Posted: June 13, 2016
updated: June 16, 2016

Installing Linux on the Asus Vivostick; a review of my early adopter weekend ordeal

Arrival of the Asus Vivostick TS10

I got my Vivostick on Saturday, June 11, 2016 (thanks to Newegg for the fast shipping and thanks to FedEx for the 2nd day delivery after I cheaped out and chose the super eggsaver 4-7 business days shipping!)

I won't bother with pictures; it seems that the Internet is full of Vivostick images but so far has very little actual useful information.

I didn't realize that I had bought the Vivostick right after it started shipping -- but that does explain my inability to find any useful reviews or technical information on the web.

When I started this exercise on Saturday I was completely naive about the issues with installing Linux on a Windows 10, Secure Boot device. I'm now a little wiser and mostly over the frustration -- but please forgive me if I still sound a bit bitter.

Running Windows 10 on the Vivostick

First, I connected the TS10 to my hdmi monitor and booted it. Initially, I thought that the power button was flakey, but I later realized that it just needed a firm press-and-hold for a second and then it would reliably start. I also didn't notice the power light on the power button because the short hdmi cable forced me to connect the device with the button facing away from me. But, anyway, the light comes on when you (successfully) press the button.

It booted up Windows 10 and, being no Windows expert (in fact, I'm a complete newbie to both Windows 10 and Windows 8) I just followed the instructions to configure the system. Wifi worked and the fan only ran during the initial boot. I played around with Edge for a bit but did nothing interesting. Mostly, I just admired the little computer which was completely silent when the fan was turned off and emitted only a gentle hiss when the fan was on during bootup.

Using the Vivostick on my TV

Next, I attached the stick to my 50" television and played the first Youtube video that came to mind; The Rolling Stones, Sympathy for the Devil. It played perfectly without so much as a single hiccup.

World of Warcraft on the Vivostick

Then, I decided to jump to a real test; I plugged in a USB drive with a vanilla copy of World of Warcraft -- which I had played back in 2006 on a PowerPC version of the Mac Mini. I remembered just how terrible the first Mac Mini ran WoW, so that seemed like a fair comparison. After all, this device, while much newer, can't be more than about 5% of the size of the diminutive Mini!

I found a private server to connect to -- since that's the only way you can run WoW version 1 these days. Needless to say, it was a painful experience! I ran it at 1920x1080 and tweaked video settings until things "sorta" worked. It ranged from 5 to 10 frames per second but control using the mouse was so whacked that I'm pretty sure it wasn't the integrated graphics adapter bogging down the framerate. A confirming clue that WoW was in fact CPU-bound is that I significantly lowered the resolution in the game and observed *no* increase in framerate.

WoW is fairly demanding on the CPU -- and makes almost all of those demands on a single core. Probably due to the low throughput of the Atom cores, along with that fact that WoW mostly uses only one of them, the Vivostick performed about as poorly as the ancient Mac Mini in the WoW test. But that's ok; nobody said the Vivostick was for MMO gaming! The thing I found pretty amazing is that it worked at all and was recognizable as WoW! Also, it was cool to see World of Warcraft live on a big screen TV. (Later benchmarking confirmed that the individual cores were only about 20% as fast as the Ivy Bridge Xeon cores powering my desktop PC when running large memory benchmarks -- more on that further down the page.)

The obstacles to installing Linux on the Asus TS10

While that was all great fun, the real point of this device for me is to have a small, quiet, low power AMD64 test host for the MMO game I'm building. And that game server runs only on Linux. Time to start experimenting with Linux installation on the tiny computer!

Getting the Vivostick to boot Linux

Now, I just happen to have a couple of USB 3.0 thumb drives sitting around with full, bootable copies of Linux Mint 17.3. Leaving out the boring details that you really don't want to hear, they simply would not boot! I looked into the UEFI setup hoping for a simple solution like fixing the boot order but quickly resorted to Google searches to try to narrow down the not-so-simple problem. With Google's help, I gradually became aware that a Windows 10, UEFI secure boot device was not going to be the easiest thing to boot or install Linux on; at least not for someone with little Windows experience and completely oblivious of the apparent central point of UEFI; 'secure' booting to keep the bad malware from inserting itself into the Windows boot process.

