Linux multi-booting my new Acer Aspire Z3 all-in-one

I have a new all-in-one desktop to replace my ageing Lenovo T400 laptop with docking station and large external monitor. The first task, as always, is loading and configuring Linux...

This is a great way to start a new year, writing a review of an absolutely brilliant new computer that I bought over the holidays - an Acer Aspire Z3-710 all-in-one desktop system. I haven't set up a new computer that I was this pleased and impressed with in quite a long time.

When I saw the Aspire Z3 advertised here for CHF 799.- (about €740 / £540 / $800), which is one third off the list price of CHF 1,199.-, I decided it was time to replace the Lenovo T400 on my desk at home. Lots of things contributed to this decision - the T400 has been showing its age, I have been wanting to try Linux on an all-in-one, my desktop has been getting very cluttered with the T400 laptop, docking station, external keyboard and mouse, a large external monitor, another monitor, keyboard and mouse for the Raspberry Pi, and assorted Pi hardware spread across it. It was just time.

The configuration of this system looked very good to me:

  • Intel Core i5-4590T, 2.0GHz Quad-Core CPU
  • 8 GB DDR3L SDRAM
  • 1 TB HDD 5400 rpm SATA 6Gb/sec
  • Intel HD-Graphics 4600
  • 23.8" (60.5cm) 1920x1080 Display (not a touch-screen)
  • 4 x USB 2.0 / 2 x USB 3.0
  • Gigabit wired network
  • 802.11 b/g/n wireless network
  • SD Card slot
  • HDMI Input and Output ports

In addition to those impressive specifications, I think that the physical design and port/connection arrangements are exceptionally good:

aspire-z3.png

Acer Aspire Z3

Photos: Acer Inc.
  • Almost all of the connections and ports are arranged in two groups, which you can see in the first picture above; one group is on the back of the left side (power, wired network, 2xUSB 2.0, 1xUSB 3.0, HDMI In and Out), and the other is on the left edge (1xUSB 2.0, 1xUSB 3.0, SD Card, Audio Out).
  • The HDMI Output is typical, but the HDMI Input is a really nice extra - this means I can use this display for a Raspberry Pi, for example!
  • It includes a wireless keyboard and mouse - although I don't want to use the ones that came with it. I very much prefer to use a "Wave" keyboard such as the Logitech K350, and a trackball such as the Logitech M570 rather than a mouse. The good news here is that the wireless receiver for the included keyboard and mouse is not integrated inside the system, it is a normal USB nano-dongle that is plugged into a USB port located on the bottom right edge of the system. So I could simply remove that and plug my Logitech Unifying receiver in its place - and I still have a pretty nice Acer wireless keyboard, mouse and receiver that I can pass along to someone else. By the way, if you check the spec sheet for this unit you will find that it says there are 3 USB 2.0 ports, apparently they aren't counting the fourth port because it is already used, not available.
  • It has a built-in DVD drive. Seriously, look at the picture above of the right edge of the system, there it is. I know a lot of people aren't interested in optical drives any more, but I still need one occasionally - some Linux distributions still won't boot from a USB stick - so it was a real bonus to get this.
  • The screen tilts quite easily.
  • It's not a touch-screen. I do not need or want a touch screen, but it has seemed to me that every all-in-one desktop I have seen had one. There are other models in the Aspire Z3 line which do have touch screens, if that is your thing.
  • There is a disk activity LED at the bottom right of the display. This is so nice - a lot of systems don't have this any more, especially the kind of netbooks that I often have. Oh, and there is also a power LED in the same area.
  • It is quite stable on the base/foot, and the hole in the bracket serves well as a cable guide.
  • If I had to find something to criticize, it would be that the border around the display is pretty large - 1¼" on the sides, 1½" across the top and 1¾" across the bottom.

The first step, as always, is to get it out of the box, set it up, and install Linux. As with the last several new systems I have bought, I will not be installing or configuring Windows on it. Once again I was particularly pleased with this system when I found that the Acer factory disk partitioning divided the 1TB disk into two 450GB partitions plus a few other smaller partitions.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two large partitions would be the Windows C: and D: drives, and the others would be the various UEFI Boot and Windows Recovery partitions. So rather than having to resize a partition to make space for Linux, I could simply delete the D: partition. Very nice.

