Home opinion-and-analysis The Linux Distillery Restoring and updating the ASUS Eee Linux PC

Restoring and updating the ASUS Eee Linux PC

Well, I’ve been hornswaggled. My lovely brand-new ASUS Eee from Myer may have been a shop-soiled demo model. It wasn’t a virgin system but one that had played the field with many. Never worry: here’s how to take the ASUS Eee back to the complete factory image at any time, along with how to update the apps and Xandros Linux distro that it uses.
Last time, I reported my Eee booted into its bold iconic interface straight away; there was no login prompt or EULA. Yet, the instructional guide accompanying the unit says there should actually have been a first-time setup wizard.

Presumably, the Myer store turned the Eee on, themself, at some time – and went through the wizard, entering a username (they opted for brevity, entering the ever so subtle “m”) and – get this – accepting the EULA before on-selling it. This raises an interesting question for someone more legally-minded than I: what is the standing of an end-user license which has not been accepted by the end user, because they were never presented with it?

Nevertheless, time to turn the clock back. An ASUS support DVD is provided, loaded with Windows drivers and tools. The guide promises the existence of a tool to make a bootable recovery USB floppy disk. Obviously, the Eee doesn’t have its own optical disc and nor does it run Windows anyway (out of the box, at least, but ASUS provide Windows XP drivers so anyone can do so if they choose.)

The first snag with the support DVD is it needs a Windows PC; you can’t run its apps on another Linux system or a Mac. Secondly, the support disc doesn’t work as well as advertised. This may be a fault of the software or it may be a problem due to the Windows Vista system I used, but the disc’s autorun did nothing. Double-clicking setup.exe on the disc’s root did nothing. Running assetup.exe in the bin directory did nothing.

Happily, Toolhelper.exe found within the Software\BootTool folder did work – and this let me copy the ASUS Eee 701 image to a USB stick (provided it is larger than 1Gb) and make it bootable. Even so this wasn’t strictly troublefree; if you’re not paying close attention the “Quit” and “Run” buttons are in the opposite areas to where you’d normally expect.

Not to worry, it worked, and a bootable USB drive resulted which can restore the Eee to its pristine state at any time. Toolhelper was a two stage process; first it formats the USB drive. You are then prompted to remove the drive and re-insert it so Windows detects it again. Be careful not to click the badly worded “Retry” button too soon; open Windows Explorer to make sure the USB drive has been re-detected by Windows before continuing, otherwise my experience was the program wouldn’t continue – no matter how many attempts you made to retry afterwards; the only option was to cancel and restart.

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Once the files are copied over, checking the USB stick in Windows shows that the GRUB boot loader has been installed, a 0 byte file indicating the build version (2007.10.07_04.33) and a gzip’d archive containing the disk image. This is called P701L.gz and is 873Mb compressed; inside is a single file called asus_2007.10.07_04.33.img which is 2,467,594,240 bytes uncompressed. This correlates exactly with the approximately 2.5Gb disk space consumed already on the 4Gb solid-state drive when you first boot the Eee.

Now for the money shot: insert the USB stick into the Eee and power it on. You need to be quick and press F2 as soon as you can to call up the BIOS setup utility, otherwise the Eee will ignore the USB stick and boot as normal.

In the BIOS, arrow over to the Boot tab. Ignore the “Boot order” section that you might expect to use; you actually need to go into “Hard Disk Drives.” Set the first drive to be your USB drive, not the device labelled “HDD:SM-SILICONMOTI”, i.e. the Silicon Motion solid state hard drive. Press F10 to save your changes and restart the system.

This time your Eee screen proudly displays “Uncompressing Linux...” followed soon by “OK, booting the kernel.” If you do not see this, be sure to check you set the hard disk drive order, and failing that try re-running the ToolHelper utility.

Subsequent messages announce the computer is probing devices, declaring

Waiting 15 sec for USB subsystem...
Trying disk sdb...
Trying disk sdc...
Found EEEPC-701 image on Flash Voyager [/dev/sdc]...
Ready to image ASUS Eee PC 701 using build 2007.10.07_04.33.
Enter “yes” to continue, anything else to reboot.
Typing yes kicks off the installation, the USB stick’s activity light pumping like a disco.
Installing from USB image (Estimated time required 5 minutes).
Expect to write 75305 records of 32k...

After a sizeable pause, more text flashes onscreen:

75305+0 records in
75305+0 records out
Done... Creating user partition...
Done... Formatting user partition...
mke2fs 1.40-WIP (14-Nov-2006)
mkfs.vfat 2.11 (12 Mar 2005)
Ready... Press ENTER to reboot

Press the enter key to reboot, and remove the USB stick (or else you’ll simply repeat the above process.)

