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The HeliOS Project is now.....
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Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Acer Tells Kid's Charity - Pay Up or Shut Up

Yeah, it's my charity...

But that shouldn't matter here. I'd write about this regardless.

About two months ago, nFusion Group LLC, right here in Austin donated a small truckload of computers to The HeliOS Project. 90 percent of these machines were "plug-in ready". I didn't have to crack one case on all but two of them.

It was a pretty and impressive site to behold for us.

These were not cast-off's either. Case on point.

Two Alienware i5500-xxxx laptops and the rest were a mix of mostly Acer TravelMate 5720's and 8210's....throw in a couple of Top of the Line Dells and a toshiba 13 inch tablet laptop and bingo...our kids have computers.

None of these machines were more than two years old and the generosity of nFusion is obvious when you look at the retail prices of these machines sold new. Heck, take a look at what they are selling for at current market prices on ebay and you get a good idea of just how generous a donation this was.

Aside from one of the desktops needing a power supply, everything just worked.

Almost everything.

When I began triaging two of the machines to get them ready for donation to Austin Samaritans and ultimately Nicaragua, I ran across two of the Acer 5720's that had what seemed to be a bios password on them. Not a problem, either flash the bios or pull the battery for some amount of time and problem solved. Not here. Not for these.

What I ran into was something that I have ranted about in the past to the point where I almost bored myself.

Trusted Computing.

What I was running into was what seemed to be an even pre-bios window that read simply:

"Phoenix TrustedCore Setup Utility. It has a field for a password then two arrow-down's to accept - escape.

After stabbing around and getting locked out after the obligatory three attempts, I called Andy Krell, the IT Director at Nfusion. I told him of the problem and he said he would research it and get back to me.

In doing so, Andy assured me that no one remembered putting that "feature" on the computer and that his exhaustive search turned up no setup disks for that situation. He gave me the numbers to Acer Tech and Customer Service and I thanked him for his time.

A word about Andy and nFusion. Aside from their obvious generosity, these folks have bent over backwards to get this issue resolved. What we have are a small number of extremely expensive and much needed laptops that are essentially no fault of nFusion. On two subsequent contacts with Andy, he further went out of his way to go back into the receipts and archives to find out where those disks might be stored if stored at all.

They weren't...and I fully understand that myself. Once you get employee's swapping hardware from one person to another, those disks generally vaporize into the nether-regions quickly.

Acer? I've spent at least 3 hours a day since Monday just trying to get through to someone who can help me. Either the tech support accents are so thick I cannot understand anything or I spend so much time on hold my ear goes to sleep.

These are the numbers I've called.

Let me tell you one particular phrase that these tech support folks did enunciate with clarity.

Credit Card.

After explaining to the fine Acer folks that we were a charity...a largely non-funded charity and that these laptops were meant for disadvantaged kids, it really didn't matter to them.

The bottom line for The HeliOS Project?

"Pay us 100 dollars and we will fix the problem for you. Other than that, you have no other options."

"Good bye."

So...several ideas have come to mind. I have the ability and know-how to disassemble most laptops to the third echelon level of maintenance. I'm thinking of Fedexing one small part each day to one of their top execs until I get their attention. Would I actually do that?

I don't know satisfying as it might be, I doubt it would do anything but cast a bad light on our efforts.

So Acer....a couple of Austin kids that were supposed to get life-changing gifts of technology will not. Thank you for welding closed what might have been an extremely good opportunity for them. Many now will remember Acer for that wonderful attribute.

And no...please...

We will not accept any donations for the 100 dollar extortion by Acer.

If they can't see past their company policy long enough to see an exceptable circumstance...

Maybe that idea of parting out these machines to their execs isn't a bad idea. Maybe purchasing any more of their products IS a bad idea. Maybe returning the product in a less than passive manner might get their attention.

Then again...there are some awfully smart people that read this blog. I am betting we get this resolved among ourselves.

I'm still thinkin' about it.

If you want a Linux machine, check out They do nothing BUT Linux and they were Linux before Linux was cool... They also support financially many Free Software projects.

