Installed Debian on Acer Aspire One 522 netbook

Posted on 2015/03/01



My mother has an Acer Aspire One 522 netbook (as for the post title) and used it to surf the net and play some Facebook games… until it fell hard while it was on, and it wouldn’t boot any more: it would get stuck on the boot screen where you can tap F2 to enter BIOS settings.

First thing: I wanted to find out what was broken. I was hoping it was only the hard drive.

I wanted to try a Linux installation disk to see if memory and screen were OK. The netbook doesn’t have a CD/DVD reader, so in order to boot with something different than the hard drive, I had to use an USBstick. I downloaded the live XFCE desktop ISO, inserted an USB stick into my desktop and copied it with:

# dd if=debian-live-7.8.0-amd64-xfce-desktop.iso of=/dev/sd_

I discovered the right device that corresponds to the USB stick by running dmesg and looking at the last messages. Note: it’s not really sd_, it’s actually sdc, but I wanted to reduce the dangerousness of the command if someone copy-paste-executes it mindlessly (dd has grown to mean disk destroyer, after all). Then I entered the BIOS settings of the Aspire One and rearranged the boot order by moving to the top the USB device. At the next reboot the Debian desktop environment went up. The OS couldn’t recognize the hard drive, so it was evident that I needed to replace it. I followed a tutorial to disassemble the netbook and replaced the hard drive, so it was time to install the real thing.

I downloaded the Debian XFCE installation ISO, inserted the same USB stick into my desktop and copied it with:

# dd if=debian-7.8.0-amd64-xfce-CD-1.iso of=/dev/sd_

I followed the installation process, with the laptop wired with an Ethernet cable. The installation completed successfully, but I had two hardware problems: WiFi and audio.

The WiFi issue was the most critical: if I tried to connect to a network or even disable WiFi, the system would completely freeze, not even the kernel keyboard combinations would work. Thanks to the community, someone found a strange workaround (seen here and here) of entering the BIOS settings, enabling PXE network boot and placing it on top of the hard drive in terms of priority. I suppose that the BIOS somehow initializes the network adapter correctly, while the Linux driver does not.

The audio problem was that simply there was no sound. The root of the problem is that the netbook exposes two audio cards: the one for internal speakers and the HDMI ones; they are both seen by the snd-hda-intel drivers but unfortunately the first one is the HDMI, and it’s the one that gets the /dev/dsp device file. In order to change the order I applied this answer on Stack Exchange and used the index option of the driver, putting it in a modprobe.d configuration file. Another minor issue was that the volume-up and volume-down keys were not working, but I solved it by uninstalling xfce4-volumed and installing volumeicon-alsa, adding it to session startup commands. The last issue that I did not solve was that the sound plays on the left channel only, the right one is mute.

After solving these problems, I customized the Debian installation with the following:

  1. Enabled contrib and non-free repositories,
  2. Installed Google Chrome, which in turn added Google repository to the system,
  3. Installed Skype by adding the i386 architecture (praise Multiarch) as said in the Debian Wiki,
  4. Installed ATI proprietary drivers,
  5. Installed plymouth, configured in text mode to avoid juggling with graphic drivers at boot,
  6. Removed suspend and hibernate from the shutdown choices, because they might confuse the user. It was done by setting “allow_active” value to “no” in “/usr/share/polkit-1/actions/org.freedesktop.upower.policy” (solution found here).
  7. Set swappiness to 20 (instead of 60) with “echo vm.swappiness = 20 >/etc/sysctl.d/swappiness.conf“.

I’m pretty happy with how the installation turned out. But on the other side it’s clear to me that, in order to customize the system with common, the user must know some technical workings of Debian and Linux. Fortunately there’s a community of people that have already solved many of the issues a common user would encounter. There are distributions that are better at smoothing the rough edges for inexperienced users, but I stuck with Debian because that’s what I am used to work with.

Posted in: Software