Laptops for Linux!

At the time of this writing, the two Linux-specific laptop providers are LinuxLaptops and ASL Workstations.
Hardware and Ergonomics

Once upon a time, the important issue with a computer was how well it worked. Nowadays, people have these funny ideas; they'd like to be comfortable while using their machines and not get headaches, neck cramps, back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, radiation sickness, etc. Laptops win on most counts, the only problem being that tall people may be made to suffer.

Monitors

The LCD flat screens on these laptops are pristine and clear: images are sharp and detailed, without glare, fuzziness, or flicker. There are exactly 1024x768 pixels on the screens (unlike CRT monitors, which often haven't got enough phosphors for the high resolutions they “support”). While laptop monitors are not as lovely as the extraordinarily expensive LCD flat panels, they have remarkable clarity and accurate color. And, they consume very little power while emitting hardly any electromagnetic radiation. Ever since these laptops arrived, I haven't touched my desktop computers, preferring instead to use ssh to log in from the laptops.

Both monitors are identical, 14.1-inch Active Matrix TFT (thin film transistor) panels. The ASL looked a tiny bit better in X, while the Attache looks significantly better in console mode. The reason for this is the Attache has been configured with a frame-buffer device, so the console shows up in 1024x768 instead of the usual 640x400. This means the screen can fit 48 rows and 128 columns of crystal-clear text (literally), as opposed to the usual 25 rows by 80 columns in 640x400 mode (which will appear ghosted on a laptop). LCD screens look proper only in their ideal resolution, so a monitor made for 1024x768 will be clear only in this mode and should stay there all the time to take advantage of the excellent image quality. If you are a console enthusiast, LinuxLaptops' frame-buffer-enabled kernels which run the console in 1024x768 are the only way to go.

The main disadvantage of LCD screens, other than expense, is they have particular viewing angles; if you look from the wrong angle, the colors and brightness will be off. Also, the screens are very delicate, so you can't get mad and punch your monitor. One shouldn't press on the screen at all, so it takes a concerted effort to clean. If you buy a laptop off the shelf and try to install Linux, configuring X will be a challenge. Finally, if you are slightly taller than average, you might develop neck and back pain from hunching over, since the keyboard is fixed so close to the monitor.

Keyboards

The ChemBook 7400 keyboard is a compact arrangement of full-size keys which are perky and shallow. You don't have to push down very far, so typing should conceivably be faster. One problem with these keyboards is they sit far back in the laptop, leaving a big surface in the way, and this usually results in the user resting his or her wrists on the laptop. After about thirty minutes of typing away while resting my wrists on the laptop, I feel a horrible throbbing pain which follows me around all day; I suspect this is what carpal tunnel syndrome feels like. So during the time I have been using only laptops for their nice monitors, I have also been using an external keyboard. Still, the key action on the laptop keyboard is fast, and LinuxLaptops even took the effort to remap CAPS LOCK to serve as the CTRL key.

Pointer Device

Truthfully, I think track balls and little red joysticks are neat, but these days the typical pointer is a pad which one runs a finger across, inspiring the pointer to move accordingly. The pad is easy to get accustomed to, and the movement is logical and straightforward. The mouse buttons are two wide buttons situated below the pad. Clicking both at once will emulate the third button, but these days we should just have three buttons. Also, tapping on the pad often acts as a mouse click, and this leads to some funny accidents, especially on the Web.

Software

The fundamental difference between the AS-LT300 and the Attache is that the AS-LT300 is a Red Hat system, whereas the Attache is a Debian system. Although distributions are usually fairly similar, especially when one gets past installation, these two are essentially polar opposites. Red Hat, as we know, is the market leader, the epitome of commercial Linux, while Debian GNU/Linux is a vanguard of the free-source philosophy, and typically the hacker's favorite setup. Herein lies the difference in the feel of these laptops: ASL went the commercial route, while LinuxLaptops took the expressly non-commercial route.

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