David Ramsden
26Jul/16

Reviving an Acer Aspire One ZG5 Netbook

I was given an Acer Aspire One ZG5 (A110) and asked to try to update it. There were a few problems with it. Firstly, it was running Ubuntu 12.04 but the upgrade to Precise Pangolin had broken and wasn't easily recoverable. Secondly, the battery appeared to be dead and wouldn't charge. In addition I also found that a BIOS password ("user" and "supervisor") had been set but the password wasn't known.

A Modern OS

When the Aspire One first came out there was a wide range of Operating Systems to choose from. It was capable of running Windows XP, various Linux flavours, FreeBSD and even OS X. A lot of customised Linux distributions started to appear, designed specifically for netbooks. However, fast forward a few years and Windows XP is dead and a lot of the Linux distributions for netbooks are no longer actively developed and have fallen behind the times.

Wikipedia has a page dedicated to comparisons of netbook-orientated Linux distributions. Most of these are no longer actively developed, apart from a few. First I tried Lubuntu but after installing successfully, found it would get stuck booting and I didn't have the inclination to troubleshoot it.

Next I tried Manjaro Netbook Edition, a community developed flavour of Manjaro Linux. This can be downloaded here. Specifically I downloaded the latest and greatest 32-bit version (direct link to ISO). Since the Aspire One doesn't have a CD/DVD drive, I used UNetBootin to create a bootable USB thumbdrive from the ISO, booted, installed and rebooted successfully.

After logging in for the first time I was prompted to install the linux-netbook-manjaro package and palemoon-atom package. The former is a Linux kernel optimised for netbooks and the latter is an optimised version of the Palemoon browser.

I found that the package manager was extremely slow to download anything. This turned out to be because the mirror list had select a location in South Africa first. The Manjaro wiki has some handy pacman tips to resolve this.

I was then able to perform an upgrade to the latest Manjaro release, 16.06.1 (Daniella), released 11th June 2016. So finally the Aspire One had a modern and fully functional OS, including sound, wireless, webcam etc. I also installed the Flash player plugin for Palemoon (although testing BBC iPlayer is slow with sound and video out of sync), AbiWord and Skype.

Battery and BIOS

As mentioned, the other issue was the battery. It wouldn't charge. This was either because the battery was dead or there was something wrong with the charging circuitry. But one clue was after I had installed Manjaro Linux, the battery was reported as "unknown". Maybe clearing the BIOS settings and/or re-flashing the BIOS would help.

As I pressed F2 to enter the BIOS setup I was prompted for a user password. Unfortunately no one knew what this was. My first thought was to remove the CMOS battery but after a quick Google, taking the Aspire One apart was a little too much trouble.

Introducing Hiren's Boot CD. I downloaded the ISO and again used UNetBootin to create a bootable USB thumbdrive. However, after booting from it I found the boot menu was broken. To fix this I had to copy the isolinux.cfg file found inside the HBCD directory on the USB thumbdrive to the root of the USB thumbdrive, replacing the syslinux.cfg file. In one of the menus is a bunch of BIOS/CMOS tools and one of those tools can dump the plaintext strings found in the CMOS. Here, I was able to find the "user" and "supervisor" BIOS passwords.

Now I had access to the BIOS I tried loading the default settings. Unfortunately this didn't resolve the battery issue. So next was to try flashing the BIOS. Enter the SNID (found on the underside of the Aspire One) in to Acer's download and support site to get the latest BIOS download. The problem here is that the BIOS update utility is geared towards Windows users.

Acer do have a help page covering updating the BIOS on the A110 or A115 models, which involves copying some files to a FAT32 formatted USB thumbdrive, holding Fn+Esc and powering on the netbook which should initiated the BIOS upgrade. But I found this didn't work (all the right lights flashed but nothing actually happened).

The easiest (and probably safest) way to update the BIOS is to again use UNetBootin to create a bootable USB thumbdrive of FreeDOS. After that, copy the DOS folder from the Acer BIOS update download to the root of the USB thumbdrive and boot the netbook in to FreeDOS. Change to the C: drive (this will be the USB thumbdrive) and then change directory in to the DOS folder. Run the batch file to start the BIOS upgrade.

Success. BIOS upgraded and as a bonus, the battery started charging and did hold charge too.