Buying a new Windows 8.1 laptop – and getting it ready for Linux

Buying a new Windows 8.1 laptop – and getting it ready for Linux

Summary: I spotted a bargain laptop recently which I couldn't resist. Now to get it ready for Linux.

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One of the large retail chains here in Switzerland has a low-priced product range that it calls "M-Budget", which includes everything from groceries to housewares to computers, and pretty much anything else you can think of. 

As I was walking past one of its shops on Saturday, I saw that it was offering an HP Compaq laptop for 333 Swiss Francs (about £225/€272/$370), and that is so low for the Swiss market that I couldn't resist. 

So here we go again. First, to lay the groundwork, the specifications:

  • AMD Quad-Core A4-5000 (1.5 GHz)
  • 4 GB DDR3 Memory
  • 500 GB SATA Disk
  • AMD Radeon HD 8330 Graphics
  • 15.6-inch HD BrightView LED (1366 x 768) Display
  • SD Cardreader
  • 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0
  • HDMI Output
  • HP TrueVision Camera
  • DVD-RW Optical Drive
  • RJ-45 Wired and 802.11 a/b/n wi-fi Network
  • Windows 8.1

In my opinion, those are some pretty impressive specifications for that kind of money. A couple of things there are worth specific mentioning. First, I think that 15-inch displays with 1366x768 resolution are a bit of a waste, but the rest of the world doesn't seem to agree with me on that — most importantly, the laptop manufacturers. 

Second, this is the first laptop I have seen which has HDMI output, but does not have VGA output — even my netbooks had VGA. I wouldn't complain much about this, it is just the first time I have seen it. Finally, having at least one USB 3.0 port is a good thing.

The first thing I had to do was get through the initial setup and configuration of Windows.

Raspberry Pi add-ons: My experiments with camera and wi-fi

Raspberry Pi add-ons: My experiments with camera and wi-fi

Raspberry Pi add-ons: My experiments with camera and wi-fi

By the way, I had asked the sales clerk in the shop about this, and he specifically told me it was loaded with Windows 8, not 8.1 — so much for well-trained and well-informed clerks. On the other hand, I just noticed that it is actually printed on the end of the box as Windows 8.1, so I should have seen it for myself — so much for observant customers.

Anyway, I plugged it in and let the battery fully charge, then turned it on and walked through the setup and configuration; not too painful, they seem to be getting at least a little better at this. 

I plugged in a wired network cable rather than play with wireless at this point, which probably made it at least a bit easier.  I have one big complaint about the setup process, though. It wanted me to enter my Microsoft (or Windows) account information, which I certainly do not have and never will have. 

But there was no "Skip" option on this screen. Below the login fields there was a line which said "No Microsoft Account", but it was not active (couldn't be clicked), then a line that said "Create a Microsoft Account", which was active. 

I finally figured out that I could click on "Create", but then in the next screen say that I didn't really want to create an account, and it continued to the next step. Sigh. Why make it simple when you can make it obscure and complicated, right?

Oh, another compliment to HP: this laptop is considerably less loaded with third-party garbage. I hope this is a trend.

Once the setup and configuration was complete and I could login, the next order of business was to shrink the C: partition to make room for Linux.

The only problem in doing this was figuring out where they have hidden the Control Panel, and then getting to Administrative Tools/Create and 'Format Hard Disk Partitions'. Then select the C: partition, and click 'Action/All Tasks/Shrink Volume'. 

Windows would only let me reduce it from about 440GB to about 225GB, but that is enough for now, so I decided not to fight with it, and not to take the alternate route of using Linux tools (gparted and such) to shrink it. The actual shrink operation only took a minute or so to complete.

At this point I was ready to try booting Linux.

Of course, this required puzzling out the "secret handshake" of F-keys necessary to get to BIOS setup and the Boot Selection menu. Fortunately, those are the same as with my other HP systems; F10 for BIOS setup (yes, this is a UEFI BIOS system), where I confirmed that USB boot was enabled, and then F9 for Boot Select. I am currently partial to Fedora for UEFI systems, so I plugged in the Fedora 20 USB stick... and it came right up! Hooray!

Please note: this is with UEFI Secure Boot enabled, and Legacy Boot disabled. At this point I have not made any changes in the BIOS setup; all I have done is insert the Fedora 20 USB stick and booted it.

I made a quick configuration check (lspci -v), and it all looked very good. AMD CPUs, graphic and audio controllers, Realtek wired and Atheros wireless network adapters. The wired network cable was still plugged in, and that had already connected on boot, and the 'Wi-fi/Select Network' function listed my network (and various others), so it all looks very good.

