How I made an Acer Aspire laptop useful again

Published January 17, 2022, 9:37 AM

by Professor Rom Feria

A few days ago, I decided to tinker with an old Acer Aspire laptop in an attempt to make it useful again. It was running a previous version of Xubuntu, a lightweight Linux distribution, but nobody wantsed to use it because it was too damn slow. I could just imagine how it fares with Windows on it. I remember the time before I got my hands on those Linux installation diskettes, when I get frustrated with the way Windows crashes my desktop PC, and it was not a pleasant experience. This Acer Aspire, whilst it does not crash, it is too damn slow. Heck, my Raspberry Pi 4 is even faster! (Maybe because it is running Intel chips! Haha)

Anyway, I decided to get an internal SSD drive to replace this uber-slow HDD. A 480GB Kingston SSD to replace a 500GB HDD is not much of a trade-off considering that it is not intended to be the main workstation (we have Macs for those). All it took was opening the bottom cover and replacing the HDD (I found out that there is still an empty memory slot, so that is the next upgrade, I guess).

Next step was to decide which Linux distribution to install. I have read good reviews of Pop!_OS, Elementary OS and Zorin OS, and, of course, Ubuntu is still on my short list. Heck, I even thought of using the PC desktop version of Raspberry Pi OS! So I did download the installers for these distributions, with the exception of Elementary OS, which was taking too long to download, even on my 300Mbps connection!

Using Balena Etcher on the Mac, I have flashed the Linux images on to different USB thumbdrives. Well, I scavenged to find old 8GB USB thumbdrives to use, since most of what I use currently are 64GB ones, which is overkill.

Obviously, the Acer Aspire laptop (laptop) will no longer boot since the new SSD drive was not formatted with anything. Inserting the USB thumbdrive with the Linux image will force the laptop to boot off of the USB port and allow me to install Linux on it. Simple, right? Well, I thought it was. It took me several attempts doing this.

First, I tried Pop!_OS. It would boot up, but would get stuck loading (maybe it was working, but I didn’t have the patience to wait for it). Next, I tried Zorin OS. It booted up and was even able to install on the SSD. However, when I booted the laptop without the installer, the laptop complained that there’s no bootable device detected. I tried Raspberry Pi OS, but it won’t even boot (though I think this has something to do with the old thumbdrive). Ubuntu was the next one — same thing with Zorin OS. No bootable device was found! Frustrating.

I thought that maybe I needed to check the BIOS and see if, for some reason, the boot sequence was changed. This laptop required a password to access the BIOS settings, and of course, I don’t know the password. I tried to remove the CMOS battery and waited for a couple of minutes, but still was asked for the password. Good thing that some good soul published a tool on the web to generate possible passwords. I tried it and on the first try, I got in. The BIOS checked out fine – the boot sequence goes HDD first. I thought that maybe it is the Secure Boot that is making it impossible, considering that the new SSD wasn’t factory installed – so I disabled it, too. I could live with having Secure Boot turned off since the laptop never leaves the house anyway, and is planned to not store personal data beyond browsing behaviour, maybe.

With the new BIOS settings, I decided to try once again, but this time, I decided to go Linux Mint, since one of the kids will use it, too. Armed wth a USB thumbdrive with the Linux Mint installer, the laptop booted up and then continued and finished installing. The moment of truth, booting it up without the thumbdrive. Lo and behold! It failed again – this time, it went to show the grub prompt. Ah, progress. A couple of DuckDuckGo searches resulted in some grub configurations that needed to be applied. With some terminal ninjitsu, the laptop finally booted up to the desktop! Success, or so I thought.

After using the laptop, updating the OS and applications, and creating the user accounts. The reboot resulted in that grub command line again! So after a couple more DuckDuckGo searches, I found a way to make it persistent. Applying the hack finally worked! *whew*

Moment of truth time. I asked one of the kids to try and login to check if the photos that I migrated from the old HDD to the new SSD drive, and there was a surprised look at how fast and responsive this laptop now is. Now I am off to checking out how much RAM costs, and maybe I can make this even faster next time! Currently, the laptop is running Timeshift and creating a snapshot of the system with an estimated time of 10 minutes. Not bad, right?

Unfortunately, I did not manage to document the hacks that I have applied, but if you have an old Acer Aspire that you want to resurrect from being a useless door stopper, the solution is definitely out there (DuckDuckGo is your friend), but first you need to decide that you will use Linux, because that is what will ultimately make it useful!