How to install FreeBSD on an Acer TravelMate 8371 ... and not brick it

After about 5 years of almost daily use my laptop more or less fell apart. The built-in speakers have been mute for years, the battery plug was worn out, the battery itself barely lasted for 20 min when I unplugged the box, and the backlight no longer allowed to use any setting other than the lowest, making the box a nice companion for dark nights. This finally convinced me that it is about time to get a new one.

After a couple of weekends spent on surveying the market, I purchased an Acer TravelMate 8371 that seemed to suit my needs. Needless to say, it ships with an OS from Redmond that I simply don't care for. When I tried to install a far better replacement (aka FreeBSD), I almost bricked the box. Read on to see how to avoid this.

According to the specs, installing FreeBSD on the 8371 should not be too challenging. I expected some difficulties with the external CD drive which I had purchased separately in lieu of an internal optical drive, but most components like graphics and network were supposed to work out of the box. I first used a Knoppix Linux live CD to test the basics. Knoppix would boot just fine and do almost everything right, including graphics, sound, and network. It didn't handle the touchpad well (maybe by design), but I knew that this could easily be fixed by using some xorg tweaks. This is where I decided to give FreeBSD a try.

In went the FreeBSD 8.1-RELEASE netinstall boot CD. As the box has 4GB of memory, I used the amd64 branch to make best use of it. First I had to partition the hard drive (create slices in BSD lingo). The partition editor displayed a plethora of partitions and unassigned areas on the drive, only two of which were NTFS partitions. I'd expect one to be the restore image, the other the real Windows 7 installation. I boldly decided to use the entire disk as a single slice and went ahead to partition that slice (BSD partitions reside in one or more slices, so you can have all of your BSD partitions in a single PC partition). The remainder of the installation was uneventful, as I decided to install only the basics for the time being. bash was all I wanted to see work in the first place.

Then the moment of truth arrived, and I rebooted the box. Nothing happened. The box got stuck in the initial Acer splash screen, and neither F2 (edit BIOS) nor F12 (boot device menu) would work for me. All I could do is press Ctrl-Alt-Del to powercycle the brick. This didn't exactly come up to my expectations.

I was prepared to return the laptop, as it didn't seem to like non-Windoze OSes on its HDD at all. The freebsd-mobile mailing list came to the rescue, as others had noticed this problem before on other Acer notebooks. Turns out that Acer uses a weird BIOS setting for the internal HDD which apparently works well only with Windows. Now I was in a catch 22 as I wasn't able to edit the BIOS once FreeBSD was installed. The BIOS apparently got stuck in an endless loop trying to access the drive in an improper mode. Someone suggested to remove the HDD temporarily to avoid this loop, and it indeed allowed me to edit the BIOS and alter this setting. After restoring the drive, FreeBSD would boot just fine. Phew.

If you'd like to avoid this kind of trouble, here's how:

1) during the initial splash screen, hit F2 to enter BIOS setup

2) enable the boot menu

3) set the HDD mode from AHCI to IDE

4) reboot with a Clonezilla stick or CD to clone the HDD contents, in
case you need to go back to square one

5) reboot with your favourite FreeBSD install medium

And this is the proper way if you missed step 3):

1) turn the laptop upside down

2) loosen the two obvious screws of the HDD lid. They are secured by
retainers, so they won't come off entirely

3) use gentle force to lift up the lid, e.g. by means of a plastic
credit card. The lid is clipped in on three sides.

4) remove the HDD

5) switch on the box and hit F2 to enter BIOS setup

6) set the HDD mode from AHCI to IDE

7) switch off the box

8) put the HDD back into place and close the lid

9) switch on the box and, lo and behold, it is going to boot again

Kommentare

Dave Pawson meint:

Oh you do have fun Markus.
Donnerstag 18 November 10:03

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