Hands-On: Installing openSUSE Tumbleweed, Manjaro, and Debian GNU/Linux on my new notebook

I have installed three more Linux distributions on my Asus X540S. The results have surprised me!

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The Asus X540SA - the laptop I'm testing with.

Image: Asus

In my previous post about installing Linux on my new, very low-priced laptop (the Asus X540S), I went through the initial setup of Windows 10 Home.

My first impressions of the laptop were very mixed. The size and weight are nice, but the overall construction doesn't feel very good. The case feels like very thin plastic, the keyboard doesn't feel good at all, it has a particularly cheesy version of the dreaded "clickpad" (a touchpad with integrated buttons), and the power connection didn't feel very stable.

But now, after spending more time with the machine, I have a correction to one point in that initial evaluation. I thought that the power plug was ill-fitted, and didn't make very good or very consistent contact. I asked my partner to take a look at it, because I was actually going to return the laptop because of that -- and she proceeded to push it in much harder than I had. It then clicked solidly into place! What the heck?

Yes, sure enough, I had been too timid about pushing on the connector (perhaps influenced by the overall light-plastic feeling of the laptop), so it was in fact not all the way in, and thus not making solid contact. When it is pushed in so that it is seated properly, it is just the opposite of what I wrote previously -- the connection is good and it is very stable. So score one more plus-point for the laptop, and one minus-point for me, and many thanks to my partner for saving me from taking it back to the store and looking like a fool.

Windows 10 Home

My initial impressions of using the Asus X540S with Windows 10 Home have not been at all positive. It really seems to struggle continuously, like it just can't quite keep up with everything it is trying to do. It intermittently misses taps and clicks on the touchpad, sort of giving the impression of "I'm too busy to listen to you right now". The touchpad seems to be over-sensitive, too, so that the cursor constantly jiggles very slightly when I touch it, which makes accurate placement with taps difficult, and double-tap is inconsistent because it keeps thinking the cursor moved between the two taps.

Trying to get Windows 10 updates installed was quite an ordeal, as well. Sometimes it would say there were none available, then shortly after that it would go into a download and install updates cycle that literally took hours and hours to finish. One such cycle took no less than four hours and four reboots, and this was on a brand new computer fresh out of the box?

Even after the update installation has finally (apparently) finished, every time I boot Windows on this laptop, it seems to thrash around with a very high CPU load and a very high disk I/O load for the first 5-10 minutes. Every time. Not nice.

But now at least it is time to forget about Windows and get serious about installing a few Linux distributions. Hooray!

openSUSE

The first one up is openSUSE Tumbleweed. I grabbed the latest installation ISO from their downloads, copied it to a USB stick, plugged that into the ASUS and powered up. The "magic key" to get boot selection mode on most ASUS systems is Esc, and thankfully that worked here. The USB stick was listed in the boot list -- that's already good news, because on some systems I have had to change the BIOS configuration just to get them to boot from USB.

The USB stick booted, and the openSUSE installer came right up. Whew. More good news, I didn't have to disable Secure Boot in the UEFI firmware configuration. This is looking like it might be one of the easiest UEFI firmware systems I've tried so far.

The first thing I noticed in the installer was that the touchpad still wasn't good Neither two-finger scrolling nor edge-scrolling worked, and taps were once again erratic. I hate the "clickpad" variety of touchpad with a passion, but this one seems to set new standards of awfulness.

On the positive side, the installer listed both the wired and wireless network interfaces, and the whole process seemed to run pretty quickly. I let it install the default KDE Plasma desktop, and the entire installation process took about 15-20 minutes. When it was time to reboot to the installed system I held my breath and crossed my fingers, because that is another place things can get a bit exciting on UEFI systems.

Much to my surprise (and pleasure), there was no excitement at all! GRUB came up with openSUSE as the default and Windows 10 Home listed below that, and it then booted right up to the openSUSE desktop. Isn't it nice when things work the way you expect them to?

