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Ubuntu 16.10 on Asus ZenBook UX330

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As mentioned in a previous post, I recently got the Asus ZenBook UX330 (UX330CA-FC020T, to be specific). It’s a very light weight 14″ decent spec’ed laptop which runs Ubuntu flawlessly. Here are some notes on installing, and first impressions.

UEFI boot and install

As far as I’ve seen, there are at least two versions of the BIOS around for these machines: The display model had an “old fashioned” ASCII text based BIOS, while the one which got delivered had a new UEFI based GUI. Both can boot the Ubuntu 16.10 64-bit live image, but the Secure Boot just needs some tweaking.

Before getting to boot, it’s important that the partition of the USB stick which holds the image is marked as bootable. In GParted, this can be done with the option seen below. Once that is taken care of, transferring the ISO is easily done with UNetbootin.

Once ready, plug in the USB stick, restart the machine, and hold F2 to enter the BIOS / UEFI setup. (Holding ESC will show the temporary boot selection menu). The “easy” mode can be seen below.

From here, press F7 to enter “Advanced” mode, and use the arrow keys or mouse to tab over to the Security options. Towards the bottom of that tab, there’s a sub-menu for Secure Boot. Enter that menu, and disable Secure Boot.

Use F10 to save and exit, and got back into the UEFI setup with F2 to verify that the Ubuntu live portion shows up as “1100, Partition 1″. From here you can change the Boot settings to select the USB portion first, or use F8 to boot from that only once, which should be all you need to get the installation going.

Ubuntu compatibility

Here’s a list of features I’ve personally tried and confirmed to be working. In summary, this machine looks very well prepared for Ubuntu, with no major draw-backs. The only additional setup which might be worth-while is configuring the touchpad to temporarily disable while typing, as described here.

Status
USB ports Work
SD card reader Works, mounts.
Wifi Detects all networks; connects.
Fast re-connect after suspend.
Bluetooth Not tried
Web cam Works with “Cheese”
Suspend Works; resumes quickly.
From Ubuntu menu, lid close, or Fn + F1
Flight mode
(Fn + F2)
Work, reconnects quickly.
Keyboard brightness
(Fn + F3/F4)
Works
Screen brightness
(Fn + F5/F6)
Works
External display
(Fn + F7/F8)
Not tried
Volume buttons
(Fn + F10/F11/F12)
Works
CPU throttling Not tried

Specs

The UX330CA is a decent spec’ed laptop, and there’s a few variations should you want more power. Here’s the selection as it looks in early 2017, comparing to the slightly more expensive UX330UA line.

UX330CA UX330UA
Price range €750 €930 – €1300
CPU Core M3-7Y30 1 (2.6) Ghz Core i5 7200U 2.5 (3.5) GHz -
Core i7 7500U 2.9 (3.5) GHz -
Max TDP 4.5 W 15 W
RAM 8 GB 8 / 16 GB
SSD 128 GB 256 / 512 GB
GPU Intel HD Graphics 615 Intel HD Graphics 620
Display 1920 x 1080 pixels; 13.30″
anti-glare; no-touch
1920 x 1080 pixels; 13.30″
anti-glare; no-touch
USB 2x USB 3.0 A
1x USB 3.1 C
2x USB 3.0 A
1x USB 3.1 C
SD card reader SD, SDHC, SDXC SD, SDHC, SDXC
HDMI Micro HDMI Micro HDMI
RJ45 / LAN No,
comes with USB adapter.
No,
comes with USB adapter.
3.5mm mini-jack 1x 1x
Web cam 1280 x 720 pixel 1368 x 768 pixel
Bluetooth version 4.1 4.1
Wifi version 802.11 ac 802.11 ac
Weight 1.20 kg 1.20 kg
Dimensions (W x L x H) 32.20 x 22.10 x 1.23 cm 32.20 x 22.10 x 1.35 cm
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Linux compatible notebooks and laptops

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You’d think that there would be a sizable market for a Linux based laptop, but Microsoft maintains its stronghold, and if anything it’s getting harder to buy random hardware and expect it to just work. Due to the UEFI bootloader; Secure Boot; various proprietary buttons solutions; touch screens; and no or little support from the hardware vendors. After doing a bit of research in small and mid-range notebooks and laptops that works with Linux, here’s a brief summary.

