Linux Laptops: Finding the Right One for Me

This article, written by Taran Rampersad, originally appeared on LinuxGazette.com, a community site dedicated to "making Linux just a little more fun". Linux Gazette, an SSC sister publication of TUX, sees nearly 600,000 visitors every month.

As I pack whatever I think is worth keeping into a few bags and a shipping box, I realized that I needed a laptop - again. As I leave Trinidad behind, heading to LinuxWorld and ending up in the Dominican Republic, a laptop becomes important. It also saves me from lugging around a 19" monitor and an array of CPUs which has an inefficient weight to value ratio - at least for being mobile.

So I started looking around. The key here was to look for a laptop that I don't have to pay for Microsoft's alternative operating systems, and that would give me the most per dollar. Most laptops come with the 'Microsoft Tax'. So the first thing to do in this age is to do a Google search - a Google search for Linux laptops. Oddly enough, no manufacturers showed up in the search with pre-installed Linux. I'd read about them, but they aren't registering in a Google search. But as most journeys, part of the joy is in travelling.

Resources Of Note

The Google search netted all kinds of interesting results.

Linux-Laptop.net has a link to the Windows® Refund HOWTO, which might be useful for some. It also has an amazing amount of information on installing Linux on all sorts of laptops. But no pointers on where to buy a laptop already running Linux.

TuxMobil.org has a lot of HOW-TOs all around, and on the side I caught a link to a Slashdot story, Walmart Expands Low-End Linux Notebook Offerings. Interesting. So I head over to Tom's Hardware and read the 'Linare to offer $500 notebook at Walmart' story.

So I ended up at Linare to see what goodies they have.

Linare

The Linare Notebook LADBS250 and lower end LADBS200 look like great values at $598 and $498 respectively. But shipping takes 2 to 4 weeks, and I need one before LinuxWorld - next week. To top it off, Linare Linux isn't a no cost download. Everybody has to make money, I suppose, but I think I can fiddle my way around a distro by now. Still, at $40, Linare Linux doesn't look too bad for people who... don't belong to Linux User Groups, or go to Linux Gazette.

I suppose I'm a die hard, but if I can't download a distro, I'm not too interested.

Emperor Linux

EmperorLinux has Linux laptops - and they'll be at LinuxWorld, so I'm obviously interested. Lots of different laptops to compare as well. The Meteor is in my price range, but seems a little... underpowered. While I spend most of my time writing, editing and surfing the web, I still like to think I might compile some stray C/C++ someday.

Xtops

Xtops showed up in the Google search - and the magic phrase 'pre-installed' showed up. So I checked out the XTops Linux Laptops, and got intrigued. ASUS Linux laptops. JVC Linux laptops. Samsung Linux Laptops. Paceblade Tablet PCs with Linux. And Apple laptops running Linux - Debian, no less.

They also have PDAs with Linux. Now here's a store to keep an eye on - but still, I decided to look around some more.

Linux Certified Laptops

Preinstalled Linux by LinuxCertified has some interesting finds - from the LC2210D Linux Laptop to the LC2464 Linux Laptop - an AMD 64 bit beast. Drool. Great prices, too.

Walmart?!

Yup, Walmart is in on the Linux Laptop game as well. This Balance Laptop looks like a good deal, and I imagine myself walking into Walmart - picking up some socks, junk food, walking through the toy section (admit it, you do it!) and going into the Electronics area and buying a laptop.

That seems a bit weird to me, but it is sort of cool. Unfortunately, the systems are running Lindows/Linspire. Sorry, not interested. I'm sure someone else may be happy with that distro. And the hardware, for me, is a bit shakey.

Putting It Into Context

Looking at all the laptop prices, I came to realize whichever system I go with would end up being my main PC for a while, which means I really do need the most I can get. But now, I have to consider what I need.

Obviously, I need something portable. The lighter the better. And after looking at laptop prices long enough and realizing that laptops are not cheap, you begin to get past what is termed as 'sticker shock' - if I were older, I would have made an appointment with my doctor.

