A Quick Look At The Acer Aspire One (8 GB SSD Linux Version)

Note: This article is about the Linux version of the Aspire one. It's the least expensive of the various models with a 3 cell battery, and 8 gig SSD drive.

I didn't keep it very long. After three weeks, I suddenly turned on the computer to be greeted by a black screen--absolutely blank. Doing a search of the forums indicated that this wasn't too uncommon and that sometimes, though not always, it could be fixed by flashing the BIOS.

However, at that point, I took it back. Fortunately, J&R has a pretty good return policy--although I had bought it 3 weeks ago, they took it back without any issues.

Also, I had already decided that I would prefer getting the 6 cell version. Although it comes with XP, it has a 160 gig hard drive and I simply wiped off XP without booting into it (so in theory, Acer owes me a refund for the O/S), and installed various flavors of Linux, which will be covered on another page in the near future.

As netbooks proliferate, the latest and greatest tends to be obsolete by the time you've opened the box. Therefore, when buying one, I decided to go for one of the least expensive that had still gotten good reviews. I chose the Aspire One, which is usually available, after shipping and/or taxes, for $350.00 USD or less.

There is already an extremely active and helpful forum. Many of the tips here come from there.

The model I got was the least expensive one with a solid state 8 gig hard drive and 512 MB of RAM. RAM can be upgraded, however, it's decidedly non-trivial. The entire laptop has to be dissembled. There are couple of detailed howtos on the forums, with this being one of the best.

In my case, I've found that the 512 MB of RAM is sufficient--this isn't getting much heavy duty use, and is more useful for checking email while traveling and the like

The wireless card is the Atheros AR5007EG. They use the MadWifi drivers. The link above gives a fairly thorough description of how to get it working with various distributions. Note that the 2.6.27 kernel should support the card out of the box, though the LEDs won't work. The card itself only works with 802.11 b/g, not n. For those confused by these terms, n is the latest and greatest wireless, giving faster speeds. This model doesn't have 802.11 n capacity.

Sound works but the speakers are on the bottom, so sound quality isn't terribly good. With headphones, it improves quite a bit.

The trackpad has a button on either side, running vertically. This can be a bit annoying, but one quickly gets used to it.

The keyboard is a bit cramped, but less so than the smaller Asus EEE's and Sylvannia Netbooks. The machine itself is also slightly bigger than those two, probably around the same size as the Asus 901. (Like the 901, it has an 8.9 inch LCD.) It weighs about 2.19 lbs, or just under 1 kg.

It comes with a 3 cell battery, that will last about 2 1/2 hours or so. This version comes with Linpus Lite Linux, with some tweaks by Acer that seem to be aimed at the Linux newcomer.

It boots up extremely quickly, going right to Acer's custom desktop. Upon first boot, the user gives a password. This password is for a user called, oddly enough, user.

This user is automatically in the wheel group. The /etc/sudoers file has the line allowing any member of the wheel group to run any command without a password uncommented. I imagine this was to imitate XP home, which creates a user (although at least you're allowed to choose the user name) who by default, has admin privilege with no password. This is easily fixed by commenting out the NOPASSWD line in /etc/sudoers.

Many people also prefer to have a more standard Linux login, asking for username and password. This post explains how to do that. It's relatively trivial, editing /etc/rc.d/rc.S, however, running Acer's Linpus Live Update will overwrite the file, so the steps will have to repeated after an update.

One of the first things most people do is switch to the advanced mode. This post explains how it's done. Once you have switched to advanced mode, right clicking anywhere on the desktop gives a more standard xfce menu.

There is an older version of NetworkManager. It works well enough with WPA2 personal encryption, but doesn't work with WPA2 corporate, common at many companies and universities. A forum member has provided instructions to update it to work with WPA2 corporate. The instructions can be found on the forums in the third post in the thread.

There are various posts on the forums about how to switch to a more standard xfce desktop. This one has a straightforward explanation.