Most of the newer devices were evaluated with a USB live version of Ubuntu 16.10 64-bit.

(Disclaimer: This is not meant to be an exhaustive list of all available brands or Linux compatible devices. Please take it as a snapshot in time of the laptops which happened to be available in my local market. Also note, beyond being a consumer of some of the mentioned laptops, I’m not affiliated with any of them).

Lenovo

The Lenovo Thinkpad is still top of the line when it comes to business laptops. After using the Carbon X1 2016 4th generation edition for about half a year, it’s a sure all-time favorite. It’s available with Intel’s 7th generation Skylake CPU at various speeds, it does not get warm and uses little battery, which again makes for long battery life. A full working day without carrying a charger is usually not a problem.

Any Lenovo Thinkpad you’ll pick up will support Linux easily. It has a huge community and following, which means drivers, special buttons, sensors etc. get support quickly. The exception might be some of the more exotic variants of the Yoga Book (which run Android). In general, booting and installing any version of any GNU/Linux distribution is not a problem.

The downside is of course the price. At 1500 to 2500 Euros, it can be a tough pill to swallow if you’re buying new. However, there is also a healthy used-marked, so if you’re willing to wait a bit longer to get the latest tech, it’s a good compromise.

Asus

In hardware circles, ASUS is perhaps more famous for their high quality motherboards, but they also have a healthy range of laptops, many of which support Linux. I looked at a few models, with the ZenBook as the clear winner.

ZenBook UX330

These are nice! In fact, there’s a wide range of configurations colors and prices, most with 13.30″ full 1080HD screens, some with touch screens or larger screens. The cheapest version is now around €750 for an Intel m3-7Y30 dual core (4 threads). At only 4.5 W TDP, it does not get warm and is fan-less. It comes with 8 GB RAM and 128 GB SSD which is decent. Best of all, it’s only 1.3 kg, so just as light as the Lenovo Carbon.

There seems to be a few different BIOS versions on these models. The traditional text-based BIOS had no problems booting the Live USB. However, with the UEFI version, a bit of fiddling with Secure Boot and Boot Priority was required. Turning off Secure Boot and making sure USB partition was marked with a “boot” flag fixed it. (Spoiler alert: I’ll get back to this in a another post, as I already bought this machine).

Furthermore, on Ubuntu 16.10, everything works out of the box: Wifi; suspend; all function buttons: volume; screen dimming; flight mode; touch pad enable/disable. Battery life looks promising at around 10 hours.

The higher end versions, with i7 CPUs; 16 GB RAM; 256/512 GB SSD are probably the closest competitors to Lenovo’s light weight laptops at the moment. At about 25% lower price, they might certainly be worth considering.

R105HA

The Eee line from a few years back were nice super-small “ultrabooks”, albeit somewhat under-powered by today’s standards. A more recent edition, the R105HA is a €240 2-in-1 11″ detachable table and keyboard. It has a USB A slot; it booted to the GRUB menu, but failed to load the Live UI. It could be that it’s not a x64 based CPU at all; not sure.

E402SA

A bit further up the range, but at similar price there’s the E402SA. It’s a 14″ laptop, with full sized keyboard, but only 2 GB RAM and 32 GB SSD. Still not bad for €280. It booted the Ubuntu live stick fine. Wifi; volume buttons; suspend works. Screen dimming works, but not through the function-buttons. The main downside is the cheap keyboard, where the SPACE-key is hinged in the middle, so it might not register a thumb-click in its corners.

PEAQ

I’m not familiar with this brand, and it could be only a label on generic OEM devices of some kind. However, I thought it was worth including, since they had the cheapest smallest notebook I came across.

PNB C111

This is an 11″ but full 1080HD laptop with a tiny keyboard; think early Asus Eee. The €180 version comes with an Intel Celeron N3060 CPU; 2 GB RAM; 32 GB SSD. It is light, but feels plasticy. And as mentioned, the keyboard is cramped, even for small fingers.

