Swapping Windows 8 for Linux Mint, openSuSE, and Fedora on my new netbook

I've just bought a new Aspire One 725 Acer sub-notebook/netbook - here's my take and my adventures loading it with three different flavours of Linux.
Written by J.A. Watson, Contributor

I picked up a wonderful new sub-notebook over the weekend, but this one has some history behind it that is worth explaining first.

When I bought my Acer Aspire One 522 a little over a year ago (November 2011, see original blog post here) I came very close to returning it because the screen resolution was only 1,024x600. But even in the first few hours of using and loading Linux on it, I was so impressed with it that I decided to keep it, and I've been pleased with it ever since.

Last week I saw an Aspire One 725 on sale here, for 399 Swiss francs (about £280), and the specifications said that it had the new AMD C-70 CPU (my AO522 has a C-60), more memory, and a larger disk. Now, these are some good reasons to get a new system!

I went to look at it and found that one of the major electronic shops here also happens to be offering a discount on all Acer laptops, so I ended up buying one for about 325 francs (just under £230). That's a heck of a good deal for what has turned out to be a heck of a good sub-notebook. (Note to Swiss readers: Tthe Acer discount is on offer until Sunday, 24 March) The specifications of the unit I bought are:

  • AMD C-70 1GHz dual-core CPU

  • 4GB DDR3 memory

  • 500GB SATA disk

  • Radeon HD 7290 graphic controller

  • 11.6-inch 1,366x768 display

  • Realtek 10/100 wired network adapter

  • Broadcom 4313 wi-fi b/g/n adapter

  • HDMI and VGA ports

  • 1x USB 3.0, 2x USB 2.0 ports

  • SD/MMC/xD/MemoryStick slot

Wow, that is very impressive, especially at that price. I can only see a few negatives:

  1. No Bluetooth (I can live without it)

  2. No gigabit wired network, only 10/100 (I seldom use wired anyway)

  3. Preloaded with Windows 8 (sigh).

Be careful about these specifications and the price: There is another model of the Aspire One 725 also on sale here at a slightly lower price, with only 2GB of memory and a 320GB disk.

That might be sufficient for those who don't need quite so much memory and disk space, and with the 15 percent discount, that model is going to be under 300 francs. The different models are probably identified by the alphabet soup that follows the 725 model number, but deciphering that is beyond me; check the specs on the box carefully to be sure which you are getting.

When I unpacked it, I was immediately struck by the size and weight (small and light). I consider this to be in the same category as the HP Pavilion dm1-4310 (see my blog post about that model), and the difference is clear:

  • Aspire One 725: 28.5x20.2x2.3cm, 1.2kg

  • HP dm1-4310: 29.2x21.5x3.2cm, 1.6kg

That's a big difference, and when you are holding them both in your hands, you can really see it and feel it. Don't get me wrong, I still like the HP dm1 a lot, and it has a lot going for it. But if your criteria is size and weight, the AO725 is the clear winner. Oh, the AO725 also seems to run much cooler, as the cooling fan is on much less often than the HP dm1. Now obviously, the C70 CPU is much less powerful than the E2-1800 and thus produces less heat, so this isn't a surprise, but it is worth mentioning.

Acer Aspire One 725
Lid closed, the Acer Aspire One 725 is less than an inch thick. (Image: Acer)

More pros and cons on the physical design and appearance: It is actually a bit nicer than the Aspire One 522. They have put a bit more effort into adding some shaping and curves around the edges and around the keyboard. It has a real touchpad with real buttons, not the dreaded "ClickPad" (which would have ruled it out for me anyway). The keyboard is probably the only thing I would complain about, the keys are absolutely flat and the feel is a bit mushy. The touchpad "buttons" are a single bar positioned on the front edge of the palm rest, which I don't much care for, but they seem to work reliably.

The variety of ports and interfaces on this unit is pretty impressive as well. First, it has an HDMI port, which I use when connecting to a television to show pictures, and a VGA plug. It has one USB 3.0 port and two USB 2.0 ports, which is becoming more important as more 3.0 devices are becoming available. It has a memory card slot which will take not only SD/xD/MMC cards, but also MemoryStick and MemoryStick Pro; this is a nice touch and still not all so common for notebooks in this class.

Acer Aspire One 725
Back view; the right side ports are audio in/out, USB, and power. (Image: Acer)

That's enough about the hardware, let's move on to the operating system. It came preloaded with Windows 8, which needed to be booted and configured — that took quite a long time slogging around, but eventually it finished.

