One of the items that I inherited after Mum died was her old laptop, an Asus X551CA that I bought her for Christmas 2013. This month I replaced the battery, upgraded the hard drive and installed Linux.
Out of the box
The Asus X551CA was never the most powerful machine—a 15.6-inch notebook featuring an Intel Celeron 1007U 1.5GHz processor, 4GB RAM, 500GB HDD—but for what Mum required (writing, email, web browsing, video chats with her kids) it was perfect.
I remember the delight on her face when he opened it. “What is this? Oh Gareth, that’s too much! Really? For me? A new laptop?” It was worth it and I also have all the short stories and biographical writings that she produced on it to go through in the months to come.
When she unwrapped it, it came bundled with Microsoft Windows 8 that was upgraded to Windows 8.1 almost immediately and a couple of years later Windows 10, which seemed to slow it down further although that may have been the 5400 rpm hard drive.
Its slow speed was a source of frustration for the last couple of years. The battery had stopped recharging and before Mum died I had been making plans to somehow transport the machine the 100 miles between us so that I could give it a bit of an overhaul—replace the battery, upgrade the hard drive and bump the memory to its full capacity of 8GB, then give it a clean reinstall of Windows 10.
Of course, 2020 had other plans.
I decided, regardless, to at least repair and upgrade as much of the machine as I could for a little as possible.
Then I considered that installing Linux might give it a bit of a boost.
I already had a 120GB Intel SSD in my Big Boy’s Box of Interesting Things™ and a new battery cost me £14.99 (how good it is we’ll wait to see, the Power Statistics app tells me that it currently only has a capacity of 86.3%).
This video on YouTube showed me how to dismantle the laptop to replace the hard drive and battery.
The upgrade was very straight forward. The hard drive is screwed into a caddy which simply slides out and back in again. The battery isn’t even screwed in—you only need to lift it out at the correct angle; I carefully used a screwdriver on the left for a little extra leverage.
The trickiest part was reconnecting the three ribbon cables from the bottom of the keyboard to the motherboard. Until I realised that a part of the connector rises up and then snaps down on top of the cable once inserted.
The laptop’s BIOS—the firmware, the software that initialises the hardware when you first switch on the computer—was the original one that had shipped with the laptop in 2013, version 201.
I downloaded the latest version (version 211) from Asus, copied it to a blank USB drive and rebooted the laptop while holding down the F2 key which took me into the blue, legacy BIOS screen.
This video from Asus shows you how to do it, although the layout of the screens was slightly different for me.
The Asus EZ Flash BIOS update utility can be found under the Advanced tab.
The laptop needs to be plugged in and the battery must be at 20% or above. (I tried to flash the BIOS before replacing the battery but it wouldn’t allow me.)
I pointed the EZ Flash utility at the X551CAP.211 file on the USB drive and left it to erase the old BIOS and flash the new one. It took only a few minutes.
Creating an Ubuntu USB drive
While that was going on, I created a bootable USB drive with the latest stable version of Ubuntu.
Ubuntu is a Linux distribution based on Debian that is composed mostly of free and open-source software. I chose Ubuntu because it’s a very popular version of Linux and so is well supported and seemed like a good first choice for a Linux desktop n00b like myself.
If you’re wondering about the name, Ubuntu is named after the Nguni Bantu philosophy of ubuntu, which means “humanity towards others” or “I am because we are”. It is often used in a a philosophical sense to mean “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity”.
Recommended requirements for Ubuntu 20.04 LTS (Long Term Support) are:
- 2 GHz dual core processor or better
- 4 GB system memory
- 25 GB of free hard drive space
The X551CA only has a 1.5 GHz dual core processor but I thought I would give it a go to see how it got on. I thought, I could always try a different desktop environment to try to reduce the system load.
To create a bootable USB drive for Ubuntu you need three things:
- A USB drive—I used an 8GB drive.
- The Ubuntu installation file, which comes as an ISO file called ubuntu-20.04.1-desktop-amd64.iso which can be used to make a bootable DVD or USB drive.
- An application to copy the ISO file to the USB drive and make it bootable. I used balena Etcher. An alternative is Rufus.
The process could not be more simple. Download the ISO file. Insert the USB drive. Run Etcher, point it at the ISO file, point it at the USB drive and then hit ‘Flash!’.
The first thing I needed to ensure was that, when I started the laptop with my newly-created bootable USB drive plugged in, the laptop would boot from the USB drive and not the hard drive (which still contained Windows 10). So, I headed back to the BIOS (hold down F2 when switching on) and checked the boot order.
