“Wow, Ubuntu runs well!”
“Wow, this is lightweight!”
…and a list of other praises come to mind when playing with this ultrabook.
Is there a better netbook or portable computer than the Acer Aspire 722 for running Ubuntu? The Acer Aspire S3 Ultrabookis an attractive, ultra-slim notebook barely larger than a netbook. I wanted to see how well Linux–Ubuntu–would run.
The S3 is a delight to use, and in my experience, it runs Linux better and faster than the bundled Windows 8 despite a few minor issues.
What follows is my enjoyable experience with Ubuntu 12.04 on what is probably one of the best-looking portable computers encountered: The Aspire S3.
Update for 2014: The Acer S3 Ultrabook is also compatible with other Linux distributions tested. Here are two other articles with more information:
It’s small. It’s light. It’s slim. The physical appearance is most noticeable at first glance, and the S3 makes all nearby laptops seem old and clunky by comparison.
It measures about 320cm wide by 210cm deep and it is only 15cm high at its widest point in the back. The S3 is slightly larger than the Acer Aspire One 722 netbook, and it weighs less. Yes, you read correctly. The 722 is heavier and thicker than the S3.
Construction is mostly from a champagne-colored plastic, but the lid seems to be made from a light type of metal with a brushed aluminum texture. It is a very attractive design, and you cannot help but glance at it when closed. A spiral-bound notebook is thicker than this.
Side view. 722 (left), S3 (right)
The CPU is an Intel i3-2377M at 1.50 GHz, and System Profiler and Benchmark shows four cores compared to the two cores of the AMD C-60 in the 722 netbook.
This particular S3 included 4G of memory, a 20GB solid state drive (SSD), a 500GB hard drive, and—grab some smelling salts and brace yourself for this–Windows 8 64-bit. Yes, I too, wondered, “Why spoil such a fine laptop with Windows 8?” Ubuntu to the rescue.
Why are the specs important? All of this slim goodness comes at a price: You cannot upgrade your S3 the way you can upgrade the 722. What you obtain is what you are stuck with.
Do you want to install 16GB of RAM? Too bad. The memory is, well, somewhere inside. It does not use SO-DIMM slots, or if the S3 does, I could not find them. Do you want to install a 750GB hybrid hard drive? Again, too bad. The S3 only accepts one slim, 7mm-high, hard drive. The standard 9mm-high hard drives will not fit even though the S3 uses the standard SATA connector.
There are two USB 3 ports located on the back of the unit. They run as fast as they can in Linux, and speeds are definitely faster than the USB 2 ports on the 722.
The only two drawbacks are these: There are only two USB ports available and they are located on the back. This means when the lid is open, you need to lift the entire laptop to gain access to them. Compare this to the 722 where the USB ports are located on the sides.
Instead of using two separate jacks for a headphone and a microphone, there is one 1/8″ jack on the left side of the S3 that accepts either a headphone or a microphone.
SD Card Slot
On the right side of the ultrabook is a card slot. However, it only accepts SD and MMD cards. The 722 would also accept Memory Sticks, but not the S3. There is no Memory Stick support, and they will not fit. If you have a Memory Stick Pro DUO, then you will need a USB adapter in order to connect it to a free USB port on the S3.
Power Button and LEDs
The power button is located near the lid hinge, and two small LEDs indicate power and charging. The smaller LEDs make the S3 feel sleek and do not illuminate the neighborhood the way the 722 does. Not a biggie, but the 722 lights can shine in your eyes while looking at the screen. This can become slightly annoying when watching a movie on the 722. The S3 does not have this issue.
The S3 advertisement claims a 6-hour battery life. Sounds good, but this is not completely true. In my practice, the battery lasts about four hours. Of course, it depends upon what you do. Watching movies, playing games, and performing CPU-intensive tasks drains the battery faster than browsing web pages or writing text files. In fact, I rarely see more than 4hrs 30min of battery life when wireless is enabled.
While on the subject of the battery, the biggest difference from the 722 is that the battery is not as easy to replace as the battery in the 722. You must unscrew 12 screws to open the back panel of the S3. The slim battery is centered within the cramped innards
This is either a silent laptop or a very noisy one. There seems to be no middle ground. With Ubuntu 12.04, the CPU fan is either quiet or it is running at full blast. At idle, the S3 is silent.
For most quiet tasks, such as browsing pages, email, writing text, and configuring the system, the fan is totally silent. The slim hard drive makes little spin noise, so the S3 is practically dead silent. The fan spins up and slows down at times, but this is nothing too unpleasant.
However, watching videos or using the CPU at even 25% causes the fan to ramp up like a jet engine so loud that it is audible through headphones when watching a standard-definition movie or even a YouTube video.