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ASUS X540S running openSUSE Tumbleweed KDE

Image: J.A. Watson

That looks really good! All of the hardware seems to be recognized, configured and working correctly as well. The display resolution is correct, both wired and wireless networking work and connection to wireless is routine. The USB 2.0/3.0 ports work, and the HDMI and VGA video connections work. Suspend/Resume works, including simply closing the laptop lid to suspend and opening it again to resume.

Even the accursed touchpad works, mostly. Moving the cursor, generating left and right clicks by pressing the left and right sides at the bottom of the touchpad, and tapping to produce single and double clicks are all ok. But no multi-finger taps or gestures work, so two-fingered right-click doesn't work, and two-fingered scrolling (and edge scrolling) still don't work.

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Fn-Key Icons

Image: J.A. Watson

Here is another very pleasant surprise - all of the Fn-key functions work! Volume up/down/mute, screen brightness up/down/off, internal/external display switch, Airplane mode on/off, and even Suspend (Zzzz) works. Resume after Suspending this way works (if it didn't we could call this (the Fn-key of death...). In fact, the only Fn-key that doesn't work is Touchpad on/off... wouldn't you know it, once again that blasted touchpad...

Hmmm. Maybe there is a pattern here. Multi-finger gestures and edge scrolling don't work, and touchpad on/off doesn't work... maybe it's just not recognizing the Clickpad as a touchpad device.

Anyway, not only do all the Fn-key functions work, they all have very cute little icons which appear on the screen to show what they are doing. Nice touch.

As I said in the previous post, 1366x768 is not great resolution for a 15.6" display, but that is one place where you really do get what you pay for. There are other models of this series which have a "FullHD" 1920x1080 display, but they cost a lot more than 299 francs.

If you just can't live with 1366x768, you at least have the option of connecting an external display, either by HDMI or VGA. The external display can then be configured as an extended desktop, as a copy of the laptop display, or you can simply close the laptop lid and use the external as the only display. (Interesting note: the laptop did not automatically suspend when I closed the lid with an external display connected. Very clever.)

Here is an HDMI monitor, 1920x1080, configured as an extended desktop with the built-in laptop display:

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ASUS X540S - Laptop and HDMI Displays

Image: J.A. Watson

Overall I would give openSUSE on the ASUS X540S very good marks. It installs easily, works well, and it is much more pleasant to use than Windows 10 Home on this notebook It doesn't give the impression that it is constantly being overworked.

Manjaro

The next Linux distribution that I installed was Manjaro. Their download page has Xfce and KDE versions, so I chose Xfce this time. The familiar sequence of download, copy to USB stick, boot the USB stick... but this time it wouldn't boot because Manjaro Linux is not UEFI Secure Boot compatible. So I had to go into the BIOS setup (press F2), and then to Security / Secure Boot Menu / Secure Boot Control and change that to Disabled. Save and Exit, return to the boot selection menu, and then the Manjaro LiveUSB stick booted without problem.

With the Manjaro Live system running I could see that all the hardware was detected and working again. Good. The installer (Calamares) worked with no problems, and in less than 15 minutes it was done. More good news on the UEFI boot controls, it again worked as expected - Manjaro was now the default boot target, with openSUSE and Windows listed below it. Nice.

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ASUS X540S - Manjaro Xfce

Image: J.A. Watson

As with openSUSE, everything was working just fine. I checked the system performance - CPU load, memory use and disk activity were all very low.

After poking around a bit, I found that the Fn-keys weren't working. Well, most of them weren't - the volume controls (up/down/mute) worked, but none of the others. Hmm. That's kind of strange, and irritating in the case of the brightness controls.

As I continued working and testing, it occurred to me that one of the major differences between Tumbleweed and Manjaro is that Tumbleweed is running Linux kernel 4.9 already, while Manjaro is staying with the more stable 4.4 LTS kernel by default. Aha, but one of the very nice features of Manjaro is that you can easily select other kernel versions using the Manjaro Settings Manager utility!

