Installing Linux on a Netbook
I have an old netbook, an ACER ASPIRE ONE. Not the most powerful of tools, and it is almost ten years old. It worked at the time for what I wanted it for — a simple laptop to use at a coffee shop, do some basic wordprocessing, maybe some web surfing, a bit of email. No graphics, no games, no media really, mostly just a portable wordprocessor.
Back in the late 90s, I was convinced there was a market for this type of product. So I went looking for it. Including a trip to Toronto to see if I could find a stripped-down laptop, not too large, preferably without a giant CD-ROM adding bulk and heft to something that didn’t need it. I tried a bunch, but all were either too big or WAY too expensive (I’m looking at you Sony!). In the end, I gave up. I tried upgrading my palm pilot to have a keyboard too, but the screen was just too small to be worth it. I ordered a wordprocessor-like device from Toronto to try it out, and for the cost of shipping, they let me try it with an option to fully return it. It was okay, but the screen was only a few lines, and while the weight and size were perfect, the power just wasn’t there.
I even exchanged emails at the time with David Pogue who was the tech writer for the NY Times to see if he knew of any devices out there that fit the bill. Nope, there weren’t any. There just wasn’t enough market to make it worthwhile to a producer — the market was heading towards desktop replacements and anything else was falling by the wayside.
Fast-forward almost ten years, and there were netbooks flooding the market. Small, compact, ran Windows, exactly what I had been looking for previously. More or less. Speed was still an issue, but the chip (the Atom processor) that made netbooks possible by reducing battery drain was also the reason for a limit to the speed and user power. But I wanted one, the price wasn’t bad, and it would finally let me be able to take notes in class (I think I was still doing my MPA at the time), surf at the coffee shop, take it with me on weekends, etc. In the end, it was good, but from time to time, I struggled to be truly “functional” because of the speed. Sometimes even scrolling through large Word docs or a PDF would almost feel like it was grinding to a halt. My needs shifted again, it was okay but not great, and the slow speed was challenging me when I could just do the same task later on the big computer at home, so instead, I would just read when I was in a coffee shop. As I said, the netbook was good, but not great, and I eventually stopped using it.
The big change that killed it was my smartphone, and later, my tablet. Suddenly, I could surf easily, quickly, and even if I couldn’t type long docs, email and surfing were WAY better on it than trying to struggle on the netbook. I have a keyboard for the tablet too, although I rarely use it.
Awhile back, I tripped over the netbook when I was doing some clean-up, and although it works, I wondered if perhaps I should add it to the recyclables sometime. Or dump it on ebay and let someone have a toy. Then, not too long ago, I was going through some news items for a tech feed I get, and there was this simple yet glorious heading — “Installing Linux on a Netbook”. I thought at first it was someone doing it as a “toy” project, no real functionality to it, more like doing it just to see if they could do it. Since I have plans to get into Raspberry PI stuff, I thought I’d read and see what it was like as a project. Imagine my surprise to find out people have done lots of this stuff already, and not just as a toy, but to strip away the Microsoft bloat and to have a real, live, functioning Linux machine that boots rapidly and runs quickly because there is no overhead.
Sure, there have been challenges in the past. Missing drivers is the obvious one…if the system isn’t widely used, Linux drivers may not exist for the pieces of hardware you’re working with. And honestly, I’d be dead in the water if that was the case. I know so little about drivers and hardware, but give me the software to configure, and I’ll make a lot of it dance. Even way back in the 90s, I was running a Windows 3.1 machine long past when everyone else had killed theirs, and it was still more than meeting my needs.
But if others had met those challenges, and we’re running Linux on a functioning netbook, and considered it actually “good”, was it worth a try? Apparently it was.
I read a few other articles, and as with all things Linux, realized the first question was going to be the same as with any machine — choose your flavour of Linux. Lubuntu looked like a working model for a number of people, including among people who were writing comparative articles with the pros and cons of each. While many of the subtle differences seemed lost on me, not being an aficionado of desktop clients in Linux, I did notice that the authors themselves had ended up their search with Lubuntu and liked it. A nice combination of power and simplicity. Puppy Linux was my second choice as an “easy for newbies” version, but I thought I would start with Lubuntu.
The steps to install are pretty straightforward in general:
- Install Linux ISO on a flash drive using your main computer;
- Boot your netbook from the flash drive;
- Choose install;
- Follow the prompts and menus.
It seemed simple enough, so I started working on Step 1.
INSTALL LINUX ISO ON A FLASH DRIVE
Kind of like the old floppy disk days of Windows or booting from a CD now, you put a bootable operating system on the drive, tell your netbook to boot from the drive instead of the hard disk, and Bob’s your uncle. Sort of.