All-righty Then



Christopher Myer said...

It's not much bet here is a list of backdoor passwords. I've used them on my Dell laptops when I forget the password.

Christopher Myer said...

ah, scratch that. Read to the end they don't work for laptops.

Josh said...


Have you tried to search for a hardware solution?

I know that the 'hardware security' in IBM / Lenovo ThinkPads is such that if you have some soldering ability, you can do some soldering handiwork to bypass the BIOS password. This is because the password is managed in hardware, not in BIOS. The hard drive will remain encrypted, of course, but you can get the unit operable and install another OS on it (and remove the BIOS password).


Unknown said...

Josh, the last time I picked up a soldering gun, the evening headline began With:

"Dozens hurt, many lost..."

Christopher Myer said...

HA! Got it!

Here's a link to a forum thread it contains both a hardware and software solution (potentially)

Unknown said...

No, we went through all of these things the last week or so. Shorting them out did not do it neither did removing the battery for any amount of time. Now I CAN remove the TCM but that will render the entire machine inop. It's already a brick. But, we did ALL of these things prior to posting.


Anthony Bearden New Haven CT said...

Helios, thank you

We were a week away from receiving 8 Acer Aspires for graduation gifts this year. The orders were made already but Jenni just canceled them and posted your blog as our justification.

screw them. This is what happens when you get a company that gets too big to care.

I know you don't want donations for the fix but how can we donate as just regular supporters?


Dark Typh said...

You probably already tried this but you might be able to find the backdoor password in the Acer Service manual. There used to be a lot of copies floating around online though it seems that they've been disappearing. (e.g. here: )

Maybe someone out there has the old service manuals?

Examancer said...

I am a long time purchaser of Acer laptops and this has soured my respect for them. For what its worth I sent them an email informing them I will no longer purchase or recommend Acer until this issue is resolved. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Acer has always seemed a hard company to work with. When my office briefly attempted to switch to their laptops for our development staff, we had so many issues in both hardware and support that we abandoned them after a year. In that year, I personally went through three laptops. The first a Farrari and the other two high end TravelMates. All top of the line as of purchase, all expense, all crap.

It's a shame that they seem to be one of the more popular netbook manifacturers. I'm afraid that a lot of people are going to have trouble with Acer Ones and blame the form facter. Nothing but Asus Netbooks for me.

Unknown said...

Heh... Customer support people are supposed to follow a script and not think for themselves these days- it's at odds with their cost-center expense reduction plans to do anything else. Seriously. Lame as it all is, it's what they do all the time. Customer Support's a joke in this day and age for the large part. I quit putting any faith in any of it over a decade ago.

Yanno... I wonder if you could garner the replacement cost of those two bricks out of the community? (I'd pitch in a bit for you to go and buy two comparable ZaReason or System76 laptops...and to ship the dead bricks to the execs over there at Acer along with an explanation as to WHY they have two doorstops in their possession...) I agree with not pitching in the danegeld of $200 to fix the things you have, though.

Unknown said...

@ SVartalf

I did not want to, nor do I now want to make this about donations but if you choose to help, I will be glad to add you to our contributors list on

And no ...amounts are inconsequential, it's your heart that we shine the light upon.


Anonymous said...

Ditto Tony. We are going to buy our daughter a top of the line laptop for her graduation and since I own a high end TravelMate, I thought I would buy her one. This one has been a fantastic computer. Fantastic or not, leaving a kid's charity swinging in the wind like that makes me want to get sick.

Someone above mentioned zareadon? Are they good? This has to be a Linux computer.

Anonymous said...

Have you tried the TPM reset attack?

Should be able to just turn on the systems, short the reset pin to any ground (though preferably a ground on the system), and clear the two user-space 2048-bit PCR's that store the passwords.

- Gavin

Unknown said...

Since Acer uses a Pheonix BIOS, you may want to try the Phoenix BIOS utility (winphlash?)to flash the BIOS. Just make sure that you clear the CMOS checksum when you do.

aikiwolfie said...

Aweman that just sucks. Personally I'd just publicly destroy them and move on. I vote for a YouTube moment.