I was confused. It only offered two options: Windows boot manager and a weirdly-named ZipZip option. No USB.
After a quick Google search I disabled FastBoot and Secure Boot Control (I can’t remember now why but some post I read suggested it might help), I enabled Compatibility Support Module (CSM) and another comment suggested that plugging in the bootable USB drive might help as the BIOS checks for bootable devices on start-up.
After I plugged in the USB drive that I’d created with balena Etcher and restarted the BIOS, sure enough, USB showed up as an option in the BIOS boot menu and I was able to move it to the top of the list.
After a moment, the Ubuntu logo appeared on the screen and then started to install.
The installation process was impressively quick.
During the installation process, I selected the options to install any recent updates as part of the installation process and to include any third-party drivers and media codecs.
I had read that older versions of Ubuntu had issues with the wireless card on the Asus X551CA but these have clearly been ironed out in recent versions because early in the installation I was prompted to select my WiFi network and log in to it.
I was really impressed with how simple Ubuntu was to install. Everything worked exactly as I expected: WiFi, sound, webcam. It even detected my network printer (HP LaserJet Professional P1606dn) and installed drivers for that. Also a Microsoft wireless mouse—I plugged in the receiver and it was recognised immediately.
Something that I really liked was that as part of the onboarding walk-through, Ubuntu invited me to log in with my Google account and now my Google Drive appears as a network location. That makes passing files between my Windows PC and this laptop really easy.
One of the great things about Linux is that you can easily change the desktop environment. In other words, the graphical user interface—how it looks.
Some desktop environments use more resources than others, slowing down the computer. So, I went looking for a less system-intensive desktop environment.
Generally speaking, there are three families of desktop environment for Linux: GNOME, XFCE and KDE. This article from Linux Config called “The 8 best Ubuntu desktop environments” offers instructions on how to easily change your desktop environment.
I tried out two desktop environments, both forked from GNOME: MATE and Cinnamon.
Seemingly Cinnamon is less resource intensive than GNOME 3. I’m going to keep all three and see over time which environment I both prefer and which the laptop struggles least with.
Ubuntu has its own app store for installing software. Under GNOME 3 it is called Ubuntu Software; under MATE and Cinnamon it uses Snap Store.
A quick search in the store, however, I discovered that Google Chrome is not available and trying to install it directly from the Google page didn’t work for me.
It was time to get my hands dirty and use the command line in Terminal, following instructions from Linux Hint.
$ sudo apt update $ sudo apt upgrade $ wget --version $ wget https://dl.google.com/linux/direct/google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb $ sudo dpkg -i google-chrome-stable_current_amd64.deb $ google-chrome
That did it for me. I could then log in to Chrome and download all my plugins and bookmarks.
Another application that I installed was BpyTOP, which is a Python port of the resource monitor bashtop. I installed it more out of curiosity about how the laptop was performing under different environments than anything else.
Installation was simple following these instructions on nixCraft. It requires the single-line installation and then a bunch of permissions needing granted.
$ sudo snap install bpytop $ sudo snap connect bpytop:mount-observe $ sudo snap connect bpytop:network-control $ sudo snap connect bpytop:hardware-observe $ sudo snap connect bpytop:system-observe $ sudo snap connect bpytop:process-control $ sudo snap connect bpytop:physical-memory-observe
During installation, I told Ubuntu to include a bunch of standard applications like Mozilla Firefox (web browser), LibreOffice (which is compatible with Microsoft Office) and GIMP (a powerful image editor like Adobe PhotoShop or Corel Paintshop Pro).
Everything else, I’ve installed from the app store including:
- Sublime Text 3 (code editor)
- FileZilla (FTP client)
- and a bunch of games including chess and a Minecraft clone called Minetest
I have been very impressed with Ubuntu.
The installation process was simple and fast. It picked up all my hardware and installed everything without effort, including drivers for my network printer.
Of course, it really helped that this wasn’t my primary machine. Or, for that matter, my secondary device. That really took the pressure off and allowed me to play with things a lot more than if I felt the urgency of getting things set up quickly.
I just need to clean up the sticky keys (Mum used a lot of stickers and labels on her laptop to help her see the keys as she was losing her sight to macular degeneration) and this laptop will be good to go for some writing projects that I have in mind for 2021. I like the idea of writing on a machine that has very little else installed on it.