You can re-use the USB stick for any purpose, although you’ll need to use ToolHelper again to reformat it. Or, if you can spare it, I’d recommend leaving the USB stick with your Eee box and manuals and disc so you can restore it at any future time. This allows you to run free with your imagination, trying alternate operating systems – some people have replaced Xandros with Ubuntu for example – and know confidently you will always be able to go back if ever you either have to or want to.

You might also want to re-enter the BIOS to revert the hard drive boot order back to the original configuration just for tidiness. While in there, I also think it’s worth altering the startup display to show the POST checks, giving you a more traditional computer startup experience.

Nevertheless, booting from the hard drive causes the first run wizard to take place, just as the manual promises.

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Before being able to use the ASUS Eee you are required to accept the end user license agreement. The license fundamentally says (a) the computer comes with the ASUS Desktop OS which is a collection of software items, (b) some of these are licensed under the GNU GPL and have permissions outlined by that license, (c) there may also exist other software which is not licensed under the GPL or similar permissive licenses. Don’t distribute, copy, reverse-engineer (etc) those programs. The only two pre-installed programs which I found prompted for a subsequent license to be accepted are Skype and the Diagnostic Tool applet.

Upon accepting the license, you are prompted for your keyboard layout and then to enter your name. This is where my Myer salesperson identified himself or herself by a single-letter moniker but I’m slightly more verbose. Next, the wizard prompts for a password. Blank passwords cannot be entered. This therefore also means my ever-helpful Myer person must have entered a password which I then had no knowledge of – although “m” may well have been a good guess. A checkbox allows the computer to log in automatically when starting up; this is checked by default. If you uncheck it your ASUS Eee will require you to enter your password upon each startup.

The next, and final, wizard step is the date and time, with the default time zone being America – New York, as previously discovered when my Eee started up and showed the wrong time. This is easily set to the correct time zone and on doing so the wizard is over. The Eee reboots, starting up back into the ever-so friendly six-tabbed interface for which it has become famed.

Of course, on this occasion the time zone is now correct – but my previous gripe about the need to manually detect wireless networks still holds.

Now you have a completely pristine environment, it’s time to get it up-to-date with any new software releases since the factory image was built. Click the Settings tab, then Add/Remove Software. This applet will use your Internet connection to probe ASUS’ web site for new downloads. For those keen to know what’s going on under the hood, Task Manager identifies that the underlying command being run is /opt/xandros/bin/XNLite.

At the time of writing, there are a couple of updates to existing software as well as two new programs. Skype, Dictionary, Voice Control and Internet Radio all have new versions, although only Internet Radio’s version number is indicated (v3.45-1asus1). The new apps both load onto the Settings tab. The first is GSynaptics, labelled “Touchpad”, which lets you make changes to the touchpad’s behaviour and settings on the fly. The second is ASUS’ wireless range maximiser, labelled “EEEAP.”

In an oddly Windows-like fashion, each update insisted a reboot was required although I found there was no problem delaying the reboot until all updates had been installed.

Additionally, the Add/Remove Software applet indicates if there is a BIOS update to the Eee hardware itself. There’s one new update – version 0401 dated 5-Oct-2007. You can check your current BIOS version both by watching carefully when the system first starts up or by calling up a command prompt by pressing CTRL+ALT+T at the same time and then executing the command sudo /usr/sbin/biosupdate.pl --current. On my Eee the BIOS was 0204. Unfortunately the description displayed in Add/Remove Software is extremely brief and didn’t give any real clues to what had been added or repaired in the update.

Under the hood, the BIOS update runs the PERL script /usr/sbin/biosupdate.pl --install http://update.eeepc.asus.com/bios/701-ASUS-0401.zip; this in turn calls /usr/bin/wget --quiet http://update.eeepc.asus.com/bios/701-ASUS-0401.zip to actually download the zip file.

After biosupdate.pl completes, let the Eee reboot. It will shut down and fire back up, launching the BIOS update tool automatically. This does not take any lengthy time to complete, before rebooting again – this time the BIOS displaying “0401” as its version.

Join me next Monday as I go deeper under the hood of the ASUS Eee Linux PC. For Linux lovers, note the CTRL+ALT+T terminal window; it gives a great feeling to get dirty with a bash shell and makes the Eee really feel like home again.

The command prompt is the key to doing much, much more with the Eee than the default tabbed interface permits and you’ll harness the raw power underneath.

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David M Williams

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David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. Within two years, he returned to his alma mater, the University of Newcastle, as a UNIX systems manager. This was a crucial time for UNIX at the University with the advent of the World-Wide-Web and the decline of VMS. David moved on to a brief stint in consulting, before returning to the University as IT Manager in 1998. In 2001, he joined an international software company as Asia-Pacific troubleshooter, specialising in AIX, HP/UX, Solaris and database systems. Settling down in Newcastle, David then found niche roles delivering hard-core tech to the recruitment industry and presently is the Chief Information Officer for a national resources company where he particularly specialises in mergers and acquisitions and enterprise applications.