Hands-On: My new Asus laptop, UEFI and Linux

Summary:This is my first time with UEFI on an ASUS laptop, and I am very pleased and impressed.

My UEFI experience so far has been limited to only two laptop OEMs, HP/Compaq and Acer. I found the former to be relatively difficult to work with (see the recent Compaq and earlier HP Pavilion posts), but the latter to be reasonably easy (see Aspire One 725 post), especially after installing the latest BIOS updates. 

Well, even on the AO725 you had to figure out the "secret handshake" of enabling F12 for Boot Select, and then setting a BIOS password before you could disable Secure Boot, but at least once that is done, any changes you make to the boot configuration will not be randomly overwritten on the next reboot. 

Anyway, the point is that I have been looking for an opportunity to try a UEFI system from some other manufacturer, and see how that compares to these two.

That opportunity arrive this week, when one of the Swiss electronic shops offered an Asus R513CL for CHF 499 — (about 410 / £345 / $570) — compared to a normal retail price here of about CHF 699. The configuration is pretty good for that price:

Rear View
ASUS R513CL Rear View

 

  • Intel Core i5-3337U, 1.8GHz
  • Turbo mode 2.7GHz
  • 4GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500GB HDD
  • Intel HD 4000 graphics
  • 15.6-inch 1366x768 display
  • 2 x USB 3.0 ports
  • HDMI and VGA ports
  • RJ45 wired and 802.11 b/g/n wi-fi
  • SD Memory Card Reader
  • Super-Multi DVD
  • HD Webcam
  • 38 x 25.1 x 2.48/3.17cm
  • 2.3kg

Of course it came preloaded with Windows 8, but the good news was that the disk was partitioned with a D: drive of 250GB for "Data", so installing Linux didn't require the usual first step of reducing the Windows C: partition to make room, I just deleted the D: drive and I had plenty of room. If I had been really determined I could also have reduced the C: drive to free up even more space, but I don't think that's necessary, at least yet, but it might be in the future, because my impression of this system so far is very good, and I might decide to keep it for use as a travelling system.

R513CL
ASUS R513CL Closed

More observations and thoughts about the hardware. I still think that a 15-inch screen with only 1366x768 resolution is a waste, but that seems to be the standard for this kind of low-end (low-price) laptop. It looks like it has the dreaded "Clickpad" touchpad, which doesn't have discrete buttons. If this were to turn out to be as much of a pain as the ClickPad on one of my earlier HP dm1 systems was, then this laptop will not be staying with me for very long. 

Fortunately, my first impression of it is much better than that, so we'll see. The power supply is a "brick that plugs directly into the wall" kind of thing. That's kind of nice in that it doesn't need some other kind of power cord between the brick and the wall, but watch out, it can be a pain because of the amount of space it blocks on whatever you plug it into.

The physical construction of the unit seems okay to me. The case is plastic, but you don't get nice brushed metal cases in this price range, do you? The keyboard feels a bit better to me than that in the Compaq 15, the keys are at least very slightly contoured, and they feel more solid and stable.

Going through the first boot and initial setup of Windows 8 is essentially the same as it was for the Compaq 15 a couple of weeks ago, so I won't bother with that here.

Once Windows setup is done, it's time to figure out how to boot Linux, and then to see whether or not Linux recognises and supports all the hardware. 

Things got a bit more exciting at this point, because I couldn't find anything, either in the very few papers which came with the system, or in the eManual (User's Guide) on the system, nor via a general search, which told me simply and clearly what key I had to press to get the Boot Selection menu. 

I tried a variety of them, including Esc, F9, F10 and F12, all to no avail. I checked the BIOS configuration (at least that was on F2) to see if there was something I needed to enable there to get Boot Select, ala the Acer Aspire One, but I didn't find anything like that. 

However, in the process of getting into the BIOS setup I did notice that the ASUS POST sequence seems very quick, so there is really a very small time slot in which you can press F2 before it is too late, and you are doomed to boot Windows and then shut down and try again. 

Armed with this knowledge, I tried again to get into Boot Select and this time found that if I was fast enough, Esc would get me there.

Also while blundering around in the BIOS setup I saw that there is an option to Enable/Disable Secure Boot, but I did not see anything about Legacy Boot there: I wonder if this system doesn't support Legacy Boot. 

From what I understand, being able to disable Secure Boot is a requirement, but Legacy Boot might not be. Well, at this point I'm only interested in installing Linux distributions which support UEFI boot, so that isn't going to be an issue for me, at least yet.

So, once I had figured out how to get to the Boot Select, menu, I was ready to install Linux. First up, as usual, was openSuSE 13.1. For those who might be curious about why I always start with openSuSE, it is because I find the grub-efi configuration to be a bit more powerful and flexible so I am able to configure it to boot whatever other Linux versions I might install. This keeps me from having to race with POST to get into the Boot Selection menu every time.

The openSuSE 13.1 Live USB stick booted with no problem, even with Secure Boot still enabled. The installation process was routine, the only minor surprise was that the EFI boot partition for this system is on sda1, whereas it was on sda12 on both of my other UEFI systems. Of course this doesn't really matter, the installer finds and configures it automatically anyway.

