Getting my new Asus X540S notebook ready for Linux

Today I try a variety of Linux distributions on a low-priced laptop that comes with Windows 10 Home.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

The Asus X540SA laptop on which I attempt to run Linux.

Image: Asus

A number of my laptops and netbooks have moved on to other homes and other purposes recently, so I have been looking for something new.

Last weekend I saw an advertisement for an Asus X540SA at a ridiculously low price (CHF 299 / €280 / £245 / $300), which is always one of my criteria. Another criteria in this case was a 15" screen, and this ASUS has is 15.6", so that made the decision for me.

This Asus specifications page for the X540S lists a variety of CPUs, memory and disk configurations, so this is obviously just the latest in a long line. The detailed specs for the one I got are:

  • Intel Celeron N3060
  • 8GB DDR3 RAM
  • 500GB HDD / 5400 RPM / SATA
  • 15.6" LED 1366x768 display
  • Intel HD Graphics 400
  • 802.11 b/g/n WiFi & RJ-45 Wired network
  • Bluetooth 4.0
  • USB 2.0/3.0/3.1
  • HDMI & VGA
  • SD/SDHC/SDXC Card Reader
  • 8x Super-Multi DVD
  • Weight 2Kg

Those look like some very good specifications for such a low priced laptop. You don't get something for nothing, and even though I found it at a very good price, there is also clear evidence of the low-cost design and construction of this laptop. First, the case looks rather plush, it has a kind of brushed-metal finish - but is it entirely plastic, and it feels like relatively thin plastic.

The keyboard doesn't have a very positive feel. Oh, and something that I have never seen before, the power button is actually the top right button of the keyboard. After looking at that and scratching my head for a while, I finally realized that the End key is missing. That seems like a pretty extreme decision, how much money can you save by not having a separate power button?

The variety of external connections is good, but there is exactly one of each - USB 2.0, USB 3.0 and USB 3.1 (Type C) - that's not a lot. Finally, 1366x768 resolution is not very impressive for a 15.6" display.

Oh, and one other thing. I don't know if this was a cost-related decision, but this thing has a "clickpad" style of touchpad, which doesn't have discrete buttons, just a little line in the middle of the bottom of the touchpad which supposedly delineates left- and right-click areas.

There are some positive points about this laptop (beyond the low price) as well. For example, 8GB is a better than average amount of memory, having Bluetooth included is not always the case, as is the DVD drive. I'm not familiar with the USB 3.1 (Type C) connection, but I guess if you have something that can take advantage of this, it is a big plus.

So in the end, I guess you get what you pay for, and if you're looking for a low cost laptop, you have to decide which compromises you are willing to accept. So far I think this one looks promising, but now it is time to get down to actually configuring and using it.

Configuring Windows 10 Home

The first step, as always, was slogging through the Windows 10 Home initial configuration. Sigh. If I didn't dislike Windows so much, maybe this wouldn't be so awful. But I do, and it is. Here are some of the questions it asked:

  • Do you want to share your personal data with Microsoft? Ugh, no.
  • Do you want to share your browsing history with Microsoft? Ugh, NO.
  • Do you want to automatically connect to WiFi networks which your "friends" have previously connected to? What??? No, absolutely not.
  • Do you want to automatically connect to other networks which have been pre-selected by Microsoft? Sigh. No.
  • Do you want to automatically connect to otherwise unknown public-access wireless networks, just to check and see if they need some other kind of authentication? Gaaa...

There were probably more like this that I don't remember, but really, do other people actually answer 'Yes' to some of these questions? I guess that 'Yes to Everything' is what you get if you take the Express Configuration option...

After staggering through the initial configuration, the second step is finding and clearing out the pre-loaded bloatware.

  • Dropbox
  • McAfee LiveSafe (limited trial version)
  • Microsoft Office 365 (limited trial version)
  • Microsoft OneDrive
  • TeamViewer (at least two releases out of date)
  • ASUS Cloud Web Storage
  • WPS Office
  • ASUS Gift Box (this contained a number of other "offers")
  • ASUS HiPost (I never did find an explanation of what this actually is)

There's more that I have not found or identified yet, I'm sure. But at least getting all of the above off and then rebooting made the laptop noticeably more responsive, and dramatically reduced the amount of disk-thrashing noise it was making after boot.

Unfortunately, the clickpad was turning out to be just as awful as I had feared. It seemed like half the time it didn't recognize a normal left-click, and more than half the time a right-click. Two-fingered scrolling was intermittent, at best. Oh, how I hate clickpads.

Installing Linux

At this point I was basically ready to start 'using' the laptop. Honestly, I'm still pleased and hopeful abut this laptop, it seems nice. It's not a speed demon (duh, it's a Celeron CPU), but it is fast enough to be comfortable to use; the screen resolution is not great, but it's good enough.

Of course, using the laptop for me starts with installing Linux on it. The first step in that is to reduce the size of the Windows partition to make room for Linux.

Although most Linux installers are now able to do that, I prefer to do it using the Windows disk management utility so that there are no issues about whether it was done 'properly' or not.

In this case I found that Windows was installed to a single partition of about 465GB, and the disk/partition management utility said that the maximum I could reduce it was to about 260GB. That's enough for me right now.

I then booted a Linux Mint 18.1 LiveUSB stick, and it came right up with no problem. That's a nice surprise, because of course this is a UEFI firmware system and I didn't have to go into the firmware/BIOS configuration to change anything. On other systems I have had to make changes to enable USB boot, or disable UEFI Secure Boot, which required setting a BIOS password, but not this time.

Linux Mint 18.1 seemed to recognize all of the hardware, including wired and wireless network adapters. The screen resolution was correct (it's been a long time since I last saw a Linux installer get this wrong, anyway), and the clickpad at least worked (it hasn't been very long since I last saw an install get this wrong).

I used gparted to set up a few partitions in preparation for Linux installation. I prefer to do it this way rather than fight with a bunch of different Linux installers to get the disk layout and partition sizes exactly the way I want. If you were going to just multi-boot one Linux distribution along with the pre-installed Windows 10 Home, it would not be necessary to do this kind of pre-partitioning.

What's next?

So, I am now ready to start installing a variety of Linux distributions. That will be the subject of the next post. I'm not sure exactly what I will install, but at the least it will be:

  • openSUSE Tumbleweed
  • Manjaro
  • Debian
  • Fedora
  • Mint

In summary, so far this is not the greatest laptop I have ever purchased. It has a number of negative points, but it also had a very low price. But if things continue to go as they have so far it could very well turn out to be the best price/performance laptop I have ever bought. Then it will just be a question of how durable it is: it should be interesting.

P.S. For those who have been following my latest Raspberry Pi posts, this new laptop has only been a temporary diversion. I will be continuing with the Pi in parallel with setting up Linux on this laptop.

Read more about Linux by J.A. Watson

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