At the end of my journeys, I know I'll be spending some time in the Dominican Republic - which means that electricity will be a problem sooner or later. The Dominican Republic has unannounced, and apparently unplanned, blackouts - so a laptop is really nice there, since you can operate off of battery power during short outages. Since I also experiment/play with solar energy, being able to recharge from panels seems like something really fun to do as a geek. More importantly, it means I continue doing the 'behind-the-scenes' stuff that none of you should ever know about, since if you did know it would mean I'm not doing my job.

The Caribbean isn't a very cool place either. It gets hot. And if there's no electricity, the fans/air conditioning may not work. So a CPU that runs too hot is right out, especially in a laptop. My experience with AMD processors has cautioned me here - I have heat sinks that late model cars would be in awe of. But they can't fit in a laptop. So I'm sort of stuck with Pentium based processors... or the G4. Don't get me wrong, I love AMD. I really do. But I worry about heat, especially in dusty environments common in the Caribbean. The last thing I need is a fried processor, and while AMD laptops are nice in more temperate climates, in the real heat I don't want to take a chance. If someone from AMD wants to send me a laptop for me to test, I'll take it and hope to be proven wrong. But I don't think they will.

Apple Laptops

But can an Apple run Linux? Of course it must be possible, otherwise Xtops would not have the advertisement that they do. Linux Laptops verified this. So I decide to look more closely at what appears to me to be alien. I have never owned an Apple, though I have used one in the 1980s. That was an Apple IIe, then an Apple IIc - owned by an Uncle, and which I used extensively to play Wizardry and Galactic Adventures (Tip of the hat to Tom Reamy) when I was supposed to be doing Calculus homework.

So I went off to the Apple shop. I already know the G4 processors are really something of note. In fact, they are said to be three times faster than Intel equivalents. But what else do they have when compared to laptops of the same price?

Thus, I established a few guidelines.

  • Under 7 lbs
  • 40 Gig or higher hard drive
  • 512 meg RAM, minimum
  • 1024*768 monitor, minimum
  • CD Burner, DVD player
  • Wireless, ethernet and 56k modem connections - all!
  • Sturdy

Let's see how the Apples stack up to the Intels.

Laptop Showdown: G4 vs. Intel

Based on the above requirements, I selected the Apple 12 inch Powerbook G4:

  • 1.5GHz PowerPC G4 (equivalent 4.5 GHz for an Intel? Maybe... hard to believe)
  • 512 Meg DDR 333MHz RAM
  • 80 Gig 5400RPM hard drive - with a feature that parks the drives as it falls.
  • DVD & CD Read/Write - Apple calls it the 'Super Drive'. 8x burning of DVD.
  • AirPort Extreme Card
  • NVIDIA GeForce FX GO 5200 with 64MB DDR Video Memory
  • 12.1-inch TFT Display
  • 10.9 inches wide, 8.6 inches deep and 1.18 inches thin
  • 4.6 lbs
  • $1699 US

XTops had some close deals, but then I realized I was comparing the European dollars to US Dollars. So I headed over to EmperorLinux, and tried to find the one the closest technical competitor to the Apple:

The Meteor was an easy choice to look at:

  • 10.4" XGA w/ X @ 1024x768 w/ ATI graphics
  • Full Linux support: 1600 MHz Efficeon
  • Full Linux support: 512 RAM
  • Full Linux support: 20 - 40 GB Hard Drive
  • Full Linux support: CDRW/DVD Drive
  • Specification: only 2 - 2.8 pounds
  • Full Linux support: 10/100 Mbps ethernet
  • Full Linux support: 802.11b/g (54Mbps) WiFi
  • Full Linux support: 56 Kbps Modem
  • Full Linux support: ACPI compliant BIOS (hibernate in Linux)
  • $2225

I looked again based on price, and the best were Dell 100L machines called 'Tigers'. Sorry, I'm not a big fan of Dell - and this dude is not getting a Dell.

Decision: Apple

No, it looks like the Apple wins. It comes with OS/X, which is notably not Linux. However, Dave Taylor was kind enough to write about installing Ubuntu and Yellow Dog. And if he's running around LinuxWorld somewhere and I have problems, I'll try to chase him down (fair warning, Dave). But Ubuntu looks like the option here.

