Hands-on: My new laptop and two more Linux flavours

Hands-on: My new laptop and two more Linux flavours

Summary: Two more Linux distributions, and a solution to the wi-fi problem


It has been an interesting few days since my first post about my new laptop and my experiences with various flavours of Linux. 

First, and most pleasing, was the comment from 'glenn4uk' to my previous post, describing a solution to the wi-fi problem. I have tried it with openSuSE 13.1, Fedora 20 and Mint 16, and it works like a charm on all three of them. It's not difficult, you just have create a file called /etc/modprobe.d/asus_nb_wmi.conf, with the contents "options asus_nb_wmi wapf=1". Then reboot and the wireless network will come right up.

I would just like to say to him once again here, thanks very much for giving us this extremely useful tip.

Linux Mint Debian Edition

I have also continued with loading the last couple of Linux distributions on the Asus, and that has proceeded very smoothly. Linux Mint Debian Edition (Cinnamon) was the next to be done, and I had no problems with it. 

By the time I was loading it I had already seen and tried the wi-fi fix, so when I booted LMDE and the wireless didn't come up, I just applied the fix and rebooted, and that took care of it.

Everything else works normally, and it is quite fast. Unfortunately, the other thing I am starting to realize is that I still have a significant dislike for the clickpad style of touchpad, for exactly the same reason that I used to dislike it so much in my HP system.

It is over-sensitive, and far too difficult to do any kind of precise clicking. Trying to highlight specific words or phrases in text, for example, is an exercise in aggravation, so I use this laptop almost exclusively with some kind of mouse now.

Debian GNU/Linux

The final distribution I wanted to load on the new ASUS was Debian 7.4 (Wheey). After having everything go so smoothly with all of the others, I got several surprises when loading Debian.

First, I was going to install from a Live image rather than the netinstall image that I normally use for Debian. I was forgetting that the Debian Live images are not UEFI-compatible, if you want/need that, you have to use either the netinstall or the full DVD installer image. So I used the netinstall after all.

Installation was smooth and easy, and actually seemed a bit quicker than I have been used to with Debian. When I was done, everything worked - and I mean absolutely everything, including the wireless networking!

I hadn't bothered to check this when running the Live image, I just assumed it didn't work. Assuming is never a good idea.

I suppose this is related to the difference in the Linux kernel between Debian Stable (3.2.x) and the other distributions I have loaded on this laptop (3.11 and later). Something must have gotten changed either in the ath9k driver, or in the kernel itself that causes this problem. That's actually encouraging news, because it means that it will most likely be fixed again in some (near) future release.

The other surprise that I got with this installation was that the ClickPad didn't work very well at all. I can't right-click with it at all, I can't click-and-drag at all, and even left-click is so wildly unstable that it is almost useless. Again, I suppose that this is related to the older Linux kernel and X.org release that in Debian Stable.

Finally, I would like to add a few words about the UEFI firmware and the BIOS implementation on this laptop. It is by far the best that I have seen yet, literally miles (or kilometres) better than the HP/Compaq UEFI systems, and even a bit better than the Acer.

This is first because the boot configuration is changed for Linux, it stays that way, rather than "magically" changing back to boot Windows. Second, the Boot Configuration screen presents a list of boot items, in which you can edit to change the order, add or delete items, or just disable (temporarily) an item.

There have been several comments posted to my UEFI articles saying that it should be possible (or would be nice if it were possible) to add/modify/delete Secure Boot keys. 

When Secure Boot is enabled on the Asus, there is another screen associated with it which lets you add/modify/delete keys. In this Key Management screen you can manage the Platform Key (PK), Key Exchange Key (KEK), Authorized Signature Database (DB) and Forbidden Signature Database (DBX). 

That's not something that many people are going to want/need/know how to do, but for those who do, it will be a huge win.

I am absolutely convinced that if all UEFI firmware systems worked as well, and as consistently as this one does, there would not have been such a strong backlash against UEFI in the Linux community, and there would be almost none of that left today. 

But when I look HP and Acer UEFI firmware systems now, I just shake my head with regret for the amount of time that I have wasted fighting with them, trying to get them to do what I want, or at least to be stable and consistent.

In summary I would say that this is an exceptionally good laptop for Linux, probably the best I have looked at in quite some time. 