Companies like Acer need to learn this kinda nonsense just isn't cool.

All they do is use a "backdoor" password to gain access to the BIOS and reset it. Hardly worth $100.

Unknown said...

Have you tried there standy password six zero's?


Unknown said...

@ Greg

Very first thing we tried.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I recently purchased a new monitor from Asus, but I was close to buying a different one from Acer. I'm glad I didn't now. :)

Sorry to hear you have to fool with this, Helios. If you want to start a petition or something telling Acer to get a life, I'd be happy to sign it. ;)

I wish I could tell you something that would help... Maybe someone could answer this though, if you can get past any passwords or whatever, is there a way to completely disable Trusted Computing? It's a technology I have always despised.

Dark Typh said...

As a follow up to my earlier comment. Acer seems to have launched a cease-and-desist campaign against any site hosting copies of their service manuals. Unless private parties have them the only way to get the service manual would be purchasing it (which partially defeats the purpose).

gagy said...

I thought that when you buy a book (or when a friend offers it to you...), you own it.
You can read it, reread it, put it in your library, or give to a friend. Whatever you do, it is yours. You can write in it, use it to prop a piece of furniture, or start up your chimney on a cold evening. It is yours.
Foolishly I thought that when I buy a computer (not the OS mind you...), it is mine to use as I wish, and I can install the OS or software I desire on it. How stupid of me! I had forgotten that there might be a tax to pay to change things. But fortunately not all the time.
Acer be damned. I was looking for a notebook, well, it ain't gonna be from them!

Anonymous said...

"TrustedCore is meant to allow businesses to keep their mobile computers safe from identity theft, unauthorized network access and data loss."This seems to be a feature, not a bug. Even though it is an obstacle to you, someone decided earlier to protect these poor machines against theft. Bad luck you've got them donated locked. I applause nFusion's effort to donate so much nice hardware, however they should bring the laptops to you unlocked, period. Otherwise these are useless to anybody in such state.

I am far from defending any customer service (Acer and ASUS included), but this seems to be a standard procedure. Imagine a child you'd give a laptop to, with some Linux installed (of course), who enables the TPM passwords in order to prevent unauthorized access, or as an anti-theft protection. Should someone steal their laptop, they would have a hard way of using it at all. That is by design.

However stupid it is to lock the (otherwise completely fine) computer, to the point of making it unbelievably hard to unbrick, once again: this is a protection measure. Either accept TPM-enabled laptops unlocked, or refuse to take them at all.

But if you learn how to restore the operation of these two eventually, I am not sure if you should share the solution. Don't make the thieves' life easier, they would just use Google to discover your solution - without thinking a second.

Anonymous said...

Because of this story our company won't be buying any Acer products, nor will I be recommending them to anyone.

Examancer said...

So, I emailed Acer about the fact I won't be a customer of theirs until I here confirmation that they have resolved this issue with my favorite charity. They replied back, obviously not even reading the email, with questions about the serial numbers of my device (when I explicitly stated this issue does not pertain to any of MY devices). I responded as such and they replied again asking for more details. I didn't know what to do, so I CC'ed you Ken. Sorry :-P

PV said...

I was thinking of getting an Acer netbook, but now I'm definitely going to reconsider that. Some companies are too big for their own good.
Thank you so much for doing what you do, Ken.

a Linux Mint user since 1 May 2009

FelixTheCat said...

I've been (sorta) helping Ken go through some of the options, no-go on what we've tried so far. From the bit of research we've turned over, it'd take flashing the BIOS backwards to prevent this from happening after we get past the stinking magical password. Nevermind that most people that have similar problems never set a password on their BIOS, it still costs $100. Yuck!

A. Damluji said...

Maybe I didn't read the post very well but perhaps their mobo's are just faulty and thus giving this signal?
Lemme read the post again..
I still can't really tell. sorry :(
all i found was through Google:

plus i'm sure you already found this but a repost won't hurt :)

kozmcrae said...

(email to acer)

I'm a good friend of Ken Starks. I've know him since 2005, soon after I switched over to Linux.

