My youngest daughter has just started high school, and
needed wanted to replace her desktop PC with a new laptop. My older children have managed to do everything they’ve needed for school with netbooks running Linux, so that was my starting position; nice and portable, powerful enough, and not too expensive. Unfortunately, netbooks are getting really thin on the ground. If you want small and light the current answer is an ultrabook, which is usually at the “premium” end of the market, or a tablet, which just isn’t going to cut the mustard for this application.
ASUS seem to be the last company making netbooks, and even they appear to be exiting the market; their last offering, the EeePC 1225B, is now heading rapidly towards clearance deals – which in this case is good news. It comes with Windows 7 Home Premium preloaded, but given my daughters existing familiarity with Linux I’m installing Linux as her primary OS. However, in the future we may want to return the system to stock, and this machine comes with no recovery media, just a recovery partition. I can install Linux around both that and the Windows install, but it could be a real problem if the actual hard drive were to die. Fortunately ASUS have provided a way to back up the recovery partition onto a 16GB USB device, separating the recovery from the actual machine – which is really helpful. Except it can’t be installed on a flash device. Which is not helpful. Why on earth can’t I use a flash drive?! A rummage in my spare parts bin finally unearthed an ancient 20GB 2.5″ PATA drive and a USB caddy – we’re in business!
The process for backing up the recovery partition is to boot into the on-disk recovery partition (which appears to contain a minimal Windows system, some ASUS scripts and the compressed install images for the recoverable partitions) and then copy the whole recovery partition to the USB device, making it bootable in the process. That can then be used to recover the netbook to its original state.
Except, on careful reading of the manuals, that’s not quite the case. The recovery process only mentions recovery of the Windows partitions. Not the original recovery partition, or the (apparently non-functional) EFI boot partition. Not ideal. So with the help of a bootable Linux USB disk, a spare SATA hard drive, and a USB SATA caddy, I imaged all the partitions and the partition table from the original hard drive, using a mix of “dd” and “ntfsclone”. With those and a live Linux disk I ought to be able to rebuild the entire disk if necessary.
And so having reassured myself that I have a workable restoration process, a quick application of gparted allowed me to shrink the existing Windows install down, creating space for my Linux installation. And then the problems started.
Initially I installed the latest Ubuntu (13.10, “Saucy”) but this simply crashed (apparently randomly) on booting, which wasn’t very reassuring. There seem to be some concerns about the last couple of Ubuntu releases not being as well-baked as usual, so I decided to try Mint rather than starting to debug Ubuntu. So I installed 32-bit Mint 15 (Olivia), and all appeared well until I updated to the latest kernel, at which point the keyboard and trackpad stopped working. Reverting to the older kernel left the system working fine, so I removed the newer kernel, pinned the older one, and completed the install & configuration of the laptop for my daughter.
Who was delighted, but reported that the laptop was randomly hanging – something I’d not seen while I was installing & configuring it. After quite a lot of further testing, it appears that the system is rock solid stable while running on AC power, but hangs randomly when running on battery. I suspect a horrible ACPI bug lurking at the root of this, which probably explains the problems I experienced with Ubuntu too. Clearly I need to resolve this for my daughter, but she is happy enough working in “tethered” mode at the moment, so at least I’ve some time to start debugging it.
Interestingly, I was surprised that ASUS didn’t seem to document the keys that cause the laptop to do useful things during startup. So for completeness, pressing F9 during boot starts the recovery utility, pressing F2 enters the BIOS, and pressing ESC allows you to select which media device to boot from. You need to tap them repeatedly while the system is booting. Bizarrely, F9 in particular appears to be very hit or miss.