And, it turns out that Linux in general is also considered malware to such a device -- UNLESS you choose the right distribution. There are several distributions; Ubuntu, Mint, Red Hat, SuSE, among them, that have correct UEFI booting enabled due to their properly registered keys. Thankfully, my efforts were greatly lessened by the fact that I just happened to have a new enough Linux Mint handy. However, my personally installed USB drives weren't set up correctly for an EFI boot.

More googling revealed several facts;

  • There must be an EFI partition on the bootable device
  • That EFI partition must reside in the GPT partitioning scheme
  • ...Which implied that my USB drive partitioning scheme wasn't allowed

Somewhere around this point, I built a bootable install USB stick by using the Linux dd utility to do a bit-by-bit copy of the ISO onto a usb drive, thereby overwriting the MBR and partition table -- making the bits of the USB drive exactly match the install DVD that you might use on a different piece of hardware. Inspection of that USB drive showed that it did, indeed, have an EFI partition. It was already built into the Linux Mint 17.3 iso.

Before successfully booting Linux, I also had to change the UEFI setup to:

  • disable 'fast boot',
  • enable 'alternative OSes', and
  • change the boot order to put the USB drive ahead of Windows.
I also tapped F8 as the stick booted to access the boot options to ensure that the correct device was selected. I still don't know why this was necessary.

One possible anomaly arose here; when I used the mouse to select the USB Linux drive, Windows would boot anyway. Only when I used the keyboard instead of the mouse to select the Linux device and then hit the enter key would it boot Linux!

After all of that (and about 10 attempts at booting from the iso usb drive) it worked! I was finally running Linux Mint on the Vivostick, but was far too rattled at that point to blindly push forward and install directly to the internal SSD. That decision simplified my weekend considerably, as I was to learn later.

Minor snags with Linux and the Vivostick hardware

Only two problems arose while running Linux from the installation media; the Wifi device was not recognized and, far less important, the tiny cooling fan never stopped running. Clearly, Windows had a driver to control the fan that was missing from Mint 17.3. Much worse, the Wifi interface also had no matching driver. And, as this device has no ethernet jack, I had to get Wifi working.

I downloaded the latest Mint 18 beta installation media (Mate/AMD64 flavor just like the 17.3 version) in the hope that a new Wifi driver just might be present. Sadly, that version had no driver for the Wifi adapter either. So, with no reason to install an unfamiliar beta version of Linux Mint 18, I was back to using Mint 17.3. I also was unable to find technical info on the identity of the Wifi chip itself, severely limiting my chances of finding a working driver. (I finally decided to just buy a Linux-tested USB wifi dongle. Another $8 to Newegg and working wifi is on its way to me now.)

Taking precautions: Backing up the Vivostick's internal SSD

Before I actually did the install, I built a 64GB USB bootable stick with an extra 56GB partition formatted as NTFS -- since it was the first filesystem utility I tried that didn't refuse to format a partition on my incorrectly partitioned hybrid USB stick. (Someone familiar with GPT partitioning or with more patience that I had at that point could certainly make a valid efi-bootable Linux stick with a proper partition table and use any filesystem they chose -- but I was in no mood to attempt that.) The 56GB partition was necessary to have a place to put a backup of the internal SSD. And since I couldn't locate my USB hub and couldn't be bothered to find a blue-tooth keyboard -- the partition had to be on the boot device itself. (My keyboard/mouse used one USB port and the Linux boot drive used the other one.) Anyway, it did work. I was able to boot Linux and back up the internal 32GB drive (known to Linux as /dev/mmcblk0) onto the USB drive, again using the dd utility. That way, when I borked the installation, I could put it back the way it was when it was running Windows 10.