First, you need to get it on the flash drive. You can do a lot of it manually, but a bunch of articles mentioned “Universal USB Installer” as their tool of choice, and since it seemed to automate Linux installs, I thought it sounded good to me. Free download, started the app, got it going, and it gives four questions to start:
- Which distro you want…I’d already chosen Lubuntu, so easy enough;
- Where the ISO file is…wait a minute, I thought it automated things? Yes, but you have to download the ISO file separately. Not what I had read, but whatever, easy enough to download myself. Grabbed the torrent version, just over 5 minutes of transfer time, no biggie, clicked back to tell the installer where the file was, and continued;
- Which drive your flash drive is…lots of warnings about getting it right, but well, you are FORMATTING A DRIVE, so you always want to get that right anyway; and,
- Set a persistent file size…umm, WTF does that mean? No clue. Well, I mean I do, I just don’t know if the considerations mean anything significant with Linux/Lubuntu. It says it’s optional, so I went with the default setting.
Didn’t take too long to install, just over a minute I think, with another 30 seconds in there to format the flash drive, a 4GB version I was using. I kind of expected that there would be some sort of “congrats, now test this or do that” message when it was over, but there wasn’t. Just “Done”, and when you click it, it closes. Umm, okay.
BOOT YOUR NETBOOK FROM THE FLASH DRIVE
This step seems to freak some people out for some reason, but I have no idea why. Have they never seen a bios message on their main PC before? Never had to tweak a hardware setting? Anyways, I had no concerns about this step. Which is why I went “Huh?” when it didn’t work. I went into the bios, it told me to reorder the boot priorities to change it from IDE first to Flash drive first, I did that (even though my screen says press F5 to go up and F6 to go down, and it’s actually the reverse, but I moved USB FDD to the top) and booted it up. Nope, ran Windows again. Hmm. Double-checked the priorities, nope, it accepted the changes, hmm. Looked online, found a reference that said to put USB HDD first. Except my flash drive isn’t a hard drive, it’s a flash drive. Wouldn’t FDD go first? That’s what the other articles said. Nope, it was right, it should be HDD first. Changed it to try it and everything booted fine.
This part was a bit of a surprise. There were six or seven options, including testing various hardware pieces, trying out Lubuntu without installing, etc. Nice choices. But I was already reasonably committed, others had tested things before me, so I went for the full install.
That’s where things started getting weird. I chose to try to connect to the internet to download some stuff as it went. Except I had two problems. First, it didn’t want to connect to my router for some reason. The router was there, it asked for the password, tried to connect, and nada. I’m not entirely sure of the backward compatibility of the new router but would have thought it should handle this okay. Second, I started having power problems. It was clear what was happening — after about 60 seconds of not pressing the keys, the system would go into sleep mode. I don’t remember having such draconian defaults for my power management, but it was possible near the end. Really annoying. I tried skipping it, and Lubuntu booted, but I wasn’t sure I had everything.
I played with the Lubuntu install just enough to find power management, reset everything to what I thought was more reasonable, and restarted the install, but I connected to my phone this time as a mobile hotspot — hoping that it would all work since most of the installs are small. Either that or I’m going to get warnings this month about being over my data limit. 🙂
I told it to install, pull updates as it went, and install third party software so that I would have all the basics to start with when it was done installing. And I got another surprise. It asked me if I wanted to dual-boot the machine and keep Windows as an option. At first blush, I was about to say no, and then thought, “Well, why not?”. I lose disk drive space, but I’m not talking huge media needs anyway, and if I need it, I have portable USB drives I can use not to mention lots of flash drives. And, most of the time, I just store to the cloud or email files to myself. I reset partitions, told it to proceed, and it gave me 105GB for Windows and 55GB for Lubuntu. I’m sure that’s more than enough for a small linux install, and I get to keep my Windows option in case I ever need it for something else, or someone else wants to use it without trying Lubuntu.
It took a while, completed all the install and the post-install cleanup, and other than entering language choices, keyboard layouts, local time and my name/password, it just bopped along until it finished. I rebooted, and this time I had 4-5 options, the first being Lubuntu and the last being to boot in Windows. It waited for my choice for a few seconds and when I didn’t do anything, it went to Linux by default (kind of like what happens on a SAFE reboot of Windows). The other three choices are one for advanced options for Ubuntu and two for different memory tests.
But midway through the boot, it died on me. Not crashed, I mean the power manager kicked in again and shut down. I thought it would be something in the bios settings, as it looks like it is over-riding the Operating System settings somehow. But I checked the bios and there are no settings to help. The desktop settings work exactly right. And if I press the power button, it resumes just fine. But it’s annoying and I’ll have to do some searching to get that figured out.
But other than that? It’s fully installed. It took me a little over an hour, and that included a full download of the various files so I could run the installer to create the Flash drive. Not a bad hour’s worth. Now I have a netbook that is charging, and tomorrow I’ll play with it.
I have five things on my to-do list:
- Fix the power management time-out during boot;
- Test the Windows boot;
- Get it to connect to my network;
- Install any additional software I need; and,
- Browse in Firefox to see if I can get it accessing Gmail, etc.
I have to say, that was way easier than I expected.