Saturday, May 04, 2013

Running Ubuntu on an Acer Aspire Netbook

The Acer Aspire D255 is a cute little laptop, and pretty functional. Of course, you don't expect top-of-the line in netbooks, and it's not. But it is upper-middle-of-the-road for this class.

I bought this one for my son some time ago, and it's worked pretty well, until it didn't. Windows 7 decided one day that it didn't want to run any more, and followed the Pope into retirement. Every attempt to restore to factory defaults was unsuccessful. This was inexplicable, since my other twin has an identical netbook that was successfully re-set following a Windows 7 mental meltdown.

Rather than go through the trouble of finding a USB optical drive and installing from disk, I decided to simply give Ubuntu Linux a go on this device.  Before I describe that process, let's take a quick look at the device specs:
Model: Acer Aspire ONE D255
  • Intel Atom N450 (1.66GHz, 512KB cache) Processor
  • 1GB RAM
  • 10.1" TFT video display (1024 x 600)
  • Internal microphone
  • Internal Acer Crystal Eye webcam (1280 x 1024)
  • Internal stereo speakers
  • Multi-gesture touchpad
  • 160 GB hard drive
  • Multi-function memory card port (SD/MMC slot)
  • 3 USB Ports
  • Headphone/Speakers/Line out
  • External Microphone
  • 10/100 wired Ethernet
  • 802.11b/g/n wireless LAN

Preparing an install device:

As you may have noticed, there's no removable storage device, as is normal for netbooks, and as I don't have a USB optical drive, I chose to install from a flash drive.

To prepare one using an existing Linux machine is simple using UNETBOOTIN. There are ports for Linux, Windows, and Mac OSX, so whatever you're on, this is the right solution.
You simply select the distribution and release that you want to install, and it will do EVERYTHING ELSE. Note that this allows you to create bootable drives for other tools, such as CloneZilla or the NT Offline Password Reset utility, so GET THIS TOOL.  If you'd rather make an flash installer from an ISO image or CD ROM you've already got, you can do that, instead. It takes a few minutes to create the bootable flash drive, during which you won't get any feedback, so be patient.

Installing Ubuntu

Now what's left is to put the flash drive in one of the netbook's USB ports and turn on the netbook. I had to press F2 during boot to enter the BIOS and set the first boot device to the flash drive. If you're not computer savvy, this is a little easier to do with the flash drive already in the USB port, since the BIOS will identify it by name. Pressing F10 saves the change and re-boots into Ubuntu.
One glitch I found was that the touch pad doesn't work if you're booting directly from the flash drive, so have a mouse handy. You won't need it after you've installed.
Then it's just a matter of running the installer from the desktop and telling Ubuntu where you live so it can pick the right locale settings. Take the defaults for everything else. You can save yourself an update later on if you tell it to download and install updates as it's doing the installation.

Does it work?

Yes. Everything works, including the Fn key shortcuts, camera, network, and SDRam slot, though I had to tweak the microphone (more about that below). I've found nothing on this box that doesn't function in Ubuntu 12.04.  That said, there are a few things little annoyances.

With only 600 vertical pixels, some programs display dialog boxes that are too large. This isn't a problem with the machine, it's a problem with the programmer. Actually, it's an issue with some games as well. You just have to be aware of the requirements of the program before you install it. Other than that, I'm very impressed with this screen. I used it in daylight (not direct sunlight... I was in the car) yesterday and it was perfectly readable.

Getting Skype to work was annoying. Bear with me, because this is going to take a little explaining. The external microphone port works exactly as you'd expect, so if you're using a headset Skype works right out of the box. However, the built-in microphone presents itself as a stereo device even though it's actually monophonic. The solution is to turn one of the channels off. You can do this one of several ways:
  • Install pavucontrol from the Software Center, go to input devices, unlock the channels, and drop the left channel of the "Capture" device to 0.
  • Run alsamixer from a console, and do the same adjustment there.
  • Run this from a terminal: amixer set Capture,0 0%,75% unmute
The last method is easiest if you just put the command in a script to be executed on the desktop.
#! /bin/bash
amixer set Capture,0 0%,75% unmute
The reason that this is "easiest" is that Skype is goofy... it will attempt to re-set the volume every time you make a call even if you tell it not to in Options. That steps on this configuration.... so even after you've applied the "fix", Skype automatically "unfixes" it every time you make a call. The only work-around I have for it at the present time is to just put that script on the desktop and run it immediately after placing a Skype call (you can do it while the phone is ringing).

There is no Bluetooth on this netbook, but you can easily add a USB bluetooth adapter, and it works just fine.