At this point I am ready to install Fedora, and I am reasonably confident that everything will work properly. 

However, I am a bit sceptical about the UEFI BIOS, because it looks very much to me as if this is the same BIOS as on my HP Pavilion dm1 system (that would make sense). 

I have had quite a fight with that system, and that BIOS, because it doesn't want to let me change the boot sequence; no matter what I do or how I change it, every time I reboot it gets set back to the default Windows Boot Manager. So I am going off to finish the Fedora installation, and see what happens with the BIOS configuration.

Further reading

Topics: Linux, Open Source, Operating Systems

J.A. Watson

About J.A. Watson

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 Equipment Corporation PDP-8, PDP-11 (/45 and /70) and VAX minicomputers. I was involved with the first wave of Unix-based microcomputers, in the early '80s. I have been working in software development, operation, installation and support since then.

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168 comments
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  • Nice Specs!

    For that price!
    Koymik
    • Missing Touch

      I suspect a lot of laptops without touch will get dumped in the next few months. Touch may not be vital now but by next Christmas it will. The mouse did not replace the cursor keys. Similarly, touch does not replace the keyboard or mouse. Touch just enhances and adds a new dimension to how we interact with computers.
      MichaelInMA
      • No way, MichaelInMA

        I will absolutely NOT purchase any laptop with a touch screen. And I suspect that many others feel the same based on comments and the number of flags your message has.

        Doc
        Doc.Savage
        • Once you try it.....

          .....you will find it to be a really nice addition. It is very easy and intuitive to use both the mouse and the screen for navigation - I doubted until I tried it, and since I tried it I find myself reaching for the screen naturally at certain times where it just makes sense to do so. Give it a try before you decide against it - you might find it to be a nice change. And I'm an IT tech with 30+ years, not some kid :o)
          Nadaphanboi
          • And after a visit to the local chipshop?

            I have a tablet and a tablet and spend half of my life cleaning them. The last thing I want are people depositing the remenents of their lunch or nose-lining on my laptop!
            andrew.cowan@...
          • Stages

            I also have 30 plus years. I remember when the mouse first came out and there were all kinds of comments like Doc.Savage's and Andrew's. It kind of like the stages of grief, one of them is denial. I wonder what they will say in 5 years.

            In this forum I find posts get flags more often than votes. Probably 2 or 3 to one. From the number of votes vs. flags so far I find it very encouraging that people are beginning to learn about touch.

            Some people with OCD will never get used to touch. I remember several people over the years that had to sanitize there mouse all the time and never really got used to using it.
            MichaelInMA
          • Opting out.

            I'm a service tech with a few years of my own. One of the things that I never liked, was the "Microsoft That Be..." limiting my options as the consumer and trying to force "Their" choices on me by way of software or worse, propaganda on the web. Instilling a notion via that their "Anti-choice" is a dying relic, to further sales to a second time failure, because they didn't learn their lesson. [When you have a golden parachute with the gov., I guess it goes to your head.]
            Basically, I've never minded new innovations. AS LONG AS I WAS ALLOWED A CHOICE.
            A touch screen, or hand gestures, might get to be a habit, in time and trial. [I never liked having to clean a screen too often just for a gimmick either.]
            Obviously, this item peaked my interest, due to my career field. And I've learned to appreciate those who give their time and experience, [Honestly] towards those fighting against forced choices. The trend that is slowly building, is that of private individuals and enterprise, working towards securing us from that control and abuse.
            Really, do you think with all the trillions of dollars spent, do you really think the those responsible ever be made to change, answer for, or even admit to any kind of fault?
            Only when they're forced to by the private sector and people willing to [Honestly] invest their time.
            It cost you nothing to hear them out, and as always, the choice [ In this case,] is yours. Don't be so quick to burn your bridges and have to need help.
            ARGUS733@...
          • Adapt or Die

            Adapt, Evolve, Compete or Die
            Tudor Jones

            What you think of as Anti-Choice is really evolution. When you do a lot of programming you realize that Microsoft has adopted and pushed evolution more than any.
            MichaelInMA
          • Not all evolutionary changes work.

            Just like the actual fossil record shows, become to specialized and your doomed for failure when the prey "customers" you seek either .

            A: Get hip to the gimmick and learn to avoid it
            B: Begin to get spooked by feeling cornered and leave the territory entirely.