Absolutely everything in it works with Linux, with the caveat that at least for the moment, you have to create a one-line file to get the wireless networking. All of the auxiliary functions work as well, such as Suspend/Resume and the Fn-keys for Sleep, Display Brightness up/down/off, and Volume up/down/off (mute). 

A second display connected to the HDMI port is recognized and configured as an extended desktop automatically. All in all it is very nice, and I would recommend it without hesitation. I would like to keep this one and use it for a while, but I'm not sure that will be possible, because several of my friends seem to have their eyes on it already.

Further reading

Topics: Linux, Laptops, 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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  • which i guess shows it's not UEFI that's the real issue

    It's the way it's implemented. Can't say i've had issues with my Samsung tablet i bought last year. One slight change in the BIOS and i can install whatever i want. But honestly as long as MS has a say so, i don't expect many vendors to follow asus's path
  • Touchpad

    Try installing "synaptiks" from the repository. Tamed my ASUS touchpad nicely.
  • Broadcomm Wifi chipset?

    They're notorious for problems on Linux. Apparently the support is better than it was when I was struggling with the issue on my late Dell laptop (I resorted to ndiswrapper), but not gone.
    John L. Ries
    • Atheros

      P.S. I've also had fits with Broadcom wifi chipsets.
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • Touch pad is a very poor idea

    I don't know why the touch pad is included in any laptop - yes it works for very basic cursor work - move, click on a button. I do a lot of highlight'n paste. So I use a wireless wheel mouse. Oh, the very first thing when I boot up: click icon: padoff -> synclient TouchpadOff=1 (and that was hl'n paste).
    • Depends on the touchpad

      I'm quite happy with the one on my Fujitsu (running Fedora), even though it only has two buttons (the middle button is properly emulated by pressing both buttons); I'm much less happy with the ones on my HP (running Windows 7) and my MacBook, so I use an external mouse on both (but don't bother on the Fujitsu).
      John L. Ries
    • ClickPad, not just Touchpad

      I'm not sure about the names that anyone uses for these things, but please be aware that the specific device I am talking about (whinging about) in this case is what I believe is called a ClickPad - that was Synaptics original name for their version of it. The key difference between it and what I consider a "normal" touchpad is that the ClickPad has no discrete buttons, the surface of the device is all one piece, including the areas which are physically marked as the "buttons". The result of this is that the entire surface is touch-sensitive, including the areas where you are supposed to be clicking. The effect of this shows in two ways; when you touch the "button" area, the cursor still moves, and in fact according to the diagrams included with the ASUS laptop, the "right button" area is only the part where you would expect it to be, by tradition and based on the marking on the ClickPad surface, but the "left button" area is actually the entire remaining surface of the ClickPad - anything that isn't "right button" is considered to be "left button". Obviously, this can also lead to some surprising results.

      Oh, and one easy way to identify a ClickPad device is that the entire surface will "click" when you press on it. If you've never used one, that in itself gives you a very strange feeling.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • Not sure that helps

        If the buttons are separate, then they're easy to find and there is no confusion about whether one wants to point or click.
        John L. Ries
  • I've used both

    Click and touchpads. Can't honestly say I like either. Too imprecise, and for graphical work, which is a good chunk of what I do, a pad of either sort is like using a paint roller to sign your name.
    Iman Oldgeek
  • I like Linux Desktop but...

    ...its issues like mentioned in this story that keeps it from fully going main stream. This is not an issue with Linux or the various distros themselves but a direct reflection of the lack of support from vendors that Linux gets for client PCs. Issues noted with the touch pad may times are configurable with Windows software that allow you to granularly configure the options for response and such. Same with needing to do after install of WiFi issues with work arounds.

    And driver issues will crop up again and again with anything you plug into the device. Us geeks can work around these things but you average users is baffled and frustrated.
    Rann Xeroxx
    • Some of us like swimming upstream

      Or at least think it necessary to counter the efforts (legal or not) of a certain large software vendor to maintain its dominant position in the market.
      John L. Ries
  • You might (re) mention what laptop you are talking about

    I have read a number of articles between this one and your last, and it is not clear to me (in this article) which (specific laptop) you are talking about.
    • Good point, sorry

      My bad, I should have specifically stated it at the beginning. This post is a followup about the ASUS R513CL.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

  • but why?