Overall, I would say that the 722 is more quiet in the long run than the S3. Both have tradeoffs depending upon the usage.
Mysterious Clicking and Untitled Folders
The 722 plastic is somewhat flimsy. When the 722 lid is closed with the netbook still on, it seems to cause the button bar to click, click, click. Upon reopening the lid, the desktop will often be populated with unintended “untitled folders.”
The S3 is more sturdy in its construction, so untitled folders never appear.
There is one HDMI port on the back for connection to an external monitor. The S3 package includes an HDMI to VGA adpater that allows connection to a VGA monitor.
Linux installation detects two hard drives: One 20GB SSD drive, and one 500GB regular drive. I installed Linux on the SSD but mounted /home on the 500G drive. This made Ubuntu run faster than installing it exclusively on the 500G drive.
The 13.3″ screen is larger than the 10.1″ screen of the 722, and it offers a native resolution of 1366×768 pixels. The viewing area measures about 294cm wide by 165cm high. It’s bright, glossy, beautiful, and produces a crisp, vivid picture. It’s beautiful! Best yet, not a single dead pixel was found.
The keyboard is completely different from the 722. Keys use an island style, and they feel better to the touch. There is absolutely no keyboard flex, meaning, pressing keys does not press the keyboard into the ultrabook.
Due to the larger screen size, there is more mass hanging at an angle. For “keyboard thumpers” who enjoy banging on their laptops with brute force, typing will make the screen vibrate. However, this rarely happens in my experience. Type properly and it should not be an issue. If the base is firm and stable, then so, too, will be the screen.
The touchpad is the most significant change for Linux users. Gone is the button bar of the 722. In fact, it is practically the same as the Aspire One AO756 touchpad. To perform a left-click, press the left side of the touchpad, and to perform a right-click, press into the right side of the touhpad.
The touchpad does not work well with Linux by default, so prepare to do some tweaking just to get basic mouse operations. The same issues I encountered with the 756 were present with the S3 touchpad. I had to manually edit some configuration files to make the touchpad behave as a normal mouse. There is no right-click function available unless these changes are made.
Suspend and Resume
Suspend and hibernation modes work properly. Suspend and hibernation are very fast operations, and waking from them usually takes less than 2 seconds. Very fast. System boot is often a few seconds, and system shutdown is usually less than five second.
With the 722 using the Catalyst drivers, the netbook would never restore the screen upon waking from a suspended state. Not so with the S3. The S3 restores all suspended operations properly and resumes operations from where you left off.
One thing to be aware of is that the S3 screen brightness will be set so low when resuming from a power save mode that it will look like the screen is not longer working. This is not the case. Just increase the screen brightness manually using keyboard shortcuts (see the quirks below for details).
No Power Cord Beep
The 722 and the 756 both emitted a loud, annoyinng, IRRITATING beep from the internal speaker whenever the power cord was plugged into or removed from the netbook. This was built into BIOS, and there was no way to eliminate or silence it completely.
There is no beeping with the S3. Connecting or removing the power cord is a silent process. Finally!
How well do operating systems run? More importantly, how well does Linux run on the S3?
Windows 8 64-bit is installed by default, and it works as advertised. If you enjoy Windows 8, then you will be pleased with its performance on the S3. From my experience, Windows 8 is going the way of Unity and GNOME3–it gets in the way of using the computer, and it feels like nothing more than a GNOME3 ripoff.
However, I obtained this ultrabook in order to run Linux, not Windows, so Windows has to go (after performing the BIOS update in Windows).
There are two hard drives: A 20GB SSD and a 500GB regular drive. Linux installation detects both drives, and you can install to either or use both. It’s your choice. I chose to install the system onto the 20G SSD for faster system performance and mount /home to the 500G drive. This requires manual partition configuration in the Linux installation, but it is nothing too complicated. The important point to keep in mind is to install the GRUB bootloader onto the 500G drive, not the 20G drive or else Linux will not boot.
For details, I would recommend following the advice given in this guide about installing Linux on the S3:
No OS I have used has ever performed as fast or as reliably as Ubuntu 10.10. Even though it is over two years old, it remains my OS of choice today due to its speed, simplicity, and stability. Everything just works.
Well, it used to. I encountered the same unsupported video on the S3 as I did with the 756 when trying to install or run Ubuntu 10.10. The GRUB line must be modified with nomodeset or else you will lose your video.
I finally managed to install Ubuntu 10.10 and get a completely working system. Even the brightness Fn key combination adjusted the brightness properly. But there were no desktop effects. No Compiz. No drop shadows around windows. The windows would crawl and tear while dragging them. There was no desktop acceleration, and no way to enable it.