Then I needed to make a rescue copy, because I am pretty likely to wipe Windows off this machine either intentionally, accidentally, or out of disgust.

The Acer Rescue Manager will make this backup to a USB stick, rather than DVD disks, which is nice. The sales clerk in the shop said that I needed at least a 16GB stick for this, and the Rescue Manager program said the same. Unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be large enough, because when I tried it with a 16GB stick, it ran until the progress bar got a fraction from the end &mash; and then just stopped. No message, no error, no crash, no stop, no nothing.

Then I tried with a 32GB stick, and that worked just fine. Sigh. Once Windows was loaded and configured, I went in to the disk/partition management program and told it to shrink its partition as much as possible. That gave me back about 230GB of the disk, which is more than enough for the moment. The disk has a GPT partition table, so it is not necessary to fiddle with "Extended Partitions" and "Logical Paritions", and I didn't have to worry that Windows and Acer had already "used up" the only four available "Primary" partitions. Nice.

Acer Aspire One 725
Front view; left side ports are USB, HDMI, RJ45, and VGA. (Image: Acer)

The Aspire One 725 has a UEFI BIOS with Secure Boot enabled by default. There are a couple of Acer-specific things that are important to know here. First, the boot-select option is disabled by default, you have to go into the BIOS setup (press F2 during boot) and then change that to enabled before you can boot a Live USB stick.

Second, you can only disable Secure Boot if you have set a BIOS password. Yes, I really meant that — go back and read it again if you want, I'll wait. Grrr. Who does that make sense to? What is the logic there?

There is certainly nothing else in the BIOS, the BIOS help screens, or the documentation that came with it which says that this is the case. I was only lucky enough to know it because someone mentioned it in the comments in one of my previous posts about UEFI booting. So if you want to disable Secure Boot, you first have to define a BIOS password. Sigh.

Well, this might not be all that critical anyway because both openSuSE 12.3 and Fedora 18 have UEFI Secure Boot compatible Live images, so you can boot them without having to disable it.

That was what I did, booting and installing both of those, and it all worked without a hitch.

This was where things got really fun and interesting, both openSuSE and Fedora installed perfectly, including setting up UEFI Secure Boot on the new installations, and they both recognized, configured, and supported everything right out of the box.

Starting at the top with CPU frequency stepping, shown to be working with the lscpu command. I am happy with the FOSS Radeon drivers, so I didn't bother trying to load the proprietary AMD (fglrx) drivers. The wired and wireless network adapters work just fine, and it connected to my home wi-fi with no trouble. The Fn-keys for volume up/down/mute, brightness up/down/off, touchpad disable/enable, and even Sleep/Resume all work! Oh, and speaking of the touchpad, two-finger scrolling works.

Acer Aspire One 725
Lid open; the Acer Aspire One 725 is amazingly thin. (Image: Acer)

Of course, it is also possible to install Linux distributions that do not yet have Secure Boot support, or even do not have EFI boot support.

One of the more popular in this category is Linux Mint 14, which I have also already installed. To do this, you have to change the BIOS from UEFI boot to Legacy boot, and then boot the Mint Live image. From that point on, installation is routine, and once again, everything works.

I did learn one other useful trick while installing and testing these three distributions.

The openSuSE Grub2-efi installation is actually able to boot not only openSuSE itself, but any other Linux installed, both EFI and legacy boot, and even Windows as well.

In my previous experimentation with UEFI and Secure Boot, I found that Fedora can't do that, so I had installed rEFInd to manage the boot selection. Now, though, I can configure the openSuSE grub.cfg to boot EFI images and "normal" linux kernel and initrd images, so it is possible to use it to manage the boot selection, and not have to bother installing rEFInd.

On top of that, rEFInd doesn't work with Secure Boot (well, it should according to the notes and description, but I haven't been able to figure it out), so by using grub2-efi this way, I can leave UEFI and Secure Boot enabled.

What else is there to say about the Aspire One 725? I think it is obvious how pleased I am with it. Compared to my netbook systems, the difference between a 10-inch display with 1,024x600 resolution and an 11.6-inch display with 1,366x768 resolution is huge.

Compared to my other sub-notebook, the difference in size and weight are also very significant.

The AO725 really seems to have hit the "sweet spot", and best of all, it is running every version of Linux that I load on it flawlessly. If it just had a keyboard with a bit of contour to the keys and better tactile feedback, it would be perfect.

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