            The only good thing as the author points it out is the hardware and the ability to install Nix on it.
            gdm40
          • not really

            "Not all evolutionary changes work." No, evolutionary changes WORK FOREVER !! would be far more accurate.

            Not that this has anything to do with evolutionary changes, or adaptations.

            But if you consider an evolutionary change that "works" you would have to mean "works under the present conditions", but something that works, that evolves into something else that 'works' does not make the first evolution stop working.

            BTW: we had touch screens long before we had 'mouses'. (Mice?).
            Both touch by hand and by more commonly 'light pens'.
            Aussie_Troll
          • Choices?

            Evolution? Revolution. When I got my copy of Windows 8, my first question was; what happened to all the training Microsoft delivered from Windows 3.1 to Windows 7? How did they come to the conclusion we needed to retrain on a new OS? I still don't have that answer but I would like to know! I see the advantage of Windows 8 for touch, It works great on my Nokia, although it seems to fall short in more than a couple of places for desktop. A different OS is clearly needed for desktop/laptop.
            Linux engineers have modified their platform to copy Apple, MS, Unix and many of the apps those systems use to the point of, well sure, we can do that too.
            The bottom line? Why would you feel the need to switch from W8 to Fedora?
            nesdave
          • Personally,

            I find the difference between dirty keyboards/mice and having to retrieve information through the reflections off the shiny screen coated with fingerprints even with only extremely clean/dry fingers using it to be pretty bad.

            I do use my T-100 tablet but am finding myself going back to my non-touch screened ultrabook (900X) for the comfort of the non-glare screen free of odd reflections. Having to look through those reflections simply over-rides my desire to have the smaller/lighter format of the tablet.
            Technocrat@...
          • Why do you use it if it's that bad?

            Same old rubbish comment. 'I don't have one so nobody needs one' Well if its good enough for one sector of the IT market its equally good for another in my book. Would I want QCS Jukebox on my ipad without touch operation... NO. Would I want a jukebox on my laptop without touch... Not particularly but at least its usable with my MS media remote control. Certainly wouldn't be as much use with a mouse and keyboard. It's all down to what you're doing..... and sometimes touch is a bonus.
            johnmckay
          • ...

            johnmackay......Your making 2 completly different comparisons. Yes touch on a tablet is ok as thats what its for. Its for quick mobile use to entertain you especially something as limited as the ipad but for a laptop or desktop nothing beats a full keboard and mouse as you will be spending lots of time on it and it makes life soooo much easier. You can not group them together as they are completly different. Thats like saying I like a steering wheel in my car so I think bicyles should have steering wheels instead of handle bars.Just doesnt really work in reality as well
            Fletchguy
          • Strange complaint

            I personally don't allow anyone and I mean anyone to touch my laptop ... unlike a tablet it's not a toy to be passed around.
            Pastabake
          • Question for Mr. Watson

            After the disk's been shrunk, did the Secure UEFI detect the intrusion? did it still boot? if not, how do you handle it?
            ac1234555
          • No Secure Boot Problem

            There was no problem with Secure Boot after shrinking the disk, either when booting Windows initially, or when booting Fedora 20, both booted with Secure Boot enabled with no problem. I have read other who have said that Secure Boot got unhappy when the disk partitioning was changed, but I have never experienced this on any of the UEFI systems own - HP, Compaq and Acer. However, the one thing that is clear to me from all of this is that there is a LOT of difference in UEFI implementations, so I would not doubt that other OEMs make UEFI BIOS which object to disk partitioning changes.

            Thanks for reading and commenting.

            jw
            j.a.watson@...
          • No secure boot problem

            Whatever you do don't buy a Dell Laptop, you will certainly have problems with secure boot.
            bobmattfran
          • I have tried it

            And, within a week, I disabled touch input, mostly because I didn't find that it added anything useful to the UI, and because I hate fingerprints and crap all over the screen. Touch on a laptop is about as useful as teats on a boar hog.
            S_Deemer
        • You probably prefer green on black 80 x 40 cga too..

          Times move on my friend. Get on the ride and enjoy it. Touch is another enhancement and manys a time I've touched a laptop screen, and gestured then took a second to work out why nothing happened.

          As for Linux... I've got one but who really cares apart from the geeks? I support PCs but as I keep saying; until Linux works and updates as simple as a TV it is going NOWHERE FAST !!! I love the way this guy needs to suss out that the function keys might be the same???? Might be??? RTFM if in doubt but come on,,,, same keys for donkeys years.
          johnmckay