Choosing the Linux Mint 'Something Else' Install method to reuse the Vivostick Windows partitions

Anyway, back to the Linux installation onto the internal SSD. Specifically, what I found was that the easy way to format the drive for an EFI boot was to reuse the existing GPT partitions. I used the efi partition for boot, the big partition for Linux's root filesystem, and the Microsoft recovery partition for swap. I only allowed the installation script to format the swap and root partitions, being still a little insecure about messing with the efi boot partition. This method let me install Linux without having to figure out how to configure a valid GPT-partitioned bootable Linux drive.

Linux on the Vivostick!

I clicked 'Install' and it all worked smoothly from there. The little Asus machine now boots Linux Mint 17.3 from its internal SSD. The Wifi still doesn't work, of course, so I can't yet do any proper tests with my game server. When the USB Wifi dongle arrives late this week, I'll do some benchmarks of the Vivostick running as an MMO server and update this page.

More performance impressions of the Vivostick

I did run my old prime number program which finds and spits out the first 1,000,000 prime numbers. It ran in about 25 seconds on the Vivostick. For comparision, my Xeon 1220 v2 does it in 7.0 seconds -- or about 3.5 times faster.

When running 4 copies of the prime number program in parallel, the Vivostick took trivially longer -- about 27 seconds, total. The Xeon, with its much larger and more elaborate caching system, runs 4 copies in essentially the same amount of time that it runs one copy -- 7.0 seconds.

I ran my large memory benchmark as well. That program was originally designed to efficiently mimic a relational database in its usage of the CPU and memory bandwidth while proportionately stressing all of the levels of cache. In that test, the Vivostick ran the 256MB version in 35 seconds vs 6.6 seconds for the Xeon. In this more realistic benchmark the Xeon core was just over five times as fast.

When running that same benchmark on each of the 4 cores simultaneously, the Vivostick slowed from 35 seconds to 82 seconds, 2.34 times as long. Clearly, memory bandwidth and/or cache contention are not the strong suits of the little Atom quad-core! The Xeon, by comparison, went from 6.6 seconds to 10 seconds when each of the 4 cores were loaded with a copy of the benchmark, or 1.51 times as long. Again, dedicated L2 caches for each core plus the 8MB L3 cache pay off for the Xeon -- which was generally designed for just this kind of load.

Considering that the Ivy Bridge Xeon chip alone cost 1.5 times as much as the entire Vivostick, and that it, along with its socket and heatsink, are many times larger than the tiny Asus, I'd say that that's not at all a bad showing for the Vivostick!

Update June 16, 2016:

Wireless is working!

The USB WIFI dongle arrived and works perfectly. It is so tiny that it almost disappears into the USB socket. Its full name is TP-LINK Nano USB Adapter, Model No. TL-WN725N, and it can be purchased at for about $8 with free shipping as of the date of my purchase, June 13th.

Audio is still not working

The audio problem has proved to be a bit stickier. I still haven't found a working driver that is Vivostick compatible. There is a project to support audio, WIFI, and Bluetooth in the Atom-powered Intel Compute Sticks. Some of those are based on Cherry Trail Atoms so it may just be a matter of time until someone puts together a package that works on the Vivostick. I'll continue following this.

Windows 10 recovery worked

My Linux dd-based Windows 10 backup was reloaded onto the Vivostick and worked perfectly. The biggest problem is that I forgot to set some of the BIOS settings back to their Windows defaults, so Windows thought something was broken. A quick reboot to change the UEFI configuration back to defaults fixed it all and Windows is fully functional again.

I'll be reinstalling Linux in the next few days and will update this page again then.

Upcoming additions to this page:

  • compile time results contrasted with the Xeon and an old Raspberry Pi
  • MMO gameserver benchmarks
  • Observations of using the Vivostick as a test MMO server
  • Observations of using the Vivostick as a Linux desktop
  • The experience of adding the USB Wifi dongle
  • Details of the eight dollar Wifi adapter itself, assuming success