Two posts ago I mentioned that our goddaughter donated three older laptops for me to find good homes for. In that post, I had already found a good home for the better two of them (the very next day). The third laptop was the one in the title of this post, an Acer Aspire 5 A515-43-R19L from 2019. The CPU is an AMD Ryzen 3 3200U. It’s a reasonably decent CPU (the rough equivalent of an 8th generation Intel i5).
The build quality of the laptop is surprisingly good as well, including an extremely nice 1080p screen and a backlit keyboard. As nice as all that is, it only comes with 4GB of RAM (memory) and 128GB SSD (storage). Windows 10 runs OK on it, but it’s no world-beater. If you were to push this machine even a little, you’d quickly realize that it’s simply under-powered (and not really due to the CPU).
When I read some specs about the machine I was under the impression that the RAM was soldered on the motherboard (a number of Acer models apparently do that), and therefore wasn’t upgradeable. That turns out to be wrong. There are two SODIMM slots, with one having the 4GB module installed and the other free to install another module. The SSD is small, but also upgradeable. It’s an NVMe PCIe 3.0, which is fine.
My original intention was to wipe it and put the new Chrome OS Flex on it (this is a recent fully-sanctioned release of Chrome OS for regular non-Chromebook machines). The amount of RAM and storage on this machine would be perfectly fine for that purpose. I’m happy with my 11″ old Lenovo Chromebook, and I figured that this 15.6″ would make a very nice machine for someone (possibly even including me).
Thankfully, before I downloaded and installed Chrome OS Flex on it, I read a little bit about it. It turns out that while Flex gives you the normal Chromebook experience, it has one giant short-coming. It does not support Android Apps. Most people who are looking for a laptop wouldn’t find that to be a negative. If they would be happy with the limitations of a Chromebook, they wouldn’t miss not having Android apps. For me, I would have no interest in a Chromebook that couldn’t run Android apps as well.
So, putting Flex on this and giving it away was still an option, but since I didn’t have someone immediately in mind to give it to, I figured I could do some other experiments with it before finally putting Flex on it and giving it away.
My personal favorite OS is Arch Linux. I run it on my 9-year-old laptop (which runs unbelievably well). I run it on 5 Celeron-based headless servers. I had little doubt it would be great on the Acer as well, even with the low-end specs for RAM and SSD.
I was right. I messed up a bit installing Arch on it, even though I had successfully installed Arch on a headless server just a couple of weeks ago (so I can’t complain that I was rusty installing Arch). It installed fine, but I couldn’t get X-Windows (technically Xorg) and i3wm (the i3 Window Manager) to work correctly (neither of which I needed to install on the headless server). It turned out to be incredibly stupid stuff on my part, and after wasting a couple of hours, I figured it out, and everything was working beautifully.
I liked it enough that I was happy I didn’t put Flex on it. For a few minutes I seriously considered keeping this box for myself. The two primary uses would be:
- Emergency laptop in case my ancient one dies before I replace it. I’d be able to run for as long as necessary until I picked a new high-end one.
- Use in bed or on the couch on occasion (especially when some emergency operations need to be performed on a server after I’ve turned off my primary laptop for the night). My main laptop is a tank. It doesn’t leave the office unless I’m traveling and it certainly never sits on my lap.
Before fully settling in to this machine, I decided to reach out to another friend. He needed a laptop in November and we hooked him up with an Acer Chromebook that was on a huge sale at Best Buy (pre-Black Friday). I wasn’t sure that he would be happy with a Chromebook and I was pretty sure he wouldn’t tell me even if that was true.
So, I reached out to him and asked him if he’d like to swap the Chromebook for this Acer running Windows. My intention was to upgrade the Acer before giving it to him (if he said he wanted it). He immediately said no, but asked if I would be wiling to give it to a friend of his (who we met once six years ago). I said sure (but still intended to upgrade it as this was not a machine that anyone should be subjected to Windows on with the current specs).
Thankfully, before installing Arch, I used Clonezilla to fully back up the 128GB SSD to an external drive. I got on Amazon and ordered 16GB of RAM (two 8GB sticks) and a 1TB SSD (overkill, but the larger the SSD, the longer it will last, especially if you are underutilizing the space dramatically!). Total cost of the upgrade = $100.
Both items showed up the next day (which was two nights ago!). First, I backed up the Arch installation using Clonezilla, in case I ever wanted to just restore it somewhere else without having to start from scratch! Next, I opened up the laptop (10 screws on the back, even though a number of sites claimed there are 11, which other Acer models apparently have). I took out the single 4GB RAM module and inserted the two 8GB ones. I removed the 128GB SSD and installed the 1TB one.
I closed it up and fired up Clonezilla again. This time I restored the saved image of Windows 10 from the original SSD onto the new SSD. I booted the machine to make sure it all worked (which it did), but, it was only using 128GB of the new SSD (that’s how a disk restore works). I couldn’t simply use the built-in Windows Disk Management Extend feature to enlarge the C Partition, because the Recovery Partition (only 1GB large) was immediately adjacent after the C Partition.