The problem involved the video drivers. Ubuntu 10.10 does not support the newer hardware. Attempting to install the Additional Drivers never found any new hardware. I was stuck. Due to the slow graphics in Ubuntu 10.10 running on the S3, it made the 722 feel much faster.
Perhaps the latest version of Ubuntu would offer better performance?
Indeed, installation was a breeze, and the graphics issues were fixed. However, Ubuntu 12.10 felt sluggish. However, this is something I notice on desktop systems running Ubuntu 12.10 as well. Ubuntu 12.10 feels slow. Installation takes at least 40 to 60 minutes (compared to ten minutes for Ubuntu 10.10), and the system feels like a step backwards instead of a step forward. Even Ubuntu 10.10 with its tearing windows and lack of 3D acceleration felt slightly more responsive.
Though I had great hopes for Ubuntu 12.10, it has been a mediocre letdown no matter what system I run it on.
Finally! A working Ubuntu! Indeed this is the Linux distribution I settled on for the S3. Almost everything works properly. Installation takes about 30 minutes, and it runs faster than the newer Ubuntu 12.10.
Video drivers are supported with desktop effects, suspend and resume works, wireless works, the memory card slot works, USB 3 works. It’s great on the S3! Yes, there are issues to resolve, such as adjusting the screen brightness, but Ubuntu 12.04.1 runs well on the S3.
However, the atrocious Unity is still Ubuntu’s default desktop environment, so the first order of business was to install a more friendly desktop environment. GNOME3 is garbage, so that option was out. (Why developers abandoned the superb and responsive GNOME2 in favor of the mess called GNOME3 remains a mystery…)
MATE and Cinnamon are excellent desktop environments that never get in the way of using the computer, so I installed them both to see which offered better performance. Short answer: MATE and Cinnamon both perform remarkably well. Take your pick. You cannot go wrong with either, and both can be customized into attractive desktops.
Ubuntu 12.04 with Cinnamon seems to run slightly faster than Windows 8. Menus are fast and snappy, and programs open with very little delay. Of course, this might be, in part, because I installed Ubuntu to the SSD.
Compiz and Desktop Effects
The hardware can handle it, but the current version of Compiz in Ubuntu 12.04 and Ubuntu 12.10 is buggy. This means no desktop cube, and when it does try to run, the screen locks up. Compiz in Ubuntu 10.10 runs flawlessly, but not in Ubuntu 12.04 or 12.10. Desktop effects are enabled in the default Unity, but switching to Compiz in order to activate the extra effects produces ugly, unusable side-effects that often require a forced system reset.
3D acceleration is supported and enabled, so many effects work fine out of the box. For example, Cinnamon effects are fluid and natural. Windows slide smoothly and expo effects glide across the screen like a professional ice skater. However, if you want the desktop cube, then you may run into problems. I had so many problems trying to make the desktop cube work that I eventually gave up and settled without it. The newer Compiz is too buggy.
My favorite. Runs brilliantly! Desktop effects are smooth and fluid. Cetainly, it takes some
adjustment if coming from GNOME2 and some features are missing or incomplete, but Cinnamon actually feels more usable than MATE and offers more catchy eyecandy.
Another goodie. If you like GNOME2, then you will feel at home with MATE. Runs as it should on the S3 in Ubuntu 12.04.1. Avoid enabling Compiz effects or else glitchy side effects will appear. Many times, the computer would lock up when trying to rotate the desktop cube.
Updating kernels is fun! I updated Ubuntu 12.04 with kernel 3.6.3, and it ran fine on the S3. No ultrabook incompatibilities were found.
Not everything is perfect when using Linux on the S3, and issues exist. The S3 is designed to run Windows 8, and it does so perfectly. Linux users are left on their own to fend for themselves. Here are a few issues to be aware of.
The S3 contains the UEFI BIOS (Unified Extensible Firmware Interface), but you can still install Linux on the S3 by entering the BIOS settings and choosing the Legacy BIOS. This is a requirement, not an option. Linux will not install if the UEFI BIOS mode is active–at least for the distributions I tested. I tried it. It does not work. You must set the BIOS to Legacy mode. Then, Linux installs and runs just fine.
However, Windows 8 requires the UEFI BIOS, so if you want to install and run Windows 8 from the recovery partition on the hard drive, then you must enable the UEFI BIOS. Not sure how this affects dual-booting since I never tried it.
So, to alleviate any worries regarding UEFI and the S3, Linux runs great. I tried Ubuntu 10.10, Ubuntu 12.10, and Ubuntu 12.04.1 on the S3, and all of those Linux distributions installed and ran as well and any non-UEFI desktop system.
This was a surprise. Most BIOS upgrades I have performed in the past were simple. Download the BIOS file, transfer it to a USB, and upgrade it from within the BIOS. Easy.
