Hands-On: Installing five different Linux distributions on my new HP laptop

This HP laptop comes with both a 256GB SSD and a 1TB hard drive. I'm going to load it with a variety of Linux distributions and see how it works.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I've just picked up a new laptop, and I have to say at first glance, it looks like a real beauty. It's an HP 15-bs166nz, which I got at one of the large electronic chains here in Switzerland for CHF 649.- (approximately £500 / €560 / $685). That's supposedly half-price, if you believe their list prices. It's a bit difficult to judge, really, because HP makes so many different models with similar numbers but very different configurations, but after digging around on this one for a while I decided it is a very good price for this configuration.

The configuration is:

  • Intel Core i5-8260U Quad-Core CPU 1.6GHz (Turbo to 3.4GHz)
  • 8GB DDR4 memory
  • 256GB SSD
  • 1TB Hard Drive
  • 15.6" Full HD (1920x1080) display
  • Realtek GB RJ-45 Ethernet
  • Intel 7265 Wireless 802.11b/g/n/ac controller
  • Bluetooth 4.2
  • 2xUSB 3.1, 1xUSB 2.0
  • HDMI
  • SD card reader
  • Touchpad with REAL BUTTONS (Yay!)
  • Keyboard number pad

Those are some very good specifications, especially at this price. I don't recall having seen a laptop with both a decent sized SSD and a decent sized hard drive at anywhere near this price - that was what really caught my eye in the advert originally. Just about the only thing I can think of that this laptop doesn't have is an optical (CD/DVD) drive.

I have stayed away from HP laptops for several years now, because of how difficult it was to manage and configure their UEFI firmware to boot Linux. So that will be one of the major things I will be interested in looking at on this one.

SEE: 20 quick tips to make Linux networking easier (free PDF)

My initial experience with it didn't start off too well. I wanted to boot directly to a Linux Live USB stick, so that I could take a look at how the disks were partitioned and used, but it seems like it is delivered in a sort of "suspended/hibernated" state at the beginning of the setup/configure procedure. When I first turned it on, I couldn't interrupt the boot sequence, it just went straight into Windows setup with absolutely no delay. Grrr.

I finally figured out how to at least get it into BIOS setup (press F10 during power up), and then I could configure a delay in the power-up process, which then gave me enough time to get to Boot-Select mode (press F9).

While in BIOS setup, it is also worthwhile to disable UEFI Secure Boot, so that you don't run into trouble booting the installation media for whatever version of Linux you want to install. It is not necessary to change anything else in the BIOS at this time.

Once I booted a Linux Live system, and got to gparted so I could look at the disk layout, I found this:

SSD (/dev/sdb):

  • 260MB EFI Boot Partition
  • 16MB Microsoft Reserved Partition
  • 237GB Windows (C:) Partition
  • 980MB Windows Recovery Tools Partition

Hard Drive (/dev/sda):

  • 915GB Windows (D:) Partition
  • 16GB RECOVERY Partition

That's not so bad. For my initial tests, I am going to work only on the SSD and leave the hard drive alone. If I decide to keep and use this system (or give it to my partner, whose five year old HP laptop is slowly dying), I will certainly take over the hard drive for Linux data (/home, /data and such).

Because I am pretty conservative about the initial resizing of Windows C: partition, I always use the Windows disk partitioning utility to reduce the size of that partition. In this case, it offered to reduce it to 122GB, which gave me about 128GB for the various Linux distributions I am going to install, so that was fine.

openSUSE Tumbleweed

The first Linux distribution that I installed was openSUSE Tumbleweed (as always). Installation turned out to be an absolute snooze. Get the latest snapshot from the openSUSE downloads, copy it to a USB stick, put that in the HP laptop and then press F9 to select the device to boot. There was absolutely nothing unexpected, unusual, or otherwise difficult about the installation. For example, the touchpad was recognized correctly, and because it has real, true, physical buttons that you can press, there was no silliness about whether tap-to-click would work (although it did, anyway, but still...).


openSUSE Tumbleweed

Image: J.A. Watson

The 1920x1080 screen was recognized and configured without problem, and it looks simply gorgeous. For those who are curious, or greedy (like me), I immediately plugged an external 1920x1080 monitor into the HDMI port, and it was recognized and configured as an extended desktop automatically. This is just great...


openSUSE Tumbleweed KDE with Dual Monitors

Image: J.A. Watson

I quickly ran through the rest of the hardware, and everything seems to be working just fine. Wired networking was obviously working, because that's what I was using. Wireless networking lists my home networks, USB ports work, the SD card reader works, everything is looking just great.

Debian GNU/Linux

The next distribution I wanted to install was Debian GNU/Linux. I always install Debian using the network installer, not from the Live images because they are often slow to be updated when new releases are available.

There is a link to download the latest netinst image on the Debian home page or you can find a direct link here. This is a network installer image, so it is small (about 290MB) and downloads quickly - but it absolutely requires that you have an internet connection when you run it.

There were a couple of minor issues when I ran it.

First, it doesn't recognize the HP touchpad, so if you choose the "Graphical Install" option you will have to use a USB mouse during the installation. The installed system does not have this problem, the touchpad works just fine with it.

Second, the Intel Wi-Fi adapter requires a proprietary driver which is not included in the Debian FOSS-only distribution. This means that you will have to use a wired network connection for the installation - but in this case, you still have the same problem after you boot the installed system - the driver is still not there. You then have to add "non-free" to the apt sources list, then you will be able to download and install the necessary drivers with the firmware-iwlwifi package. Reboot after that is installed, and wireless networking will be working.


