Ubuntu Netbook Remix on the Acer Aspire One

by Doug.Roberts
Yukon, Side of the Road

In preparation for this year's annual motorcycle trip, I purchased an Acer Aspire One Intel Atom N450 netbook. I'd been looking at netbooks for a while, and finally made my choice. I picked the Acer because of its decent price, reasonable battery life, the fact that it was powerful enough to do everything I needed for mobile blogging, and because it will fit nicely in one of the BMW's saddle bags. What follows are a few notes and suggestions for installing Ubuntu Netbook Remix (UNR) 10.04 on this model.

Being the M$ anti-fanboy that I am, I did not even boot the netbook into the Windows 7 Starter's Edition that came pre-installed*. Instead I booted off my USB flash key into UNR 10.04. Why UNR? I tried it on my laptop and decided that it would be a good ergonomic match for the small 10.1" netbook screen. I run Kubuntu on my other desktops and laptops, so I made the UNR boot flash drive using Kubuntu's Startup Disk Creator. Ubuntu has this utility as well -- it's dirt simple to use. Just download the UNR iso image and follow the Startup Disk Creator instructions.

Here's a brief outline of the process:

  • Insert the flash drive, power on the netbook.
  • Be ready to hit the F2 key to enter the BIOS.
  • In the "Boot" section of the BIOS make sure the flash drive is shown before the hard drive on the list of boot devices.
  • F10 to save and exit the BIOS.

UNR will now boot off of the flash drive. Once it has booted you can choose to take it for a test drive, or you can elect to install. If you decide to take it for a spin first, there will be an "Install" icon on the desktop which you can click on after you have finished poking around.

The installation took about 10 - 15 minutes. When I rebooted everything seemed to work, right out of the box. The Network Manager found my wireless network and connected to it without a hitch. After installing the Adobe flashplayer plugin (sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree) I was able to stream Hulu.com full screen with no jitter.

If you want to be able to play other video formats, like mpeg or avi or mkv you will need to install another package: sudo apt-get install ubuntu-restricted-extras.

The next day, however, I noticed that the wireless connection would get dropped maybe once an hour. A bit of research turned up a fix: install the linux-backports-modules-wireless-lucid-generic package. See this useful blog for details.

The day after that I decided to install the 2GB memory DIMM that I had purchased. Not that I needed it, as it turns out, since everything worked well with the 1 GB of memory that came installed. But I'd already bought it. So, I removed the memory cover, unplugged the 1 GB DIMM, plugged in the new 2 GB DIMM, and powered the Acer up. It wouldn't POST. Maybe the new memory was DOA?

A bit more research suggested that the version of the BIOS that came with the Acer was sufficiently outdated that it could not recognize more than a single GB of memory.

Ok.

I went to Acer's support site. I noted that the latest version of the BIOS available for download for my model Aspire One (AO532h) was V1.22; mine was running V1.08. So I downloaded it. Then I read the instructions.

Crap.

The BIOS is only flashable from DOS or Windows. By installing Linux *before* flashing the BIOS, I had created one of your basic Joseph Heller Catch-22 situations.

Don't worry, there is an easy fix, outlined here. In a nutshell, you make another bootable USB flash drive that boots FreeDOS. Once you've done that you copy the BIOS flash files to it, boot into FreeDOS, and flash away. No muss, no fuss. AND, you can reuse that USB drive for any machine whose stupid Windoze-centric BIOS wants you to be running M$ just to flash it.

With the updated BIOS installed the 2 GB DIMM was recognized, and all was well in Linux Geekland.

With all of that all out of the way I am happy to report that the Acer Aspire One is a lively, functional netbook. It boots quickly, and has enough power to run Firefox, the Google Chrome Browser, the F-Spot photo editing application and Google's Picassa -- all I really need for it to do. I get about 5 1/2 - 6 hours actual battery life with fairly heavy usage. I did notice that watching movies on Hulu drops the battery life significantly, however. You can expect maybe 3 1/2 hours of movie watching time. Also, the keyboard has a nice feel -- it's a bit smaller than a standard notebook, but it does not take long to get used to.

But enough Linux'y stuff. On to the motorcycle stuff. Here's the trip blog that I maintained during last year's ride. This year I plan to shift my turn-around point about 650 miles southwest to Campbell River, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. This year's ride should be about 4,000 miles and I'll be keeping the trip blog here, via the Aspire.

Stay tuned.

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* Side note: It is one of my not-so-guilty pleasures that if I have to purchase a laptop with M$ OS installed on it, I feel absolutely no compunction to allow that OS to see the light of day. It gives me great pleasure blow it away with a big, bodacious Linux installation. I sort of view it as a mercy killing...

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