Not so with the S3. BIOS upgrades require Windows because the BIOS download is a Windows executable, and BIO updating is performed from within Windows. This means that if you plan to use Linux on your S3, you must upgrade the S3 BIOS while Windows still exists. This is quite the annoyance for those of us who wish to use Linux exclusively. So, upgrade the BIOS in Windows first, and then remove Windows and install Linux.
This is probably the biggest issue when running Linux on the S3. The brightness control key combination (Fn+Left or Right Arrow) does not work. This means that the S3 always boots at 100% brightness, which depletes the battery faster. By default, there is no way to control the brightness in Ubuntu.
I tried the advice of editing the /etc/default/grub file as listed below.
sudo gedit /etc/default/grub
Change this line:
To this line:
GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX=”quiet splash acpi_osi=Linux acpi_backlight=vendor”
This worked in Ubuntu 10.10 but not in Ubuntu 12.04. The Fn+L/R keys adjusted the brightness perfectly in Ubuntu 10.10. Why not in the newer version too? No idea. So, it was time to resort to different ways of adjusting the screen brightness in Ubuntu 12.04.
There are workarounds for this.
Brightness Workaround 1) If using the Cinnamon desktop, go to Cinnamon settings > Applets, and install the Brightness applet. This places an icon in the system tray and lets you easily adjust the brightness with your mouse (touchpad).
Brightness Workaround 2) The keyboard control still does not work. I resolved this by creating a keyboard shortcut of my own in the Cinnamon desktop.
1. Install xbacklight. This is a command-line program that controls the screen brightness with a variety of options.
2. In Cinnamon (or the desktop environment of your choice), open the keyboard shortcuts (Menu > Preferences > Keyboard > Shortcuts tab > Custom Shortcuts) and create two custom shortcuts.
xbacklight -inc 5
xbacklight -dec 5
Assign any key combination you like. Use the -inc and -dec options since these increment and decrement the brightness from the current brightness of the screen. man xbacklight will list the available options.
In the example, the 5 increments and decrements the screen brightness by 5% for each step. Other values are allowed to provide fine control over the screen brightness. In fact, xbacklight offers better performance than the native Fn key controls–if they work.
When the S3 boots, brightness is a default 100%. To changes this, create a startup application using xbacklight that sets the brightness to a default setting.
Menu > Preferences > Startup Applications
xbacklight -set 75
The 75 sets the brightness to 75% upon each system boot. Use whatever value you prefer.
Is the Screen Turned Off?
The brightness can be set so low that it turns the screen off–or makes it appear like the screen is turned off. The result is a black screen, and you will wonder of there is an issue with power management system. Do you need to reboot the system?
Everything is fine. When the S3 resumes from suspend or hibernation modes, the screen brightness will set to 0%, which looks like the screen is off. Just increase the brightness using the keyboard shortcuts to view the screen again. There is no need to reboot the S3 when waking from a power saving mode as with the 722.
In theory, this should work for any desktop environment, not just Cinnamon, since all it does is execute xbacklight.
How fast is the S3 compared to other systems? Let’s run Hardware Profiler and Benchmark to find out. (This Machine seen in the screenshots refers to the Aspire S3.)
When playing HD videos on the 722, high-motion scenes would occasionally skip. There was absolutely no skipping in the S3. All 1080p high-definition test movies played flawlessly on the S3. If you can endure the fan noise…
S3 or 722?
Even though the S3 is not advertised as a netbook, it almost fits the description of one. It is almost the same size, and it is just as convenient. So, is the S3 a better notebook than the 722?
It depends upon what you want to do. In my opinion, both are better and worse than the other. The S3 is faster, but there are few upgrade options. You can upgrade the 722 to 8GB of RAM and insert any 2.5″ hard drives, but the S3 is fixed with its RAM, and the slim hard drive space limits hard drive upgrade options.
If you are happy with the hardware of the S3, then you should be pleased. But if you want to enhance it with 16GB of RAM, then you might need to consider the 756 netbook.
Another point is the touchpad. The 722 touchpad includes a button bar, and it works out of the box. The S3 touchpad requires tweaking in Linux. The button bar is missing, so you must relearn how to use a touchpad on the S3.
The Aspire S3 is a superb, Linux-friendly laptop. It is slim, highly attractive to look at, and feels like a joy to use. Ubuntu 12.04.1 with the Cinnamon desktop environment runs fast, smooth, and snappy. In fact, I would say it runs faster than the pre-installed Windows 8.
If you are looking for a sleek Linux laptop and wondering if the S3 will work, then you should be more than pleased with the results. Despite the quirks and their needed workarounds mentioned above, once everything is set up and running, the Aspire S3 makes a fantastic Linux Ubuntu laptop.