Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Acer TimelineX 1830T: 2 year report and hard drive replacement notes

Attention conservation notice: Google-food for a gadget you will probably never need to know about.

About two years ago, I bought an Acer 1830T as a cheap second laptop to throw in my bag (alongside my work-issued Macbook Pro; I segregate work and personal computing fairly rigorously when I'm employed).

Some people say you can't get a decent laptop for much less than $1,000, and indeed many cheap laptops are terrible. However, I found that I used this dinky little plastic laptop almost as much as the Macbook Pro, and often enjoyed doing so. Even now, having quit my job and bought a workstation-class laptop for personal hacking, I still reach for the 1830T pretty often because it's tiny and light.

I'm also planning a 9-week multi-country international trip in the near future. Losing my big expensive workstation laptop would be hugely painful. Losing the 1830T would be an annoying but tolerable inconvenience. Guess which laptop I'll be toting around the globe to hostels and sundry.

On the other hand, even after all this time, the keyboard and touchpad still feel a little awkward compared to other keyboards and pointing devices I use.

Overall, I'm happy with the return on investment for this machine. However, if I were looking for a new machine to fill a similar role today, I would probably spend slightly more and get an Thinkpad X131e (Intel version), mostly due to Lenovo's superior ergonomics.

Replacing the hard disk with an SSD

Recently, I dropped this laptop on a hardwood floor while the disk was churning vigorously on a vagrant suspend. The disk was destroyed. I back up everything that matters, to a mixture of external disks and remote git repositories, so the permanent data loss was minimal. Still, the laptop needed a new hard drive.

SSDs have gotten amazingly cheap. I got the 120GB Samsung 840, which currently retails for $100. Granted, spinning-platter hard drives are even cheaper — a 500GB 7200RPM 2.5" drive costs about $60 — but a 120GB SSD is silent, much more durable, much faster, and large enough for everything I'm going to do with this laptop. So I bought the SSD.

A younger version of myself would have installed Linux next, and called it a day. I decided to try to get Acer's Windows 7 image running on it again instead. In hindsight, I can't fully justify this decision, except with reference to vague worries about whether suspend and the HDMI output would work well. Regardless, if you're reading this, I imagine you might want to reinstall Windows too, so I'll go into some detail about the process.

Now, by default, Acer expects the hard disk to be configured with a recovery partition, so that the system can be restored directly from the hard disk ("D2D recovery") in case of OS corruption. I think this is a waste of time and space, particularly since I ordered recovery CDs anyway (see below). However, if you want to try to set up a recovery partition prior to installing the OS, then feel free to wade through threads like this for help. The instructions below won't bother.

Here are the steps I took:

  1. Order Acer eRecovery discs for my machine's serial number, and wait for them to arrive. It took 3 days in total, from the day I ordered online until the day I received the discs by expedited FedEx, and cost about $38 including shipping. The package I received contained 4 discs: "System Disc (1 of 1)", "Recover Disc (1 of 2)", "Recovery Disc (2 of 2)", and "Language Disc".
  2. Open up the laptop's bottom panel with a small cross-head screwdriver. The RAM, wireless card, and hard drive are all easily accessible. It is trivial to remove the old hard drive and swap in a replacement, as the image below shows.

    It's a refreshing throwback to see a machine made this way. This style of design seems to be on its way out, at least in consumer markets, as people prefer sleek and hermetically sealed to slightly chunky and upgradeable.
  3. Connect an external USB CD-ROM drive and insert the disc labeled "System Disc".
  4. Turn on the machine. During the boot screen, press F2 to enter BIOS setup. In the "Main" section, find the option labeled "D2D Recovery" and toggle it to "Disabled". Press F10 to save and exit.
  5. During the reboot, quickly press F12 to bring up the boot order menu. Select the CD-ROM drive and press Enter.

  6. At the first menu screen, select a language.

  7. At the second menu screen, select the option to "Completely Restore System to Factory Defaults".

  8. Follow the onscreen instructions, inserting new discs when prompted. The recovery program may eventually ask you to insert a nonexistent "System Disc 2". This is a defect in Acer's recovery software. I am not sure if this is somehow specific to the discs I got (are these recovery discs burned on demand, or mass-produced?). Regardless, here's what I did to deal with this error:
    1. Hard reboot by holding down the power button until the machine turns off.
    2. Turn on the computer. Once again, at the boot screen, press F12 and boot from the CD-ROM.
    3. At the first menu screen, select the option to "Restore Operating System and Retain User Data". There will be no user data to back up, but this is harmless. It appears that in this recovery code path, the defect which requests "System Disc 2" is not triggered.
    Eventually, recovery will complete and the system will boot into Windows.
  9. I found that, for some reason, the default recovery image did not include drivers for the Broadcom wireless card. I plugged into a wired network, went to Acer's 1830T driver page, and downloaded and installed the Broadcom Wireless LAN Driver dated 2011/08/23. (Not all 1830T machines contain a Broadcom card, so this step may not apply.)

From then on, it was merely the usual routine of repeatedly running Windows Update until fixpoint, uninstalling crapware, and installing the considerable complement of additional software needed to make Windows a tolerable development environment.

This probably sounds like a huge hassle, and it was, particularly the "insert System Disc 2" problem. Ultimately, though, I resurrected a broken laptop for about $138, and I expect this laptop to last at least another year, so I suppose it was worth the trouble.


  1. I have just come across this. I run the same machine on Linux with an SSD upgrade. There are only a few issues depending on which wireless and bluetooth chipsets the laptop shipped with. All are easily remediable.

    Users wanting to reinstall Win 7 and not wanting to purchase recovery disks can download the Win 7 image from My Digital Life and use the license printed on the underside of the laptop. Up to date drivers can then be installed from the Acer website.

    The laptop is 3 years old and still going strong (despite a view visits to the floor).

  2. I have the same laptop. Despite having a 1yr old Mac Book Pro running Win 7 I still find uses for my 11" Acer. (I'm on it now as a matter of fact.) Does anyone know if it will run with 16GB ram? I am looking at moving to a SSD and possibly upgrading RAM if possible or reasonably priced. I am already at 8GB.

    1. It might run 16GB. Crucial says the max is 8GB (2x4GB). You can always try it and then send it back. Not sure how cost effective £115 pounds is though for 2x8GB DDR3 PC3-10600 sticks though I don't know what you need it for. The SSD upgrade on the other hand would be well worth it.

  3. Hello Mr Asbstract, many thanks for the run down. I also have a a 1830T and was considering getting a 500GB Samsung Evo 840 SSD and upgrading. I had planned though just to use the Samsung migration software and just do a straight clone of the original HD and then swapping in the SSD that way with out wiping windows. Can you forsee any issues with this method? Any help greatly appreciated.