Regular readers know me by now. I always have my eye out for a low-priced netbook or sub-notebook. When I saw this Acer Aspire E11 advertised for less than CHF 300.- (£200, €250), I took a closer look.
There are a couple of things in this list which caught my attention. First, no cooling fan so it is going to run very quietly - but I wonder if it will really stay cool enough? Second, it has at least one USB 3.0 port, which is still not all that common on notebooks in this size and price range. Third, it has Bluetooth, which is also not always included in this price range.
The construction and packaging of this unit is significantly different from the previous Acer Aspire / Aspire One models I have owned. For one thing, it has most of the external connection ports on the back (power, RJ-45 wired network, two USB, HDMI), while the trend for the past few years has been to put all the ports on the sides. On the sides there is only one USB port, the SD memory card slot and the Kensington Lock slot.
Also, there is no external access/removal for the battery, it is closed up somewhere inside the unit.
There is also some bad news about the hardware. First, and by far the worst news, is the dreaded "clickpad"-style touchpad. Just to be clear about what this is, it is not just an ordinary "touchpad" as is used on most laptops today, this is a different beast. It has no separate buttons, you are supposed to be able to click by pressing anywhere on its surface - I don't mean "tap" here, I really mean "click", you can feel the mechanical snap under your finger. It is then left up to the driver to determine what kind of click it was (left or right) based on where on the surface of the touchpad you clicked. I've seen some diagrams of this, and in principle if you click somewhere in the lower right corner, approximately where the button "should be", it should be interpreted as a right-click. Should be. Yeah, right.
I really don't like those things... and if anything, this one is worse than any I have tried to use in a long time. I can't get a normal right-click, no matter where I try clicking on it, and I can't get click-and-drag to work, no matter how I try. I can get right-click by two-finger-tapping, and I can get click-and-drag with one-finger tap-and-drag, but... ugh.
The other potential hardware problem is the wi-fi adapter. Broadcom adapters are very frequently a pain, and I don't even recognize the specific number in this one, so I assume it is some kind of new or updated chip. I have struggled with Broadcom wi-fi adapters going all the way back to my fist HP 2133 MiniNote. Sometimes they work ok, sometimes they are a bit flaky, and sometimes they are difficult or even initially impossible to get working with Linux. I hope that this one will be one of the "easy" kind.
The Pre-Installed Software
This system comes preloaded with "Windows 8.1 with Bing", 64-bit. I slogged through the Windows 8.1 setup and configuration. Nothing to say here, if you want to keep windows on this system, it has to be done so I just shut up and do it. It seems to have gotten its knickers in a twist somehow, and it always tells me that there are "61 Important Updates" to be installed, but it never actually installs them. I have long since given up trying to understand Windows Update, or even expecting it to be rational, so I will just ignore that, because it is unlikely that I will ever boot Windows on it again.
Because this is a UEFI Firmware system, the first step is to wrestle with with BIOS and UEFI configuration. Every OEM is different in this area, and sometimes even different models from the same OEM are different. The critical questions are:
I know from experience with previous Acer systems that there are two things you have to do in the BIOS to prepare for Linux installation. FIrst, you have to change the "F12 Boot Menu" option to 'Enable', so that that you can press F12 during startup and get to the Boot Select menu.
Second, if you want/need to change the UEFI boot settings, you will first have to set a "Supervisor Password" in the BIOS configuration. Once the password is set, you can disable Secure Boot and/or enable Legacy Boot as necessary.
openSuSE 13.2 was released last week, and I have been installing in on all of the computers around here, so that was a logical place to start. The Live KDE USB stick booted with no problem, and installation was absolutely routine - except for the blasted "clickpad", which was being its usual awful self (as described above). I finally gave up on that and plugged in a USB mouse.
After the installation process completed, and before I rebooted, I checked the UEFI boot configuration (efibootmgr -v). It was correct, with "opensuse-secureboot" defined and first in the boot sequence list. But then I rebooted and... it booted Windows. ARRRRGGGHHHH! NO! Acer doesn't do this kind of garbage, HP/Compaq does! I have two or three other Acer laptops around here, and the boot configuration is perfectly stable on them!
I rebooted and used F12 to get Boot Select, then selected openSuSE from there, and it came up ok. Then I checked the boot configuration again. Sure enough, the boot order had been changed back to have Windows Boot Manager first. Swine...
I rebooted again, and this time went into BIOS setup (F2). On the 'Boot' page, there is a 'Boot priority order' list, and "Windows Boot Manager" was right at the top of that list. There was nothing about "openSuSE" in the list, but there was a strange new entry for "HDD: WDE WD5000LPVX-22VOTTO", which is absolutely as clear as mud... I didn't recall seeing that entry when I was in the Boot menu the first time. I moved that item to the top of the priority list, crossed my fingers and rebooted.