I'm not sure how many acer products I've purchase over the past 25 years of my life as a computer user/builder. I did purchase your model X223w monitor last Summer. So far I'm very pleased with it. After reading Ken's blog today I covered up your name on the lower bezel with black Gaffer's tape. I don't want to be reminded of my mistake. I don't plan on making that mistake again with your company. I am only one person but I do represent thousands of dollars of potential purchases in the coming years. Your company will not see one penny of it if I can help it.

Good Day
Richard Chapman

ColonelPanik said...

helios old friend you may be lucky on this
one. My family has had 3 Acers, two laptops and one of those mini-desktops.
All died very young.

If you do end up sending them to anyone, may I suggest the wife of the CEO or even
the spouse of the C of the B. With the usual helios kind thank you note?

Tim said...

Hmmm. I was going to buy an Acer notebook for school. I figured I could get a nice laptop for around 400 - 500 dollars, install Linux on it and be golden. I think I've changed my mind though.

I think I'll just save up a little longer and get one at Zareason. Thank you Helios, your story saved me from being another Windows statistic. Also gave me a reason to work on being patient, something I'm not very good at.

Unknown said...

@ "ditto Tony"

The name of the company is You typed it as ZareadonIn my opinion, although they may be a bit higher than some other folks, there are some compelling reasons to go with Za.

1. They were Linux before Linux was cool

2. They deal with nothing BUT Linux

3. The owners actually put their hands inside your machine. They KNOW what is in there. They put it there.

4. The level of after-purchase support they provide is legendary.

5. I refuse to accept one dime from them in advertising revenue. Any ad or banner you see on Blog of helios is put there because I believe in what they do and how they do it. We will never take advertising dollars from any company or entity. If I put an ad for someone here, I've bought or used the product.

Chelle Minkin - Seattle WA said...


I have not yet had time to fully research this but I believe that by following some of the advice given above, you may be in violation of the DMCA, and in violation to the extent of receiving a prison sentence. I mean, who could prove you did it but the fact remains that this assinine law, enacted by Congressmen and Senators filthy with accepting Lobbiest's money, would put you in prison for unlocking a child's future.

Ken will not do this but I will. I doubt that many people will read down this far in the comments but here is an idea.

I have just clicked the donate button and donated 50.00 to Ken's charity. We can collectively give him just a little bit until he can afford to replace those computers. I now live in Seattle. Once done, I will personally fly to their California Offices and draw media attention to the fact that I am returning these computers to Acer for the reasons already stated.

Ken if this idea doesn't fly, keep the money for operational costs. I sincerely hope that we can do this together though.

Chelle Minkin

Unknown said...

I have also come up with a few suggestions of my own. One of them is based on some of the comments already posted. By the way, this is now DIGG as well.

Anonymous said...

So let me get this right. You are donated computers of this quality then find out you are locked out of them. Right so far? Then you contact the donor and they say they don't have the key to get into them. Ok, that happens I guess. THEN, you present yourself as a non profit and ask for assistance to get them in the hands of kids who need them and they try to shake you down for 100 bucks per machine?

That sounds like a frigging scam to me buddy. How many people in a year's time do you think pay for that BS? Obviously quite a few since they don't even blink when they tell you this.

I like the idea of public destruction of these machines and making a YouTube vid out of it. I will help fund it if you want to do it. I further suggest that you buy a permit to gather a crowd outside Acer and do it in front of their noses.

Unknown said...

You might find the information you're looking for at the following URLs:

The files hosted there include various copies of the BIOS, manuals, utilities, etc.

With any luck you might be able to re-flash the units, and make them serviceable.

Hope this helps.


Unknown said...

@Ian: I believe the Trusted Core feature would prevent such a thing from happening. helios mentions this towards the beginning the post.

Unknown said...

Unfortunately Thomas, those were the fixes Andy Krell sent me right after discovering the problem. The Problem it seems is that the TCM acts as a pre-bios intervenor and is it's own sentry. I can remove the chip but unless I have a perfectly pinned dummy, it renders the machine useless. There ARE some mechanical answers to my dillema but I am not adept with a soldering gun nor a schematic diagram.

