How my new laptop illustrates one of the best things about Linux

Follow-up: I've been using this low-priced, ASUS X540S laptop for over a month now. Here's what I've found.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

In January I wrote several times about my new low-priced ASUS X540S laptop, and how I loaded a variety of Linux distributions on it. I've been using the system for over a month now, and during that time I have come to like it even more than I did initially.

The Linux distributions that I currently have installed on it are:

What I don't have installed anymore is Windows 10, and that has been a big improvement. I originally removed it because of problems while installing Windows Updates. After the update installation, it refused to boot, and kept asking for the Windows Recovery Media or Installation Media or some such.

Rather than fight with that for a few days, I just wiped the disk, reinstalled the Linux distributions from scratch, and the laptop has worked better and booted more reliably since then.

It is still not a particularly fast laptop, but considering the very low price that I paid for it (CHF 299), I still consider it to be great value for the money. Boot time in particular is noticeably longer than just about anything else I own. But once it is up and running the speed is perfectly acceptable, and since Suspend/Resume work without problem, it really isn't necessary to boot it very often.

Also: The best laptops: Does Apple take the crown? 

Image: ASUS

The display has been one of the best things about it so far. I'm not used to 15-inch screens, most of my other laptops and netbooks have 10-inch to 13-inch screens. The image quality is quite good, especially considering that it only has 1368x766 resolution on a relatively large screen. Most surprising of all to me, though, is that the large display doesn't seem to be nearly as much of a battery drain as I expected it to be. I can still get 3 to 4 hours of continuous use when running on batteries, which I think is pretty respectable.

I also haven't had any problems or struggles with the display controller. The X540S uses an integrated Intel Graphic Controller, which is well supported by Linux. The X11 drivers for it are very good. I have had Fedora 25 installed and running using Wayland, and I have had no problems at all with that either.

Networking has been good, I have used both wired and wireless network connections with no problems. Bluetooth also works just fine. I have connected several different Bluetooth mice on each of the distributions listed above, all with no problem.

The keyboard has turned out to be better than I expected. I initially though that it felt a bit flimsy, and I was afraid that it might be error-prone when typing rapidly, but that has not turned out to be the case.

The biggest problem when I did the installations in January was with the touchpad, which was not being recognized properly by Linux. As can be seen in this picture, it is actually a Clickpad-style device, meaning that the buttons are integrated in the touch surface.

I appreciate all the people who have posted comments or written to me directly to say that 'it should just work', but I can assure you that 'it just didn't'.

Image: J.A. Watson

First, how do you know that it isn't being recognized? When I was doing the previous installations, one obvious symptom was that touchpad configuration utilities didn't work. The KDE Touchpad Settings utility actually put a large red bar across the top of the window that said 'No Touchpad Detected', so that was pretty clear.

Also, the touchpad-specific functions like two-finger scrolling or edge-scrolling didn't work. Oh, and if you use the xinput CLI command to list input devices, when it is not recognized, it is listed with just the device ID numbers for the name.

Oh, and one other symptom... on laptops which have an Fn-key combination to disable/endable the touchpad, on this laptop that key sequence just showed an inactive window which always said 'Touchpad Disabled', and the basic touchpad functions (mouse movement and clicks) were never affected.

During the four or five weeks that I have been using this laptop, openSUSE has upgraded the Linux kernel a number of times. The most recent update was to kernel 4.10.0, which just came along last weekend. While I was working with it today, I absent-mindedly tried two-finger scrolling... and it worked! That surprised me so much that I jumped out of my chair.

Image: J.A. Watson

I sat back down and started checking to see what had changed that would explain this, and it didn't take long to see that it was the kernel update. I checked some of the other touchpad functions (two-finger tap, for example), and they were working too. Then I started the KDE5 Touchpad Settings utility again. The nasty red bar was gone, and all the controls worked. Hooray!

I went back to the command line and checked xinput again, and this time it said 'Asus TouchPad' for the pointing device, also indicating that it now recognized the device. Good stuff. I also found that the Fn-key touchpad enable/disable command now worked, showing different windows for enabled and disabled states, and when it said disabled the touchpad was in fact completely inactive.

To confirm that it was really the kernel upgrade which solved this problem, I rebooted to the Manjaro Linux installation. Manjaro is still running kernel 4.4 by default. But one of the nicest features about it is that it has a long list of other kernels available through the Manjaro Settings Manager utility. So that made it pretty easy to isolate this change.

I first confirmed that the touchpad was not recognized, as described above. That was still true, two-fingered scroll and tap didn't work, and the KDE Touchpad Settings control said that there was no touchpad detected.

Then I installed the 4.10 kernel and rebooted, and the touchpad was working normally. Nice. Just as with Tumbleweed, two-finger commands work, and the Touchpad Control is happy.

I went through all of the other distributions, and made sure all the latest updates were installed. None of them are up to kernel 4.10 yet. I expected to find that the touchpad didn't work on any of them either, but I got a surprise when I found that it worked on Ubuntu. So obviously someone there has added the necessary support for this touchpad to the 4.8 kernel that is still being used in Ubuntu 16.10. That's pretty good.

In summary I would say that this laptop has proven to be even better than I expected, and better then the first impression that I got of it when I initially loaded Linux on it. I have been using it quite a bit more than I originally expected to. It has also been a good illustration of one of the best things about Linux -- even if you happen to come across some kind of a new device which is not yet supported by Linux, it generally doesn't take long to catch up.

Read more about Linux by J.A. Watson

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