    Glad to see you're having success loading Linux on your laptop. But I do have a question - why? What applications are you running on Linux that have no equivalent on Windows? Since you bought Windows with the hardware, I am assuming there is some application you need to run that will not run on Windows.

    Please don't take this as trolling. I spent many years writing and running software on DEC PDP-11s, VAXen and Alphas before migrating to Windows. I know that there are platform-specific applications, but typically when I see articles comparing Linux and Windows there is somebody that points out you can run most Windows software under an emulator on a Linux box. I don't recall ever seeing somebody saying "I run Linux because this application is unavailable on Windows"
    • No Specific Application - It's Everything

      Hi. I don't take it for trolling, it is a valid question, and I think it deserves an answer, because it is something I don't discuss in my blog often enough.

      First and foremost, I load Linux on absolutely every computer that I have to use because I despise Windows with a passion. Being forced to use Windows makes my skin crawl. This is a purely personal feeling, I understand that, and it is not even universal in my own household - my partner still uses Windows more than Linux. That's fine with me, it's her choice, just as it is anyone else's choice.

      There are, however, a number of concrete reasons supporting my choice as well. I resent having to pay for an operating system over and over and over again. I particularly resent that when every new version that I have to pay for is significantly worse than the previous version.

      Oh, and while I'm on the operating system itself, I much prefer using ANY Linux desktop, including Unity, to the monstrosity that is Windows 8.

      As for applications, I prefer to use LibreOffice rather than Microsoft Office - especially since Microsoft decided that they knew better than the entire rest of the world and imposed "ribbons" on Office users. Oh, and did I mention that I would resent paying for Office, ovar and over and over again? I prefer to use digiKam for photo management, especially for free, rather than whatever commercial photo program might be available these days on Windows. I prefer to use GIMP for image editing, for free, rather than the ridiculously expensive Adobe Photo Shop programs - and of course, paying for them over and over and over again.

      I could go on and on. I've been thinking as I write this, trying to figure out if there is a single application that I would choose to use on Windows. I can't think of any. Basically, the only time I run Windows is when I am at work, or when I am working from home or on the road, because I am forced to do so.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

      • No time to "stick it to the windows man"

        Sure it ain't perfect, but I have work to do. I dont have time to troubleshoot wifi issues, figure out workarounds, and use a sub-standard office product. Sorry but I need Excel and Visio and the Libre equivalents just don't cut it.

        For work, Windows serves my needs -- Windows 7 that is. At home, i use Apple products--expensive, but easy to use.

        I just don't have time to use an OS "with a philosophy".
        • otaddy: "At home, i use Apple products--expensive, but easy to use"

          You've, apparently, got some commonality with J.A. Watson:

          o OS X, starting with Mavericks, is now free
          o iWork is also now free on both OS X and the iPad

          One could also infer that you are not a fan of Windows 8 either.

          P.S. Note that J.A. Watson was asked about Windows and did not volunteer the information in the article as another ZDNet Linux blogger has done (in the past).

          P.P.S. Both The Gimp and LibreOffice are available for Windows.
          Rabid Howler Monkey
        • Not "sticking it to the man"

          I have no objection to profit or even proprietary software, but I've long been suspicious of monopolies and efforts to perpetuate them.

          Just remember that buying is voting. If you think that one vendor should control 90% of the PC OS market, then vote that way, but understand that those who don't might make a different decision.
          John L. Ries
          • "Suspicious of monopolies and efforts to perpetuate them."

            "If you think that one vendor should control 90% of the PC OS market, then vote that way"

            John, you do realize what you're saying, right?

            You're advocating that people should go with something that may not fill their needs, just so that a company that does have a product that may fill their needs doesn't get the market share they have.

            Who are you looking out for, companies like Canonical, or your neighbors and friends?

            May as well just go into the polling booth and pull the level marked "ALL" for your party - it doesn't matter if they're the wrong choice for your community, as long as the other guys don't get any votes or keep their seats, then all's fine.
          • Sorry

            If MS competed on the merits, I might feel differently (and their market share would probably be around 40%) but buying from MS feels a good deal to me like voting for a political machine. And at this point, I actually prefer Linux to Windows on the merits, which makes helping to keep the competition alive a plus.
            John L. Ries