Chelle Minkin hit on a good idea as to what we might do to at least get some punitive satisfaction from Acer.

I am mulling those possibilities over.


Unknown said...


I found a copy of the manual:

It's there as of now, better grab it quick, only problem is, I don't think it's going to help.

Rich C said...

We all know how quickly a blog post can spread. I'm doing my bit to spread this one!

Unknown said...

I like the idea of public destruction of these machines and making a YouTube vid out of it. I will help fund it if you want to do it. I further suggest that you buy a permit to gather a crowd outside Acer and do it in front of their noses.R U tapping my phone conversations?

That's too funny. Actually something extremely close to what you suggest is already being talked about.


AAM said...

I would suggest contact with a top feeder at ACER = someone who will do some research on Helios to establish credentials and then use their brains, hell, they could make it a $100 donation and probably claim it!
Can you get nFusion to ring and ask as part of their normal support mechanism?

If either of these don't work - no ACER purchases by me in future.

Anonymous said...

You may be talking to the wrong people in Acer.
When I have a computer problem, I call the company HQ and ask for the engineering department. Engineers are so much easier to talk to. So far I have a 100% problem resolution success rate :-)
You may also consider calling a relevant VP or another decision maker, who can see the idiocy and the damage it is doing to Acer.

To those that want to make a publicity stunt out of this: remember, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar

Unknown said...

@ Mas Hatter

Your suspicions have been confirmed...there isn't a word in there about TrustedCore...this is for a model before that implementation.



Unknown said...

Mas Hatter? Did I just call you Mas Hatter?

Sorry man


Unknown said...


I really don't want to bother nFusion anymore...they've scoured the place for those setup disks...I mean put hours into looking for them and I honestly don't want to suggest they disrupt a business relationship. I am sure that if they have the time and resources available, they will contact Acer further.

We are digging now to try and contact one of the "top feeders" now...getting one to bite the bait seems to be the trick.


Chelle Minkin - Seattle WA said...

@ You may be talking to the wrong people in Acer.
When I have a computer problem, I call the company HQ and ask for the engineering department.

I'm sure helios would appreciate you passing those numbers onto him. Running a charity sure takes a lot of time away from fighting with a computer company you know. He might appreciate it.

I don't think any rational person wants to pull off a publicity stunt...but how far do you let a company abuse you before you extract your payment? The customer, if wise, always leverages his influence. Having been the first person to outline such a "publicty stunt", I think another 2 days should suffice before the LCD's hit the floor.


Anonymous said...

Let the laptops hit the floor

Let the laptops hit the floor...

Logan said...

I just e-mailed them and told them we won't be buying any more of their products if that's the type of company they run.

Returned my 3 day old netbook to walmart this morning too. The Hp netbooks suddenly look much more appealing.

Unknown said...

Ken, I didn't see this mentioned in the posts yet. You may have tried it, but just trying to help.

Did you find a dip switch in the machines?

Unknown said...

Hey Luck - Unfortunately, this machine and the one you pointed to are radically different on the inside. Yes I did find the DIP but it made no difference. the TrustedCore Module acts as a sentry to even the bios. It is pre-bios actually. I have spent days researching this and even Acer techs here in Austin that run their own shops tell me this is amazingly difficult to overcome if you do not have Acer knowledge of the technology. I did learn that MS is deeply invested (like I didn't know that) in Trusted Computing and RUMOR tells me that they give substantial licensing breaks to vendors who employ it. Now that came straight from a current MS employee but I've no way of verifying it so we will have to leave it on the rumor side of the discussion.

Thanks to Nick, Tony Beardon, Carl and everyone else who contacted Acer about this. Even if they don't get us up and running we have a plan B.

Trust me...they will wish they pulled the switch on plan A.


Steve Adams (UK) said...