I called the Apple store today in Miami - sure enough, they have them in stock, and I asked that they hold one for this Saturday. They don't normally do that, I was told, and they may be unable to do that (Thanks for trying, Raphael). Failing that, I guess I can run to Walmart.

But if they can keep one around for me, it looks like it will keep me entertained for a while. Is this the right choice for everyone? Probably not, but with all the information here, making the right choices should be easier.

Web Editor - Thu, 2005-02-10 08:32.
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IBM thinkpad

The IBM thinkpad is supposed to support Linux very well. And they come at very nice prices too. (hell, you can even donate your microsoft licence to somone who really thinks he/she needs it)

Bèr (not verified) - Sat, 2005-06-18 02:25.

HAs anyone used the Wallmart

HAs anyone used the Wallmart systems with the VIA CPU? Are the chips really that bad?

An - ymous (not verified) - M - , 2005-05-30 00:46.

On my end

Check out two lines. Winbook offers laptops with Linspire pre-installed. I've played with a couple of them.. and so far they seem solid. The other line to check out is Acer. I just bought an aspire 3000 ..... Sempron processor. S3 video K8 chipsets. Without any problem so far it's just working. The only "problem" so far comes in the form of needing to use Linuxant to get the broadcom wireless G to work. It does now without a hassle. Even the modem got detected and seems to be good. (I haven't fully tried it.)

Now the Acer line.. yes it's more for the adventurous for now. But Winbook .... Under 700 will put you in the drivers seat.

Nightwriter (not verified) - Thu, 2005-05-26 00:45.

Linare

The reality is two months from charging my credit card to delivery of a Linare LABDS250. I asked for increased RAM and was told "we only do that for large orders." They told me to "get any RAM compatible with AMD processors" and there is neither a User Guide for the hardware nor a single indication of who made the laptop they sent me (the laptop, power supply, and their software "user guide" that is almost useless...can't even get the MB ID to show up.
The "Linare Linux 2.0 Professional Edition User Guide" is of poor quality and has at least one major error: the section titled Root Password claims the installed password is "password" when it isn't. It took 60+ hours, a couple of unreturned phone calls (answering machine), and an email to every address I could find on their website to get "try 123456" and "yeah, well we're undergoing some restructuring and don't have any support people right now."
Since then, I have sent over 20 emails requesting help with discovering what kind of memory to order; none have been acknowledged.
Bottom line, don't count on that 2 to 4 weeks and their idea of 24/7 tech support is 24/7 telephone answering system with nobody to make callbacks.

An - ymous (not verified) - Wed, 2005-05-25 23:31.

Did you try / have any luck i

Did you try / have any luck installing another distro on the LABDS250? If so please relate the story.

An - ymous (not verified) - Tue, 2005-06-07 10:40.

I have had good experience wi

I have had good experience with LinuxCertified laptop. Especially their Linux support.

Problem with big vendors is that although their hardware might be ok, they completely wash their hands as soon as I mention Linux on their support line...

An - ymous (not verified) - Wed, 2005-05-11 11:59.

Give HP a shot -- ndiswrapper

I already had an HP NC4000 and decided to dual boot with Fedora Core 3 and Windows XP Pro. With a little help from ndiswrapper.sourceforge.net I had my wireless card working in about a half hour. Its working great and I have had no problems!

f0rmatc (not verified) - Tue, 2005-05-10 12:32.

I made a similar decision 8 m

I made a similar decision 8 months ago. I bought an iBook. I dual booted Ubuntu and OSX. For me it was a mistake. The Apple design in 90% wonderful but as a Linux laptop it left some to be desired. I just bought a IBM X-30 to replace it. It is a much better Linux laptop.

The beautiful part of the iBook was (1) clean design. Man Apple nails most details better than anyone. Examples, the clean exterior, especially the bottom. The slot load optical drive. Why would any manufacturer use tray drives on a laptop. The "breathing" LED when asleep. 2) Apple has the best laptop keyboard for typing. 3)battery life is excellent using OSX. 4) the wireless is excellent, again under OSX.

The ultimately fatal flaws in the Apple notebook. 1) three dead drives in 8 months! 2)No wireless support under Linux. 3)The dumb one button track pad! 4)dismal battery life under linux.