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Manjaro Settings Manager

Image: J.A. Watson

So I started up the settings manager, and installed kernel version 4.9.2. That only took a minute or two, and a reboot... and the Fn-keys are now working! Hooray! So this notebook provides a very good example of why running the latest kernel, or even better being able to select which kernel version to run, can be very useful.

This is starting to look like a very promising laptop! Even starting some of the heavier programs such as LibreOffice Writer and GIMP doesn't take an unusual amount of time, and the computer doesn't show any signs of being overburdened by them.

Debian GNU/Linux

The last distribution that I want to try for this post is Debian. I have two installers to choose from at the moment; the recently released jessie 8.7, and the alpha test release of what will be the Debian 9 (stretch) installer was also just announced. I decided to play it safe and stay with jessie, I can always upgrade that to stretch, or "testing", after installation.

The link above for jessie is to the network installation image (netinst), so I had connect a wired network in order to run that. As always, download the ISO image (this time it is a svelte 560MB), and copy to a USB stick. That booted with no problem, and I chose the 64-bit installation and the Xfce desktop. The installation process takes quite a bit longer, because it actually downloads most everything as it goes, but it was still finished in 30 minutes or so.

Rebooting did just what it should again, this time bringing up the Debian GRUB menu, and then booting Debian... and then it all went pear-shaped.

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ASUS X540S - Debian 8.7 (jessie)

First, the screen resolution was obviously wrong, much too low, and the aspect ratio was wrong. Second, when I tried to figure out what was going on with that, I discovered that the touchpad wasn't working at all. So I had to plug in a USB mouse - that worked ok - and then I could check the screen. Hmmm. Resolution was 800x600, so obviously the X.org server had not recognized the display controller.

The problem was that Debian jessie is relatively old by now, and so has older versions of the Linux kernel (3.16), X.org (1.16), and pretty much everything else. The kernel obviously didn't have the proper driver for the touchpad (or simply wasn't recognizing it as a touchpad), and the X display server wasn't recognizing the Intel graphic controller.

There was a simple solution - just jump forward to Debian 9 (stretch). I could have downloaded the new installer and run through that, but I decided to take the other route, updated the repositories in /etc/apt/sources.list and then ran apt-get update; apt-get dist-upgrade; apt-get autoremove. Don't forget that last one, because after the upgrade is complete there is a lot of stuff that can be removed.

That took quite a while (the best part of an hour), but when it finished and I rebooted, the result was just what I was hoping for:

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ASUS X540S - Debian 9 (stretch)

Image: J.A. Watson

That solved both problems! The display resolution is correct, and the touchpad is working (well, as much as it can...). It is now running Linux kernel 4.8 and Xorg server 1.19, so my suspicion about the cause of the problems seems to have been correct.

Everything was now working well with Debian. Again, I worked with it for a while, started a variety of utilities and applications (including writing this on it), and I didn't see any other problems.

Summary

I've had a complete change of heart about this ASUS X540S over the weekend. Saturday morning I honestly expected to take it back to the shop for return, and now on Sunday evening I'm very pleased with it.

On the positive side, it is very low priced, especially for a laptop with at 15" display; it is thin and light, it has USB 2.0 and 3.0 and even a USB 3.1 Type C port; the battery life seems very good; and best of all it works extremely well with the three Linux distributions I have loaded on it so far.

On the negative side, the plastic construction doesn't seem very robust; the keyboard feels mushy; it only has one of each kind of USB port, and if you don't have a USB C converter, then you are left with only two ports and that's not much; it is cursed with the absolute worst pointing device in the world (perhaps in the Universe); and the performance is awful with Windows 10 Home.

For my own use, now that I am done with this testing, it is unlikely that it will ever be booted with Windows 10 again, so I don't care how bad that is. It am so pleased with the way it works with Linux that I am willing to say that at the sale price of CHF 299.- this is the best price/performance laptop I have ever tested. I certainly wouldn't say that for the normal price of CHF 599.- but even then it would still not be a bad choice.

I'm not done with testing it yet, though. For the next post I will load at least Fedora, Linux Mint, Ubuntu and KaOS Linux.

Read more about Linux by J.A. Watson