Hi - I added this to

Hi, are you aware of this awful situation and very poor publicity for Acer?
"Acer Tells Kid's Charity - Pay Up or Shut Up"

If there is anyone here representing the real Acer I assume you:
i) Are not aware of this - otherwise you would have fixed it
ii) Will want to turn a PR FAIL into a PR WIN!

Note: I am not connected to the charity involved - just a concerned blog reader :-)
I look forward to a speedy intervention and happy resolution - do the right thing Acer.

Maybe it will help - tho it appears there is nobody from Acer using the service (I guess there's no revenue for them from it, eh?).

Good luck with this specific case and the goodly work in general :-)

Steve (UK)

Unknown said...

Hey Gavin,

I did not want to report until I had tried it and unfortunately it did not.


Unknown said...

Zareason is not the only Linux system builder with a clue. I recommend System76 ( They have a line of nice Linux systems where every hardware capability works out of the box. I bought a nice desktop from them and I am very satisfied. The machine is so sturdy and well-built that it even sustained a drop! That's right, the shipping outfit dropped the box on its way to my front porch, but the machine still works fine.

Unknown said...

Fred, as much as I would like to, I will not recommend or support System76. I won't try to talk you out of your alliances so I ask you to respect mine.

In 2006, when it appeared that The HeliOS Project was poised to start making a real difference in our kid's lives, I contacted all of the Linux-only vendors and told them what we were doing. I didn't ask them for anythnig, I didn't word it as anything but an introduction to what we were doing.

Out of the five companies that I emailed, two replied. System76 rudely told me not to spam their inbox anymore. Zareason asked how they could help and if they could carry our banner or short text introduction on their website.

Since that day Fred I have "spammed" almost a thousand kids with new or refurbished Linux computers and Zareason has supported us when we needed it. they've provided goods for our raffles and have provided tech support to us when we ran into trouble.

I carry their banner on my blog free, I do not sell anyone ad space. I carry them because they are Linux for what it stands for, and not necessarily profit margins.

I am sure the folks at System76 are very nice...but they need to be nice to every one...Not simply people who place an order there.

Each computer I install has a Zareason wallpaper in rotation. System76 could have had the same thing had they been halfway civil to someone just trying to introduce themselves. Of the 19 people we know that have bought Zareason computers by our recommendation, not one of them have had a single problem. Aside from anything else, I support them for that alone.


Unknown said...

Ken, you've made a comment about being close to getting in contact with a "top feeder". I presume you're savvy enough to know that it needs to be by fax or snailmail --- or a conference call ;) !!!!

I'm a female "Brother Legionnaire" (true member of the American Legion, not the Auxiliary). Our Post owns an Acer Aspire, one with the stupid power jack connection on the right side. Well, it cracked and we found a local service shop who sent it off to laptop specialists in Tampa, and only charged us $199 for the work, he said that other customers of his would have paid him a lot more.
It lasted 9 days and the same thing happened again.
We have no $$ available to go through this routine a second time, and therefore, since we're a veterans' service organization, I as a member of the finance committee wanted to contact Acer and ask for help-- mainly either free repair and a brand new AC charger, or a replacement and them provide for moving the data and Vista setups.

SO, HAVE YOU FOUND ANYONE AT CORP HQ TO CONTACT YET? I FRANKLY THINK THAT "PR" OR "SHAREHOLDER RELATIONS" COULD BE A USEFUL INROAD. btw, I'm a former Austinite and I know of your group. I married into the First Cav at Ft Hood and that's all she wrote vet myself (I'm a disabled Navy vet myself).

Let's share the results of our contact searches. Thanks!

Julia in Huntsville AL

Unknown said...

Julia, email me helios att fixedbylinux dot com. I can help.

Anonymous said...

Stumbled into your site searching for something else (nonprofit related).

At any rate, if you are still looking for Acer contacts...

Theresa Coronel Fuchs: Marketing Communications Manager at Acer America Corporation

Alison Williams: Public Relations Manager at Acer America

From one nonprofit administrator to another, good luck!

Anonymous said...

I had a similar problem with a Dell. With a little research Dell determined the transfer to the new owner was legit and gave me all the passwords. (Perhaps, intelligent theft prevention.)