Ubuntu 11.10 on the ASUS Aspire One D250 (AOD250-1070)

2GB RAM, 512KB cache, Atom N280, Intel 945GME graphics


My wife has been very happy with the Aspire One running XP as a way to take notes at meetings, but lately, it keeps forgetting about its wireless interface. So I installed Ubuntu on it as a diagnostic tool with WUBI, and forgot about it. Later, while scraping together eight machines for a Minecraft birthday party for my eight year old son, I tried running it on the Aspire under XP. Framerate was terrible, and someone said it was better under Linux. So I booted into the Ubuntu install, and actually tried using it. It worked, but...

Updating BIOS

The CPU is reported as an N270 instead of an N280, and is stuck at 800 MHz. This is a well known bug, and the supposed fix is to flash the BIOS to version 1.26 or later.

The BIOS can be downloaded from Acer at support.acer.com, but the bundled readme says you need either a DOS bootable USB stick or an "HP Windows 7 system", neither of which I have handy.

Happily, there is a "crisis disk" procedure that lets you update the BIOS with a nonbootable USB stick. (See e.g. notebookreview.com.)

Creating the USB stick is a bit tricky. Here's what worked for me (be sure to substitute the device name for your usb stick, don't accidentally format your second real hard drive!):

  1. fdisk /dev/sdb
    1. print partition table and make sure it's really the usb stick!
    2. delete existing partitions
    3. create a 16MB partition
    4. give it type 4 (i.e. FAT16 less than 32MB)
    5. write the changes and quit
  2. mkfs.msdos -F12 /dev/sdb1
  3. mount /dev/sdb1 /mnt
  4. cp BIOS_Acer_1.29_Windows/DOS/*.{EXE,fd} /mnt
  5. umount /mnt
Then, to use it:
  1. remove the laptop's battery and power cord
  2. insert the USB stick
  3. hold down the FN and ESC keys
  4. plug in the power cord (power light should flash once briefly)
  5. release FN and ESC
  6. power up the laptop
It should turn on its fans but not the power light or the screen. The USB stick will flash its reading light for about ten seconds, and about a minute or two later, the system will reboot.

If the system doesn't reboot and come back to life by itself within ten minutes, it probably couldn't read the USB stick properly, try again (possibly with a different stick; I had to try two).

With the new BIOS...

... the CPU was finally reported as N280, yay, and /proc/cpuinfo reported the CPU speed as 1000MHz rather than 800. However, 'cpufreq-set -g performance' didn't change the cpu frequency reported by /proc/cpuinfo, even though it changed the frequency reported by 'cpufreq-info'.

And the BIOS update didn't get Minecraft above 1fps. Does the Atom really suck? Or is it something else?

By comparison, an Inspiron B130, Ubuntu 12.04, 1GB RAM, 2MB cache, Pentium M 1.7GHz, Intel 915GM, cpufreq-set -g performance, with game set for "graphics:fast, render distance:short, performance:max fps" gets about 8fps.

Possible culprits:

After looking at "Understanding Minecraft Performance", I tried adding more tweaks on the Atom: -Xmx400m -Xms300m on the commandline, and setting "Bobbing Off, Advanced OpenGL, Clouds Off, Particles Decreased" in the game's graphics options (in addition to "graphics:fast, render distance:short, performance:max fps"). This brought it up to 5fps, which is just barely playable.