I personally did not particularly like OSX. In particular, I hated the three buttons (minimize, size and close) on the left. I didn't care for the dock. I was especially frustrated by the inability to make editors full screen! I loaded KDE under OSX to try operating that way, but it was a kludge. I ended up giving the iBook to my son.

The Thinkpad is the best Linux laptop, especially the T-42. I chose a X-31 because it is mainly a travel compute. I wanted the smaller foot print. Using XP the X-31 is too small. Using Ubuntu, it is very good to excellent. The HP with Linux preloaded would be another option, although it is bigger and heavier than I would want. Finally Ubuntu is really excellent, especially on a laptop. This is coming from a former KDE bigot.
MC

An - ymous (not verified) - Wed, 2005-03-16 09:20.

linuxgazette.com and linuxgazette.net... an interesting story

Disclaimer: I read Tux Magazine and I am grateful to Philip Hugues for providing a new publication for Linux users like me. I have no relationship with him or with any of the other parties mentioned in the rest of the comment.

I noticed that this article was from linuxgazette.com, which is described as "a community site" and as a "SSC sister publication." This sounded as a bit of a contradiction to me, so I did a little googling.

Here is what I found out:
1. linuxgazette (.com, that is) was started as a hobby by a student. It was a success.
2. The founder decides to hand over control of the website to Philip Hugues through a verbal agreement. No money was exchanged.
3. In 2003, Philips Hugues decides to change completely the format of the site. The staff doesn't like this and founds linuxgazette.net.
4. Philip Hugues tries to shut down linuxgazette.net by enforcing his (alleged) trademark rights

Why do I tell this story? Well, I think that it sheds some light on Philip Hugues' tough management style (could this have something to do with Marcel Gagne's mystery disapperearence from Tux?)

I hope that now that Tux is up and running Philip Hugues decides to bury the ax. And perhaps to help the linuxgazette.net (which I think is a very interesting and well-written Linux magazine, but more geared towards savvy users and command-line lovers, so no real overlap with Tux).

I know, this is not likely to happen, but...

S

souces:
http://lwn.net/Articles/63383/
http://linuxgazette.net/

An - ymous (not verified) - Fri, 2005-03-04 20:50.

finally someone has seen the

finally someone has seen the light. Its apple, with or without ubuntu linux.
Apple is the way the truth and the light, and a damn fine machine at that!

An - ymous (not verified) - Tue, 2005-03-01 05:36.

Give HP a shot

I've had really good performance from 64-bit Fedora Core 3 on an HP zv5000 series, and the CPU doesn't get hot at all (one of the reasons I picked it over that Uniwill-based machine you were drooling over - nvidia vs. ATi being the other). There's a little noodling with drivers for the (slightly outdated) nvidia GPU, and you'll need to pay Linuxant $20 for a good wifi driver, but my machine was fully loaded (64-bit, 3.2GHz, wxga, DVD +/- R/RW, etc.), dual-boot with XP (cough cough), for less than $1350.

DrSteve (not verified) - Thu, 2005-02-17 10:41.

Wal-Mart, PAC-MAN and DIY Linux on laptop.

Yup, Walmart is in on the Linux Laptop game as well. This Balance Laptop looks like a good deal, and I imagine myself walking into Walmart - picking up some socks, junk food, walking through the toy section (admit it, you do it!) and going into the Electronics area and buying a laptop.

Well hell yeah! A compulsory stroll thru the toy section is a must for every Wal-Mart excursion. How else are you going to find that ol' Pac-Mac TV Game!

I have not seen any laptops, linux or otherwise at the brick and mortar stores though. I suspect that they are only available on-line as is the linux preloaded desktop systems.

As for me, I just loaded Damn Small Linux on my ol' 486DX2/50 laptop and life is good.
The 640x480 hardware limited LCD screen is hard to take though.

An - ymous (not verified) - M - , 2005-02-14 15:10.

Pardon me

I inadverently posted the above reply anonymously. This is really me.

Kevin Hudson

Kevin Huds - (not verified) - M - , 2005-02-14 15:13.