One forum member has a script to make more major changes to xfce and a few other programs. Some people like this, others find that it breaks other things. The reader is advised to skim the thread before doing the upgrade.

Acer ties the xfce desktop to some other startup scripts. If one uses the login change method mentioned above and decides to use fluxbox as desktop, for example, wireless won't work. The system won't even recognize the wireless card. One forum poster has a script to handle turning wireless on and off. I've found it just as easy to add a line to /etc/rc.local, calling Acer's custom script. Acer's script is called add_driver, so one can add a line to /etc/rc.local reading

After doing this, regardless of desktop choice, wireless will be working.

Onelinux.org has produced an Ubuntu based iso specially designed for the Aspire One. It worked quite well for me if I stuck to the default Gnome desktop. However, I prefer fluxbox, so I installed and used that. To my disappointment, fluxbox ran much more slowly in the onelinux installation than it did in the default Linpus one. In the end, I went back to Linpus, leaving user as is, since the laptop may be used by others who aren't experienced with Linux. I then added another user.
sudo adduser -G wheel user2

This created a second user, myself. Although the user was in the wheel group, as the default boot for user2 was fluxbox, neither wireless nor sound would work properly.

The next step was to edit /etc/security/console.perms.d/50-default.perms. Absurd as this sounds, ever since Fedora made the decision to tie sound in with ConsoleKit, it's the easiest way to get sound working for all users in a Fedora based distribution. I cover this in my page on sound in Fedora.

In a nutshell, at the top of the file I add
<sound>=/dev/dsp* /dev/snd/*

There are several similar lines that are already there. Towards the bottom of the file, where permissions are defined--again, there are several similar lines there--I add
<console> 0666 <sound>	0600 root

The second user can then use sound.

For wireless, I found that I didn't need the entire add driver shell. Usually, I use this at home, so I created a default wpa.conf file in my home directory. I used wpa_passphrase. This procedure is described on my page about wpa_supplicant with Fedora. I created a simple script.
sudo modprobe ath_pci
sudo wpa_supplicant -B -Dwext -iath0 -c /home/user2/wpa.conf
sudo dhclient ath0

The wireless can be started with this script. If one uses it in different places, one can use a more advanced howto which is linked from the page above, that gives information on using multiple networks.

Although I've tried Ubuntu, Onelinux and Fedora, in the end, I found that the Linpus install, despite all its drawbacks, is noticeably faster. Again, my needs for this netbook are rather simple. If I were using it as my main laptop, I'd be more frustrated by the relatively older packages and spend more effort trying to install, for example, firefox 3. However, I prefer opera as my browser, and the 9.60 beta opera rpm for Fedora installs without problems.

One person on the forums highly recommends Mandriva for the system, but I haven't tried it. I did make a quick test with Linux Mint's fluxbox edition, but after 15 minutes, it was still trying to boot, so I gave up.

In retrospect, I should have been slighly less frugal and gotten the XP edition with a 120 gig hard drive and a gig of RAM, wiped XP and installed a distribution of my choice. However, as I said at the beginning, I decided to spend as little as possible, with the idea of upgrading--especially as the competition seems to make the manufacturers continue to drop prices.

At time of writing, mid September, 2008, considering the price, it's good for what it is. The 8 gig SSD version lacks some configurability, but for a Linux beginner seems quite easy to use. The more experienced Linux user can either install something else or can modify most of the more aggravating aspects of the Linpus system, depending upon their needs. The relatively simple modifications mentioned above were sufficient for me.

The three biggest drawbacks are the difficulty in upgrading RAM, the short battery life and the fact that the Linpus version of NetworkManager can't connect to WPA2 corporate networks. At time of writing, Acer is already beginning to ship machines with 6 cell batteries, but seem to be ignoring the other two issues. Whether these are showstoppers for the user or not, depend upon their own situation. The 512MB of RAM is adequate for the limited demands I place on this machine.