It booted the Ubuntu 16.10 64-bit live image fine, and wifi; volume function keys and suspend all work out of the box. Screen dimming also works, but not through the function buttons (this seems to be a common problem).

Other

HP and Dell

There were a few HP and Dell laptops in the shops I went to, but where I tried, none of them would boot the USB image. This could be down to bad luck; the Asus Zenbook was also difficult in UEFI mode, however, I’m not sure they are good options at higher prices than the Zenbook range.

System 76

This is one of the long time dedicated Ubuntu Linux hardware retailers. They don’t make their own hardware though, and instead merely put their name on OEM devices. The problem is, as much as I’d like to support a Linux hardware vendor, it comes at a very high price for mid-tier hardware. Of course, they put extra effort into making sure the drives are all available for their products, including keeping their own driver package repository running, but I’m not sure it’s worth it.

The version I have experience with and bought was the “Gazelle Professional” for some $1300. (New edition here). It works and has been running for five years, it’s nice, but extremely heavy even for its time. At some 4 kg with the charger, it can no longer be considered portable. The newer version in the picture above is the Lemur, at 1.6 kg and starting price of $700.

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FSF on Secure Boot

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There has been a lot of heated discussion about the upcoming Restricted/Secure Boot requirement from Microsoft for its new Windows 8 OS, and how it will be implemented in the new BIOS defined by the UEFI standard. Free Software Foundation recently posted a nice write up of what this means to the FOSS movement, including Fedora’s and Ubuntu’s attempts to work with and around the issue.

Also, it’s interesting to note the distinction which has been made by Microsoft and the phone industry between the x86 PC and ARM platforms. The former has had a tradition of openness since the early IBM PC, with an environment for hardware and software makers, third part producers of all kinds, and hobbist to thrive. There is a large and healthy hardware industry offering extensions, additions, upgrades and alternatives for every main component of the PC. Likewise, there is a vast selection of applications, utilities, games for many different OSes. This is in stark contrast to the various ARM platforms, which are typically completely locked down like Apple’s devices, or very hard to change the OS like most Android devices. Microsoft is now taking this further, and creating its own “locked garden” around its new ARM based tablets. FSF takes a strong stand against this.

Here are some excerpts from the FSF paper, with my emphasis:

We have been working hard the last several months to stop Restricted Boot, a major threat to user freedom, free software ideals, and free software adoption. Under the guise of security, a computer afflicted with Restricted Boot refuses to boot any operating systems other than the ones the computer distributor has approved in advance. Restricted Boot takes control of the computer away from the user and puts it in the hands of someone else.

To respect user freedom and truly protect user security, computer makers must either provide users a way of disabling such boot restrictions, or provide a sure-fire way that allows the computer user to install a free software operating system of her choice.

Distributors of restricted systems usually appeal to security concerns. They claim that if unapproved software can be used on the machines they sell, malware will run amok. By only allowing software they approve to run, they can protect us.

This claim ignores the fact that we need protection from them. We don’t want a machine that only runs software approved by them — our computers should always run only software approved by us. We may choose to trust someone else to help us make those approval decisions, but we should never be locked into that relationship by force of technological restriction or law. Software that enforces such restrictions is malware. Companies like Microsoft that push these restrictions also have a terrible track record when it comes to security, which makes their platitudes about restricting us for our own good both hollow and deceitful.

Secure Boot, done right, embodies the free software view of security, because it puts users — whether individuals, government agencies, or organizations — in control of their machines. Our thought experiment to demonstrate this is simple: Microsoft may be worried about malware written to take over Windows machines, but we view Windows itself as malware and want to keep it away from our machines. Does Secure Boot enable us to keep Windows from booting on a machine? It does: We can remove Microsoft’s key from the boot firmware, and add our own key or other keys belonging to free software developers whose software we wish to trust.

We will fight Microsoft’s attempt at enforcing Restricted Boot on ARM devices like smartphones and tablets.Like any other computer, users must be able to install free software operating systems on these devices. We will monitor Microsoft’s behavior to make sure they do not deceive the public again by expanding these restrictions to other kinds of systems.

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