Of course it would be possible to just wipe the disk and install Linux, or even swap out the disk and install to an empty disk. But doing it this way gives me the most flexibility with the least time, effort and cost, and if something strange happens and I need to pass this system on to someone who really wants to run Windows on it, they still can.

If I still like this system so much after using it for a few days/weeks/months, I might consider swapping out the disk drive for an SSD.

I took my usual route of installing openSuSE (Tumbleweed) first. I made an educated guess at pressing F12 during boot to get a Boot Selection menu, and that worked. The latest Tumbleweed installed with absolutely no problems: until it tried to reboot after completing the installation. Then my luck ran out.

Rather than boot openSuSE, as it should have, it tried to boot Windows. I stopped that, and then tried to get into BIOS setup by pressing F2 during boot. That didn't work, and it tried to boot Windows again. Stop doing that!

Then I took the time to read the message which is (briefly) displayed during boot, and saw that it said to 'press DEL for setup'. Sigh. Every other Acer system I own uses F2 for this, as does the vast majority of PCs in the world: but this one uses DEL. What a clever idea. I hope that someone is so proud of themselves for deciding to do this. I checked the original included keyboard, and definitely does have an F2 key, so why they would make this change completely escapes me.

I finally got into the BIOS setup, and saw that it is completely different from any of my other Acer systems (I currently have at least four others). This is very unfortunate, because the BIOS in all of those other Acers is very similar, and I consider it to be one of the best and easiest for installing Linux on UEFI firmware systems. I feared that if this one is very different, it could be a lot more trouble - and oh my, did I turn out to be right about that!

After poking around in Setup for a while, I still couldn't find any indication that Linux had been installed and configured to boot. On my other Acer systems, when Linux is added it shows up in the boot list, but there was no sign of it here. I also found that I could disable UEFI Secure Boot without setting a BIOS password, at least that is a small plus for this system. But disabling Secure Boot didn't help in getting the system to boot Linux.

Of course, I could have changed from UEFI Boot to Legacy Boot (well, I assume that I could have, but I didn't really check or try that), but I don't want to do that. It should be possible to install and boot Linux with UEFI Boot enabled.

I eventually gave up, went out of Setup and booted a Linux Live USB stick. There I checked the UEFI boot configuration (efibootmgr -v), and saw that openSuSE had in fact been added, but the boot target looked very strange, not at all like what I am used to on all the other UEFI systems, and not at all like the Windows Boot Manager which was still configured there.

I manually corrected the boot configuration, then saved and rebooted. And it once again tried to boot Windows! Arrrrggghhhh!

I went back to Setup, but still couldn't find anything useful there. I booted the Linux Live USB stick again, and found that the UEFI boot configuration once again looked different, just as it had the first time. Stop mucking about with my settings! Just Stop It!

I repeated this cycle several times, trying to find some command or combination which would coax the system into booting openSuSE. No luck.

I finally gave up and decided that this is going to be the same kind of pain-in-the-neck situation as I have had to deal with on HP and Compaq systems, where I actually have to put the Linux EFI Boot Manager binary image in place of the Windows Boot Manager. Ugh. By this time I was getting pretty angry, and all my good feelings about what a nice system this is were evaporating.

I have written about configuring UEFI Boot in considerable detail before, so please refer to those posts if you want all the details. In a nutshell, what I had to do was:

  • Boot a Linux Live USB/DVD system
  • Mount the EFI Boot partition
  • Rename /EFI/Microsoft/Boot/bootmgfw.efi to bootmgms.efi
  • Copy /EFI/opensuse/grubx64.efi to bootmgfw.efi

That doesn't look so bad, but believe me it is tedious and irritating and too easy to get wrong, and it shouldn't be necessary. The worst part of it is that I am now afraid that, like the HP/Compaq systems, at some point the Acer is going to notice what I did and decide to 'fix' it. Then I will have to do all this again. Ugh. Bletch.