Debian GNU/Linux 9.3 (stretch) - Xfce

Image: J.A. Watson

At this point I was running Debian 9.3 (stretch). Almost everything was working normally - the exception was (still) the touchpad. Tap-to-click doesn't work in Debian stable (stretch), and there is no option to enable it in the Mouse & Touchpad settings utility.

I prefer to run Debian testing, because it stays much more up-to-date with ongoing Linux development. All I had to do was go to the apt sources list again (/etc/apt/sources.list), and change every occurrence of "stretch" to "testing". Then refresh the repository list (apt-get update), and download and install the updates (apt-get dist-upgrade). Reboot after the upgrade has finished, and the system is running Debian testing.


Ok, time for another of my favorites - Manjaro Linux. I'm particularly interested in seeing how the installation goes with this distribution, because Manjaro uses the calamares installer, which is also used by several other popular distributions, so if this one goes smoothly, especially with the HP UEFI firmware, it means the same will be true of KaOS, Sparky and others.

The latest installation image (17.1.6) can be obtained from the Manjaro Downloads page, with either KDE, Xfce or Gnome desktops. Other desktop versions are available on the Community Releases page, including Cinnamon, MATE, Deepin, Budgie, i3, LXDE, LXQt and Bspwm. Whew. If you can't find a desktop you like here, well...

Installation was once again absolutely problem free - and very fast, less than 15 minutes from booting the Live USB stick to booting the installed system!


Manjaro Linux - KDE Desktop

Image: J.A. Watson

As with the previous distributions, everything worked. I haven't specifically mentioned it until now, but "everything" also includes the Fn-key functions for Audio Up/Down/Mute, Video Brightness Up/Down/Blank, and Airplane Mode On/Off.


Next up for installation is Fedora Workstation. Another different installer - this time it is Anaconda, still my favorite Linux installer by far. The ISO Live image is available on the Fedora Downloads page.

I had absolutely no problems with installation, exactly as I had expected. The desktop is Gnome 3, of course; if you want something else, there are other Fedora Spins available, including KDE, Xfce, Cinnamon, MATE, LXDE, LXQT and Sugar-on-a-Stick.


Fedora Workstation 27

Image: J.A. Watson

Once again, everything works. Everything. Getting bored yet?

openSUSE Leap

My last foray for this round was openSUSE Leap. I have been running Leap 15.0 Beta for a while on several of my laptops with no problems, so I decided to go ahead and install that rather than the current stable 42.3 release. (Please don't ask me to explain the Leap version numbering system, because it totally escapes me. I think it is pseudo-random)

The Leap installation files are available from the openSUSE download hierarchy; there you will find the stable 42.2 and 42.3 versions, as well as the 15.0 Beta version. I have always installed openSUSE from the full DVD release before, but since I had the wired network cable plugged into this laptop already, I decided to try the NET installation version this time.

Downloading is certainly much quicker - the NET version is only 650MB compared to the DVD version's 3.1GB! The installation image boots to the installer (this is not a Live image, so you can't experiment with it before installing), and the installation process ran through with no problems. Of course the installation took a bit longer, because it was downloading each package individually from the openSUSE server rather than just copying them from the USB stick, but it still wasn't terribly slow - it took something like 20 minutes.


openSUSE Leap 15.0 Beta - KDE Desktop

Image: J.A. Watson

Do I need to say it again? Everything works. There, fine, I said it...

So, there you have it - or at least, the first pass through the distributions which I install and use most frequently. Five different Linux distribution, with very different installers, and not a single problem. Things don't get much easier than that!

I will wrap this up with a few words about the HP UEFI firmware. I mentioned at the beginning that I have been avoiding HP laptops for quite a while, because I had so much trouble with the UEFI firmware configuration before. Well, it looks like they have gotten it pretty well worked out now.

When I installed the first distribution (Tumbleweed), I didn't have to do anything at all to get it to boot properly. The openSUSE installer reboots automatically 10 seconds after the installation is finished, so all I did was sit back and watch. It did exactly what it should, booting the openSUSE Grub, offering me a choice of Tumbleweed (default) and Windows 10 (ugh), and then after the timeout expired, it booted Tumbleweed. Nice.

When I installed the second Linux distribution (Manjaro), I saw the same symptom that had irritated me so badly with HP before - it suddenly decided to reset the default boot target to Windows. Grrrr. However, this time I had no problem finding the BIOS configuration option where I could select the Boot Manager options, and there I could choose which of the registered boot-loaders should be the default. Nice.

The boot configuration stayed this way through the installation of the other three Linux distributions. That means it did not switch to booting the newly installed systems each time, as it normally does on my other laptops... but that doesn't bother me. If I want to boot one of them by default, I will simply go into the BIOS setup and change it, but the fact is I generally don't want it to change anyway, so this way saves me having to go and change it back to booting Tumbleweed each time.

So, there are two or three important things to get out of all this:

First - this new HP 15-bs laptop is really, really nice. If you consider buying one, make sure you check the configuration carefully, because there seems to be a lot of different versions available, with CPUs ranging from Celeron to Core i7, and a variety of different combinations of memory, SSD and HD.

Second - It's wonderful to be able to just go and buy a laptop like this and then install whatever version of Linux I want on it, and have the whole process be absolutely routine. Now, if I could just avoid paying the Windows tax on the laptop purchase...

Third - My days of avoiding HP laptops are apparently over, because the UEFI BIOS configuration is reasonably easy, and it seems to work (and stay configured) nicely.


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