Hooray! It booted openSuSE, and came up just fine. Now just pray that it stays this way for subsequent boots, and doesn't turn into a running battle.
I noticed one more problem at this point. As I had feared, the Broadcom wi-fi adapter was not recognized, so wireless networking was not available. I decided to postpone looking into this one until I had some other Linux distributions installed, so that I could get a feel for whether this is a general problem (as I suspect) or openSuSE-specific.
Fedora 21 (Beta) was next up. So, back to the normal installation process, boot the Fedora 21 Workstation Live USB stick, and run through the installation. I cruised through Anaconda (the Fedora installer) with only one problem (replay previous rant about the "clickpad"), and in about 15 minutes I was ready to boot the installed Fedora.
This time, I got some good news. The boot configuration survived the inital reboot, and it came up to the installed Fedora image. I went back and checked the BIOS setup, and it still only shows "Windows" and "HDD: WDE...", as it did after I finished installing openSuSE. So there are not separate entries there for each bootable partition, but I guess this means that as long as Windows is not first in the boot list, at least it won't overwrite any changes made to the boot order.
Once again wireless networking was not working, so that looks like it is probably a general problem.
I figured my last chance to get the WiFi working was Ubuntu. I booted the brand-spanking-new Ubuntu 14.10 (Utopic Unicorn) Live USB stick, and ran through the installation. Reboot after installation completed brought up Ubuntu, so the BIOS configuration really does seem to be stable with the "HDD:" option at the top of the list. I'll take whatever good news I can get at this point...
The wireless networking was still not active. Rats. But Ubuntu has a utility to find alternate drivers... ah, there it is, "Additional Drivers". Maybe that will help.
Sure enough, I ran that utility and after searching a bit it listed the BCM43142 adapter, and said: "This device is not working". Duh, I knew that much already.
It also had radio buttons to choose between "Do not use the device" and "Broadcom Linux STA driver". Of course, to install an alternate drive you have to have a network connection. The obvious way is to plug in a wired connection, but I still keep an old USB-wi-fi dongle for this kind of emergency, so I plugged that in and it came right up.
Then I connected to my home wi-fi network, selected the Broadcom driver in the utility, and clicked Apply Changes.
It took a couple of minutes for it to download, install and configure the driver, but when it was finished I checked the Network Manager list and... Hooray! Both wi-fi adapters were listed (Broadcom and ASUS), with all of the available networks shown under each of them. It didn't even require a reboot, that's nice.
I removed the ASUS USB adapter, connected to my wi-fi network via the Broadcom adapter, and everything was working just fine. Whew. Now, if I recall correctly from my previous systems with Broadcom adapters, this driver that Ubuntu calls "STA" is known on other distribusions as the "Broadcom WL" driver. So it's time to go back and look at them to see if I can get wireless going.
The place to get commonly used "extras" for openSuSE is the packman repository, which can easily be added to the active repository list by going to YaST/Software Repositories/Add, selecting Community Repositories, and then choosing the Packman Repository.
Once that is done, go to YaST/Software Management, search for 'broadcom-wl' and select that for installation. When you install that it will also select and install the necessary dependencies, and when that finished the WiFi adapter was working.
Whew. That's more bother than I would like, but at least it is working now. I repeated essentially the same procedure for Fedora 21, this time adding the RPMFusion repository and then adding the 'broadcom-wl' driver. Again, wi-fi then came right up.
Hooray! So now everything is working on this nice new notebook, with all three of the Linux distributions that I have loaded. Time to summarize.
I actually like this sub-notebook quite a bit, despite it's several significant flaws and drawbacks. The clickpad is nearly enough by itself to rule it out for me, but not quite, thankfully. Having most of the ports and connections on the back is actually nice, it keeps the power cord and wired network cable out of the way, while still having one USB port and the SD card slot on the side for easy access.
Based on my work with it for about a week now, I would guess that battery life will be a bit more than four hours of my "normal use". That's not bad. Because it has no cooling fan, it really is amazingly quiet - just about the only noise is the disk access. The temperature seems fine, I never noticed it getting significantly warm at all.
Installing Linux on this system was dead easy for the three distributions I have tried so far - openSuSE 13.2, Fedora 21 Beta and Ubuntu 14.10. UEFI boot was no problem, even with Secure Boot enabled.
The clickpad works ok as long as you are willing to two-finger tap to get a right-click, and tap-and-drag rather than click-and-drag.
The Broadcom WiFi adapter is a minor pain, but all you have to do is load the 'broadcom-wl' driver and it then comes up and works ok.
The Fn-keys for audio up/down/mute, brightness up/down/off, Sleep and clickpad off all work. Suspend/Resume works (obviously, since the Fn-Sleep key works).
I am going to continue using this notebook for a while, and if things go well I will most likely replace my existing Aspire V5 with it.