Once I did that the system finally booted openSuSE Tumbleweed, and things started looking up again. Everything worked. Console display, at 1920x1080 resolution, wired and wireless networking, all the USB ports, the SD Card reader, everything. And it is really impressively fast, as you would expect from a Core i5 processor. Really nice.

I worked with it long enough to convince myself that it was all ok, and I rebooted it enough times to convince myself that it wasn't going to suddenly freak out and reset the UEFI configuration. Then I set about installing and configuring the other Linux distributions.

First on the list was Fedora 23 (Gnome). Installed with absolutely no problems or complaints, but when it rebooted after installation openSuSE came up. I checked the UEFI boot configuration, and the entry for Fedora had the same weird target that I had seen for openSuSE.

At least this is now not much of a problem, because I normally boot openSuSE and then use it to boot the other Linux distributions, so as long as that works ok I'm fine. I ran grub2-mkconfig and then changed the 'linuxefi/initrdefi' directives to 'chainloader'. Then I rebooted, and chose Fedora from the GRUB boot list: and it worked! Hooray! So now I'm feeling a lot better about this, and the world is starting to look like a pretty wonderful place again.

I then went through the rest of the distributions - Manjaro (KDE), Debian (Gnome), Mint (Cinnamon), LMDE (MATE) and Ubuntu (Ick). All installed without problem, and every one of them failed to boot after installation. I added each of them to the openSuSE boot configuration, and they all worked.

Finally, I decided to install openSuSE Leap in addition to Tumbleweed. I do this on a few systems just so I can see how Leap is developing, and since this is going to be my primary desktop system, it makes sense to have it here. All that is required to have both Tumbleweed and Leap on the same system is to give them different EFI Boot partitions, and I already had two of those because of the conflict between Mint and Ubuntu, so it was easy.

Then came the shocker. Leap installation completed, and when it rebooted... it booted Leap! What? How the heck? How can it do that? I couldn't believe it. I checked very carefully, to be sure that I wasn't just confused or mistaken somehow, perhaps because I use the same /home partition for both Tumbleweed and Leap.

Nope, no mistake. It was really running Leap. How could that even be possible? I checked the boot configuration with efibootmgr -v again, and this time the entry for Leap looked exactly like I expected it to, it did not have the strange target that all of the others had been changed to on the first boot after installation.

Obviously, the openSuSE Leap installation had done something differently than any of the other Linux installations, including even openSuSE Tumbleweed. I rebooted several more times, just to be sure that this was going to be stable. It was.

I scratched my head over it for a long time, but I couldn't figure out what the difference is. It must be doing something, or changing something, maybe some other hidden configuration file or reference file or some such, which tells the UEFI boot process that it is ok to leave the boot configuration this way. But I can't figure out what or where that is, and I can't find any reference to it anywhere on the internet.

So, if anyone knows exactly how this works, or what Leap is doing that makes this configuration work, please let us know about it in the comments. For the time being, I will just thank my lucky stars that this works, and undo the other changes that I had made to get Tumbleweed working.

That means I deleted the copy I had made of grubx64.efi, and renamed the original Windows boot manager back to bootmgfw.efi. I then removed all of the extraneous lines for the other Linux installations from the EFI boot configuration, leaving it with only the original Windows Boot Manager and the new openSuSE Leap GRUB boot, and the boot order set with openSuSE first. Then I changed the Leap GRUB configuration so that it boots Tumbleweed by default, and I added all of the other distributions to it with chainloader configuration.

So, to summarize. The Acer Aspire Z3-710 is a wonderful all-in-one desktop system. I love it. Except for the UEFI Firmware boot configuration. Even worse than HP/Compaq. That's really unfortunate. But since openSuSE Leap solved that problem for me, I once again love the Z3.

Every version of Linux I have tried on it works perfectly. Every device, every driver, every bit of hardware works on every Linux distribution I have tried.

I love the fact that there is no desk-side or desk-top box, and there is no docking station, but it has the power and speed and connections of a desktop system. It has a huge display, without having to use a two-screen laptop/external monitor setup. It has more USB and HDMI ports than any laptop, docking station or port replicator I have ever had, and they are much more conveniently placed and accessible than they are on a typical laptop or docking station.

Finally. Whew. This all works a treat. I just wish that I understood why.

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