatically with this viewer.

Check all the tabs, and untick any other programs that you don't want your advisee (Balsa User) to use for now. You may come back and change this setup at any time.

Move a program to a different tab

The item, WeSay Config, really should not appear under the Work tab; you may copy it to the Settings tab by dragging the item to the left and up until it partially covers Settings in the left column. Make sure you see an outline or highlight appear around the word Settings, then let go of WeSay Config and it should be copied in there.

Make sure that WeSay Config is ticked under Settings and unticked under Work (it will not be removed from Work when you drag-to-copy it to another tab).

Hide an entire Tab

If you hide all the shortcuts on a given tab, that tab itself will be hidden when Balsa User logs in. So, if you want your advisee to do email but NOT to browse the internet, you may untick all three items under the Internet tab and he/she will not even know they are available. Likewise, you may hide the Games tab or any other tab by unticking all its items in the Main Menu window. When you re-tick an item in a hidden tab, that tab will itself become visible again.

Notes about the Tabbed Desktop Editor (Main Menu)

  • In the Jaunty version of this program the buttons on the right-hand side don't all work. You can not add a new item, or view/edit properties of an existing item. If you delete an item you may not be able to get it back, so it's best to hide unwanted items rather than deleting them. This will be fixed in the forthcoming Lucid Balsa.
  • There is only room on most netbook screens for eight program shortcuts per tab. If more than eight are visible (ticked in the Main Menu window), the extras will not be available. The next version of Balsa will fix this, but keep in mind that beginning computer users might feel comfortable with fewer choices visible.
  • Note that some items may be visible on more than one tab, to allow you to choose where to place the item: for example, Thunderbird appears under Work and Internet. Both shortcut icons open the same program, but you may want to hide one of them.

Set up a language project

Read on for the next steps in preparing a Balsa computer for a specific user and language project:

Configure Balsa programs and applications