Guide To Buying A Linux Laptop

ll major laptop (notebook) hardware is supported by Linux. The important things to take into account when looking to buy a Linux powered laptops are as follows to avoid any hardware compatibility problems. Selecting correct specification is important. In this first part, I will cover what to look out for when buying a Linux powered laptop.

Laptop Usage

First, you need to decide and define the purpose of your laptop. Linux laptop can be used for simple office tasks and browsing the Internet or sending e-mails, than a mid-range laptop may be good enough:

  1. Define your budget
  2. Define screen size notebook (13″ or 15″ or 17″)
  3. Define your tasks such as Internet, sys admin, software development, some gaming using Win Vista / 7, dual booting etc.
  4. How many hours of battery life do you need?
  5. Define optical media types – Do you want to watch movies using DVD or Blu ray? Do you want to burn DVDs?
  6. To play games you need a top spec laptop. Please note that Linux has limited support for popular PC gaming titles. So you need to dual boot your laptop with MS-Windows operating systems.
  7. Finally, some people prefer desktop replacements with mobile workstations.

In short, decide how you are going to be using the Linux laptop.

Central Processing Unit (CPU)

CPU is the brain of your laptop. Linux supports all sort of mobile cpus. Linux does supports SMP cpus on servers and it does support portables cpus too. The following are well know mobile cpus:

  • Intel Atom
  • Intel Core 2 Duo
  • Intel Core i5 Duo
  • Intel Core i7 Duo or Quad
  • AMD Athlon 64 Mobile
  • AMD Turion 64 X2

The speed range from 1.3GHz to 2.2GHz or more. The number of cores plays an important role too. Naturally, a quad core CPU should be able to increase the number of calculations. This is useful when you run multiple applications, you will get fast and smooth response from the system. The Intel Core 2 Duo or AMD Turion 64 II (dual core) is pretty popular choice for CPU. My advice is go for 64 bit CPU with 64 bit Linux distro.

Video Card and X Server

This is the most important part in Laptop which is used by X Windows. However, selecting correct Video card is important; otherwise you will end up with 3D hardware accelerated card with 2D Linux driver or just basic display. So make sure your video card with 3D acceleration is supported under Linux. Nvidia has pretty good support with a proprietary driver which can deliver full 3D acceleration with 24 bit color. On other hand ATI drivers are open source. My advice is simple visit the following driver pages and make sure your video card is fully supported including 3D acceleration:

Low End Video Cards

The following list summaries low end fully supported Linux video cards:

  • Intel GMA 4500MHD
  • Intel 945GM
  • Intel 950 GMA
  • Intel X3100 GMA
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 160M (256MB)

Mid to High-End Video Cards

The following list summaries mid-high end priced fully supported Linux dedicated video cards (useful for playing 3D videogames or engineering Linux apps or video / photo editing):

  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 880M (1024 MB)
  • NVIDIA Quadro FX 2800M (1024 MB)
  • NVIDIA Quadro NVS 3100M (256 or 512 MB)
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9300M GS
  • NVIDIA GeForce 9300M
  • Intel GMA X4500 HD
  • ATI FirePro M7740 (1024 MB)
  • ATI Radeon HD 3650 (512 MB)
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD4650 (1024 MB)

Finally, make sure external X display to your desktop monitor is fully supported. This can come handy when you want to watch movies, play games or do business presentation.

RAM

RAM (Random Access Memory) is another factor which can boost your speed easily, especially if you use RAM intensive apps like virtualization desktop software (e.g., VMWareor VirtualBox), photo editing (e.g., Gimp), video editing etc. 2 to 4 GB should be more than sufficient for most apps. A few high end laptops can support upto 16GB ram and Linux canaccess more than 4GB ram using PAE or 64bit kernel out of the box.

Hard Disk

Hard disk is used to store all your data and boot into Linux. Hard disks are cheaper, nosier and stores data on moving parts called rotating platters. You can have 7200rpm drives. Another option is to use SSD ( Solid State Drives ) as storage device which offers the following benefits:

  1. Speed (2 times faster than hard disk)
  2. Lighter and quieter (no moving parts)
  3. Consume less power
  4. Faster booting time.

You can add additional storage using USB or Firewire ports (i.e. external hard disk). My advice is go for SSD.

Optical Disk

Linux does support DVDs, Blu ray and other optical formats. This is useful for playing DVDs or backing up data via DVD/CD burner. DVD burner is fine for most applications. But, if you are interested in playing movies using Blu ray (HD DVD / Blu Ray disks), you will need to get Blue ray optical drive which can read and write DVDs too. However, the AACS ‘Digital Rights Management’ system in most HD-DVD and all Blu-Ray discs attempts to stop consumers from exercising fair use rights, including – playing purchased Blu-Ray and HD DVD films using Open Source software. To play Blu ray you need the latest version of mplayer and DumpHDto perform the decryption necessary to play the film. If you can afford go for Blu ray. See how to play Blu-Ray and HD DVD video under Ubuntu Linux.

Power Management: Suspend and Hibernate

Linux supports both AMP ( Advanced Power Management ) and ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface ) which allows you to hibernate the system to a disk partition using swsusp (Software Suspend). It is a suspend-to-disk implementation in the 2.6 series Linux kernel. However, some laptop may give you problem with swsusp. You may also need to compile kernel to include swsusp support. Make sure you get ACPI compliant BIOS and you should be fine with power management. Some time you may need to download a patch from 3rd party or vendor site to enable suspend and hibernate support under Linux.

