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

I spotted a bargain laptop recently which I couldn't resist. Now to get it ready for Linux.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

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

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.

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