Running and Recovering Linux on the Acer eMachines em350 Netbook

These netbooks are very cheap (< $200), ergonomically good, and run linux very nicely, but there are a few things relating to the bios to be wary of.

I first installed Ubuntu 10.10 (netbook) using Wubi, which ran very nicely, until I let a flat battery kill a sector. It proved impossible to recover the data, and rather than risk the same thing happening again I decided to replace the loop back mounted root file system with an ext3 one. The difficulty is that the current Syslinux does not work with the bios, which complains that it is being “decompiled”, and hangs the machine. Isolinux run from an external CD or USB stick (such as an ubuntu install disk) also complains and hangs , and Grub comes up with strange messages like “try (hd0,0)” and hangs.

Unfortunately after having run Grub (with unsuccessful results) to point to the newly created partition, it was no longer possible to reinstall using Wubi, even though windows still worked ok. The linux boot jammed with the same “try (hd0,0)” message. It seemed that Grub/Wubi does not initialize some essential data. No attempts to change things using Microsoft Bcdedit worked.

Grub is very confusing with its different variants and source files, and I could'nt work out how to make it work with this PC, although Wubi seems to use it successfully.

The recovery approach that worked without fuss was to use Knoppix version 6.2 “Adriane” on an external CD drive or pen-drive usb stick (both work,the usb stick was 4g. unpartitioned and formatted FAT16/msdos)). Knoppix 6.2 is very impressive. Knoppix 6.4 would not boot on the em360, and stopped immediately with the isolinux banner in a similar manner to ubuntu 10.10.

To set up the PC, I decided to scrub the quarrelsome edition of Windows 7 and the MS boot manager, repartition the whole disk, and then use Knoppix to copy all files needed onto the empty partition.

Everything works fine with ubuntu, which installs the Broadcom WiFi driver without trouble. The B43 Wifi driver from b43-fwcutter would not work under Debian and kernel 2.34. The quick and nasty, but effective, solution to this was to install the Broadcom proprietary driver from ubuntu package bcmwl-kernel-source.deb after the ubuntu foreign kernel module interface package dkms.deb.

Installing boot manager and MBR:

It is commonly suggested to set up the boot partition and then use “chroot” to run “lilo” or “grub”, but this sucks because of all the hassles with device (“/dev/null”) access. The easier way to set up the boot manager is to install and use “lilo” , and run it from the Knoppix root environment with the variables set in the configuration file appropriately for lilo running from Knoppix.

My lilo config file was lilo.config

After configuring the lilo.config file to match the devices as seen from the Knoppix environment (my hard disk was sda1 and the OS partition was sda1), run “lilo -C lilo.config” and reboot.