Wireless 802.11

Another hardware device may not work at all; if you do not pay attention to wireless devices. Most laptops comes with on-board 802.11 (a/b/g/N) wireless cards. Not all card supported so make sure you get Intel Pro series card such as 3945 or Atheros based cards. My advice is use Google to search for your driver or use specialized databases (a more or less complete listing of wireless devices with information about the chipset they are based on and whether or not they are supported in Linux) to search for your laptop card.

Biometric Fingerprint Scanner

Fingerprint scanners are security systems of biometrics. If you work for Government, DoD, police, security industries and, if data security and authentication is your top priority, you need “Biometric Fingerprint Scanner”. Every fingerprint is special and different from each other. You can use Linux PAM to hook fingerprint reader with KDM, GDM, sudo, su and many other services. The fingerprint scanners on the following models are known to work:

  • IBM ThinkPad T and X series selected models (see list of supported devices)
  • Dell Latitude selected models
  • HP Pavilion (selected model)

Please refer the following additional pages and make sure your laptop model is supported:

  • The fprint project aims to plug a gap in the Linux desktop: support for consumer fingerprint reader devices.
  • Fedora project wiki page describing supported devices and software for fingerprint devices.

Fn key (BlueKey) Support

Fn, or Function, is a modifier key on many keyboards, especially on laptops, used in a compact layout to combine keys which are usually kept separate. It is mainly used for the purpose of changing display or audio settings quickly, such as brightness, contrast, or volume, and is held down in conjunction with the appropriate key to change the settings. These features may be supported under Linux via driver or software. I found most laptop from reputed manufacture (such as Dell, IBM) does supports Fn keys.

Ports

The following are common ports for laptop:

  1. USB – It is well supported under Linux for external hard disk, pen, mouse, keyboard and much more.
  2. FireWire – It may or may not work out of box. In most cases you need to compile the Linux kernel so that you can access Zip drives, hard drives, and CDRW/DVD drives. However, support is limited. See Linux kernel IEEE 1394/ FireWire drivers wiki page for more information.
  3. eSATA -External SATA provides a variant of SATA meant for external connectivity. It allows you to connect external SATA hard drives directly to the SATA bus. You get faster speed as compare to USB or Firewire external hard disks. This may or may not work out of box.

Sound

Most on board sound card should work fine with Linux. You can play all sort of music file such as .mp3, .wav, .ogg and much more. Linux comes with various playback and mp3 players. You can rip audio cds too.

Docking Station (Port Replicator)

Docking station and port replicator provides a simplified way of “plugging-in” an electronic device such as a laptop computer via common peripherals. You can plug desktop monitor, keyboard, printer, mouse, Palm Pilot and so on. Most docking station should work out of the box. Just confirm this with your vendor.

Ethernet (NIC)

Most NICs are supported but it is a good idea to go through Google and make sure your Ethernet card is supported. Usually, Intel and Broadcom (tg3) Ethernet cards are well supported. See Linux PCI ids database and search for your sound and Ethernet card names. Usually, most drivers are included in running kernel. In rare case you may have to compile the kernel or driver to support your Ethernet card.

Tip: Test Your Laptop With Linux (Try Before You Buy)

Most vendors have a showrooms and shops. Visit nearest shop with Linux Live CD (such asKnoppix or Ubuntu or Fedora ) and ask them to boot laptop using Live CD. See if it works or not; boot into Linux. Make sure you can see X Windows, connects to the Internet via wireless card and so on. If you get 100% result, then just purchase it.

Recommend Linux Distribution

Linux is all about choices. Personally, I use Redhat v5.x 64 bit at work and Ubuntu Linux 64 bit at home. My recommendation:

  1. Ubuntu (any flavor) Linux – For the average user, with a strong focus on usability and ease of use and installation.
  2. Fedora Linux – Another popular disro for the average user with rpm based packages. Fedora is also popular among Windows and UNIX sys admins.
  3. OpenSuse Linux – Easy to use and certified on selected HP / IBM laptops.
  4. Debian Linux – For the advanced users, sys admin and academic researchers.
  5. Slackware Linux – One of the oldest distro, preferred by sys admins, BSD lovers and academic researchers.

Linux Laptop Vendors

Now, you know how to choose a laptop, especially you need to pay attention to wireless, video card and Ethernet card. And here is exact model names & number that will be fully compatible to LINUX and vendor website (the list is for information and ready references only; please do your own research before purchasing system):

  1. Dell sales Ubuntu Laptop in USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Latin America. (See official Ubuntu page). Dell India also sales high end Redhat Linux based laptop for business use.
  2. HCL provides Ubuntu / Redhat / Fedora Linux based laptop in India.
  3. Acer India provide Aspire series Linux based laptop in India.
  4. HP Novell / Suse Linux certification and support matrix for HP laptops.
  5. Asus Linux based eeepc netbooks in USA, India, UK, and various other places across the globe.
  6. EmperorLinux provides Linux laptops with full hardware support under Linux in USA.
  7. LinuxCertified provide Linux laptop and support in USA.
  8. Linuxemporium provide Linux laptop and support in UK.
  9. System76 provides Ubuntu Linux laptop and support in USA and Canada.
  10. Zareason provides Ubuntu Linux laptop in USA, but claims to ship to many other places across the globe.
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