[updated June 2021]
[June 2021] New chapter about Ubuntu 20.04
The Acer Nitro 5 is an interesting breed; decent computing power, a mid-range SSD, a large screen with high contrast, a decent and solid keyboard with good haptics at an ok price – but will it run Ubuntu 18.04? (yes, it will – also with Ubuntu 20.04)
Live Boot from USB
The Nitro comes with Windows 10 home pre-installed and UEFI secure boot enabled – booting Ubuntu from an USB drive thankfully doesn’t require disabling secure boot. I downloaded the Ubuntu 18.04 LTS image, installed Rufus, partitioned the USB stick with a single volume and had Rufus install Ubuntu on it. Important: this will not work if a data persistence is chosen; Ubuntu will fail booting then. Since I “just” wanted to try out basic hardware compatibility that isn’t much of a problem – or so I thought.
Ubuntu boots just fine off the stick. These things work out of the box: WIFI (5 GHz), webcam, USB, sound (internal/external), microphone (internal/external), keyboard backlight. I didn’t try bluetooth or the secondary nvidia graphics card.
The first surprise lurks behind trying to install Ubuntu on the SSD: no drives are found. The reason is that the BIOS enables Intel’s optane mode. Disabling it is kind of tricky: enter the BIOS, set a supervisor password (this unlocks advanced settings), go to advanced settings, press CTRL + S (this unlocks the hidden optane setting), change from optane to AHCI.
A few notes after running Ubuntu for a week now:
- Resuming from standby will freeze the mouse pointer for 10-20 seconds; everything else works fine and the mouse pointer thaws after a while (Update April 2020: this issue mutated into a random, temporary freeze [~10 seconds] which goes away). Update May 2021: the issue is gone. I can run the laptop for a week without rebooting with several daily sleep/resume cycles without any issues.
- After resuming from standby the laptop’s screen will freeze at some point (much) later; applications continue to run, key strokes are (apparently) not registered and the screen isn’t updated any more. A cold reboot is required after that. I was able to work around that by blacklisting nouveau.
- One of the many fans always spins at a low to mid speed.
- The laptop gets pretty warm even at moderate use, but that was an issue already with Windows
- The battery won’t last more than 2 hours; this worries me as the laptop is brand new. Update May 2021: a year later, the situation hasn’t improved or deteriorated.
- The webcam resolution is low and the picture is noisy; update January 2021: guvcview can set higher resolution and modes if enough light is present. The camera stays nosy though.
- Sound occasionally stutters under I/O load. Sound in Firefox occasionally stops.
- Ubuntu on the laptop feels overall faster and more responsive than Windows 10
- Update April 2020: installing the proprietary nvidia-435 driver and using the prime package for switching between Intel and nvidia GPUs works flawlessly
- Update May 2020: I was wrong, not disabling the nvidia GPU crashes the computer at some point. Uninstalled nvidia drivers again (blacklisting is not enough).
- The bottom key row (YXCVBNM) on the keyboard goes dead sometimes. Squishing the plastic between the last key row and the touch pad seems to work around the issue. I’m waiting for it to become worse before using the warranty, because the issue is spurious and I can totally see how it wouldn’t show when I take the laptop back to the shop and try to demonstrate the issue. Update April 2021: the issue is a loose cable and very easily fixed as kalbasnikov shows on YouTube.
- Bluetooth works, I didn’t try HDMI, LAN does almost 100 MB/s
- 5GHz Wifi nets 10 MB/s but is sometimes unstable, 2,4 GHz works ok.
- The lowest, non-zero, screen brightness level is too high, but writing values to the /sys/class/backlight/intel_backlight/brightness device allows much finer brightness control – but you have to write a script for that and bind it to a key combination.
- 2x USB 3.0 and 1x USB 2.0 ports work fast and reliably.
Update May 2021
While fixing the dead keys issue (see comment above) I took the chance for a peek under the covers. The Nitro 5 has several internal extension slots I wasn’t aware of: two NVM express slots for flash memory, two RAM slots and an empty bay for a 2,5″ SSD. I found in the original packaging an easily overlooked cable and was able to install a 2,5″ SSD. I salvaged a second NVME flash from an older laptop and installed it next to the pre-installed one. Neither Linux nor the BIOS saw the flash, however once I switched their order, both were recognised just fine. One NVME slot is labelled as SATA/NVME and the other just as NVME. Surprisingly, one drive shows up as /dev/nvme0 and the other as /dev/sda and the SSD installed with the cable shows up as /dev/sdb. I have 3 flash drives now in the laptop 🙂
A quick note about Ubuntu 20.04: I performed an upgrade from within a running 18.04 to 20.04 – everything works as expected. Even the hybrid nvidia graphics works now with the nouveau module with clean standby/resume. Wifi, trackpad and camera works fine as do the extra nvme and SSDs. More details will follow. Tested kernel 5.4.0-74-generic.
Desktop icons were missing after the upgrade, but that is probably not hardware-specific. Anyhow, there are easy workaround.
Minimum screen brightness is quite low (that is good) but can’t be reduced to zero any more.
After almost 18 months with the laptop I admit that I’m fairly happy with it despite its quirks. The screen is excellent and the 120Hz refresh rate shows in smooth scrolling and mouse movement, though I wish it were brighter. I couldn’t get the nvidia hybrid graphics card working under Ubuntu, but as I use it mostly for work that is ok. It is fast, has plenty of RAM, a potent CPU and can be fitted with 3 flash drives for plenty of storage. The nitro 5 is quite a chunky piece of equipment, produces heat and drains its battery fast – so not a travel companion. The keyboard has an adjustable red backlight which I enjoy a lot, keys have sufficient depth and typing is ok even for longer sessions. Servicing and extending the laptop is extremely easy and despite rough handling it doesn’t show any signs of ageing.