I shutdown Windows and fired up a USB stick with Gparted on it. Actually, that’s an oversimplification! It’s a 32GB USB stick with Ventoy installed on it. Ventoy is awesome. It boots up and presents a menu allowing you to further boot any ISO you copy over on to the drive. I have a number of ISOs on the drive at the moment:
- Arch Linux Installation (that I used to install the headless server and the Acer laptop)
- Snallinux (a Live Arch ISO running the i3 Window Manager)
- SuperGrub2 (a very cool bootloader that helps diagnose and boot disks with botched bootloaders)
- SystemrescueCD (my favorite tool for working on potentially broken systems, also Arch based)
In the past I’ve also had Windows Install media on Ventoy, among other utilities. It’s an amazing piece of software. Specifically, when a new version of any of the above is released, I don’t have to burn a new USB image. I simply delete the previous version of (e.g., SystemrescueCD) and copy the new one over, with normal copy commands. The Ventoy partition boots and automatically sees the newer version of the ISO.
Back to our original story. I booted into the Gparted ISO. I moved the 1GB recovery partition to the last 1GB of the 1TB SSD (that took one second!). Then I rebooted into Windows. I could have extended the C Drive (technically, the C Partition) using Gparted, perfectly safely, but I preferred to do it in Windows. Using the Disk Management tool, it took one second to extend the C Drive using the full Unallocated Space that was now contiguous with the C Drive.
Once done, I did a couple of Windows Updates. When they were done, I forced the free Windows 11 upgrade. After that, some more Windows 11 Updates (what a joy it is to work in Windows… not…). Finally, when Windows claimed to be 100% updated, I shutdown again and did a full Clonezilla backup of the Windows 11 1TB disk. That would save me in the future if anything went wrong (it also meant that the Recovery Partition that I so carefully moved was basically useless, as it would revert the machine to Windows 10, but still, someone else would be able to recover it, even if I wasn’t around).
You’d think I was done now. But, I wasn’t, not even close…
In order to perform all of the updates, I logged in with my account. It also was connected to my home network (via WiFi). I wanted to remove myself from the machine, but leave it in a state where a normal user would be able to create a login. I had never done that before.
Googling couldn’t have made it harder if they tried. What I did first, just to ensure that none of my data was left, was to create a new Administrator account. Then I logged in as that account and deleted my account (including the data). That should suffice if I was giving the machine to a techie, since they could log in and do the same thing in reverse. Create a new account with their username, then log in to that account and delete this temporary Administrator account. But, I didn’t want to have to talk a novice through that.
From the first page of Google results, I realized that the way to do it was booting into Audit Mode. From there I could delete existing accounts and also the WiFi network, and put the machine into OOBE (Out Of Box Experience), so when booted, the user would be prompted to set up the machine as if it was brand new.
Sounded perfect, and it was/is, except that every link on the first page of results was essentially gobbledygook in terms of instructions for getting into Audit Mode (½ the links were from Microsoft themselves!). I’m not saying someone who is an expert in MS Software wouldn’t have been able to follow along, but man, as technical as I am, I didn’t even have a clue as to how to begin.
It’s pretty rare for me (or most people) to go to the second page of Google results (let alone deeper than that). But, I did, since I knew that Audit Mode was the answer, I just didn’t know how to trigger it! Thankfully, either on page 2 or page 3, I found the answer, and it was trivial. That only made me more annoyed that it wasn’t the first result!
There is a program called sysprep.exe. If you run it and pass it the parameter /audit then on the next boot, it will automatically go into Audit Mode (there are many other interesting and useful parameters to the sysprep command). Now I needed to do a separate Google search to find out where sysprep.exe lived, since it isn’t in the path.
It lives in: c:\windows\system32\sysprep
That’s the sysprep directory. I launched the cmd terminal with Administrator Rights and cd‘ed into that directory. Easy peasy (once you know).
I then rebooted, and came up in Audit Mode. Now I could follow the instructions of one of the more useful results from page one of the original Google search results. Namely, hit cancel on this screen, to remain in Administrator Mode, without creating a user. It’s a special temporary admin user that will be deleted when you next reboot!
In this mode I was able to kill the Administrator user I created and wipe out the WiFi network for my house. Then I rebooted into Audit Mode again, but this time, hit OK which defaults to the OOBE mode mentioned above.
The machine was now prompting to be set up as if it just came off the assembly line. Voila!
I packed the machine up and we met our friend for lunch. Afterward I handed him the laptop which he was going to deliver to his friend that evening.
So, within a week of getting the three laptops from our goddaughter, all of them found wonderful new homes. I’m a little sad not to have the Acer to mess around with personally, but extremely happy that it will get much more use with someone who needs it much more than I do.