The installation completed without a hitch, and it was time to boot Linux from the hard drive. I took a minute to start a shell window and check the EFI boot configuration that had been created by the installer. It looked good, openSuSE had been added, both with and without Secure Boot, and the boot sequence list had been set properly. But would those settings survive a reboot? Tension...

openSuSE
openSuSE KDE Desktop

Hooray! It booted the openSuSE grub-efi, which presented me with a boot menu for openSuSE and Windows 8. What a relief — and what a silly situation this is that we have to worry about whether a valid boot configuration will be overwritten or not!

Things looked good running openSuSE 13.1 at first. The touchpad is nowhere near as bad as the ClickPad I had before. I can left and right click, tap, and vertical/horizontal scroll. It still isn't my idea of a good time, though — the simple fact is, when the pad is sensing your finger movement at the same time that you are trying to click, the majority of time you finger will move or shake slightly as you press so the cursor moves, and you discover that you didn't click where you thought you were going to. But I can live with it, at least.

When I plugged an external monitor into the HDMI port it was automatically configured with the optimal resolution and with an extended desktop spanning both monitors. When I did the same on Windows 8, not only did it not configure the extended desktop, it dropped both screens down 1024x768, mirrored. Ugh.

Wired networking worked just fine, but wireless networking wasn't working. Network Manager said the status was "Wireless Network Disabled by Hardware". I also checked with the rfkill utility, and it said it was "Hard Blocked", but I couldn't clear the block with any of the rfkill command options.

The wireless network adapter is an Atheros AR9485, and lspci -v says that it has been recognised and is running with the ath9k driver, which sounds right. A bit of web searching quickly shows that this particular wireless adapter has had all sorts of problems on Linux. 

There are lots of reports of it not working, and a variety of suggested solutions. The one which works for me is quite simple — after booting, just put the system to sleep (press Fn-F1, the "Zz" key) and then wake it right back up again. Wireless networking will then be working just fine. One other common suggestion was that having power connected somehow interfered with the wireless networking, but that is definitely not the case here. I have tried both with and without power connected, and connecting/disconnecting power while running, and none of that affects wireless networking.

This is a pretty weird situation, and a strange work-around, but as long as it is limited to an extra 10 seconds to sleep/resume one time after booting, I can live with that. 

I hope that it gets fixed sometime soon, but looking at the problem reports on the web, it seems that they go back to at least 2102, so it has been around for a while, so I wouldn't make any bets on it. I installed all of the openSuSE updates — which was quite a few, since 13.1 has been out for a while now, and rebooted, and that didn't make any difference to the wireless problem.

That's all there is to say about openSuSE, everything else was quite routine, and works just fine.

Fedora
Fedora Gnome 3 Desktop

Time to move on — next up, Fedora 20. Once again, the Live USB stick booted with no problem, with Secure Boot enabled. Running the Live system I could already see that the same wireless network problem was present, but everything else seemed okay. The installation was routine, and once again the changes to the boot configuration survived a reboot, so the next boot brought up Fedora from the hard drive. Very nice: I'm starting to like this ASUS UEFI firmware more and more.

After booting, the wireless networking was listed as "Hardware Disabled", but again, sleep (via Fn-Zz) and resume got it going. I installed all of the Fedora updates, which took the Linux kernel to 3.13.6, and had some hope that would take care of the wi-fi problem, but alas, no luck.

As with openSuSE, everything else is absolutely fine, and I'm starting to realise how much faster this system is than any of the other laptops I have around here. That is to be expected, with a Core i5 CPU, but it is still nice to see, and pleasant to use.

Mint Cinnamon
Linux Mint 16 Cinnamon

That's two Linux distribution installed, next up is Linux Mint 16 (Petra). This time, the Live USB stick would not boot with Secure Boot enabled, so I had to go into the BIOS and disable that. Then the Live boot and installation worked with no problem. 

The boot configuration worked normally again, but I also noticed something I had not seen when I have previously installed Linux Mint. I've mentioned that it installs its EFI boot files to a directory named ubuntu, but I had not noticed that when it adds itself to the boot object list, it also uses the name ubuntu. Oh well.

By this time I was expecting the wireless network connection not to work, and I was not disappointed. The same problem, and the same work-around. I let it install all of the updates, rebooted, and it was still the same.

So, I think that's enough. I'm going to carry on with this system, and install Debian 7.4 and LMDE, but I don't think it is necessary to bore everyone here with that. 

If there are any problems, or anything to report, I will write a follow-up to this post. Otherwise, I will be continuing to work, test, configure, and use this system. 

At this point I am so happy with it that I am considering carrying it around for a while, instead of the trusty AO725 I have been carrying the past year or so. That has brought up another problem, though: it doesn't fit in the old Land's End computer backpack that I have been using for more than 10 years. 

So I'm looking around the house, and digging in the attic for whatever other padded backpacks I might have accumulated but never started using.

Further reading

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

About

I started working with what we called "analog computers" in aircraft maintenance with the United States Air Force in 1970. After finishing military service and returning to university, I was introduced to microprocessors and machine language programming on Intel 4040 processors. After that I also worked on, operated and programmed Digital... Full Bio

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