Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

If you're in the market for a new laptop, here's some advice to consider before you spend the money.

Buying a fully Linux compliant laptop can be a truly harrowing experience. Many people have learned to deal with uncompliant laptops. It's interesting to learn about some of the things people do to get by with an uncompliant or misconfigured system. When having audio problems, for instance, some users simply keep the volume to a minimum. Others, when having problems with X, get into the habit of restarting X every half hour; in especially bad cases they even reboot the laptop every half hour. I find these situations unacceptable. It is one thing if you were given the laptop at no cost, but it's completely different if you dropped hundreds of dollars of your own cash to get this kind of system. These problems all can be avoided if you take the time to educate yourself about what is available, set realistic goals for what you want to buy and make certain the machine you want is within your price range. All this said, setting up a Linux-based laptop actually can be a satisfying experience.

As with any other major purchase, when buying a laptop the first thing you need to do is define your needs. Take everything into consideration, and start with basic usage items. What size screen would you like to have? Do you prefer a touchpad or a trackpoint? Do you have a requirement for battery life? Do you want to be able to watch DVDs? Do you want to burn CDs? Do you require a good sound system? Are you planning on connecting to a wireless network, modem-based ISP or conventional wired LAN; or do you not require any LAN or internet connection at all? For what purposes are you primarily going to use the laptop: word processing, gaming, photo manipulation, SA access terminal, web browsing? All of these questions and uses should be considered, because the answers can effect drastically both the cost of the laptop and the time required to make it ready for use.

Once your needs are defined, start browsing the major laptop manufacturers' product lines. From my experience, I strongly recommend buying laptops from the big names: Toshiba, IBM, HP, Compaq, Dell and so on. Staying with the major names can guarantee support in the long run. If you need a battery three years from now, for example, it will be much easier to acquire one for a Thinkpad then it would be for an Acme brand no longer in business.

The largest advantage of having a popular brand is you can rely on the Linux community as a whole. The more people who have your laptop the more FAQs, how-tos and general documentation you can access. It is comforting to post a laptop-oriented problem on a public news group and receive replies from a dozen people with the same exact laptop who experienced the same exact problem.

So you've found a couple of laptops that you think fit your needs, but you're not sure how compatible they are with Linux. I suggest making a checklist of your prospective laptops' major components. Many times you'll find that a particular manufacturer doesn't have list the complete specifications on their web site. There are a few ways to remedy this situation. If the laptop can be store-bought, go to a walk-in retail outlet and use Windows to get a gander at what makes it tick. Windows provides a comprehensive list of all the components it detects. Simply open up the device manager and make a list of what you find, including what is listed under the Control Panel, System, Hardware and Device Manager. Take the list home and start your research.

A much more convenient way of finding out what things of interest are inside your prospective laptop is to do a Google search with the laptop's name and Linux as keywords, for example, Thinkpad R32 Linux“. Chances are you'll find a how-to that someone has created to instruct others about installing Linux on that particular machine. Such how-tos can be priceless resources in your Linux laptop quest; not only do you find a component list, but you also find out up-front how compatible the machine is.

In the area of compatibility, I find the biggest stickler to be the video card. Due to the quick pace with which laptops are being developed, Linux is struggling to keep most video cards supported with the most features enabled. It's not uncommon to have a video card capable of hardware-based 3-D rendering that simply can't do so under Linux due to driver limitations. This situation will change over time, of course, but who wants to wait if they don't have to?

At present the major manufacturers of video cards for laptops are ATI and NVIDIA. NVIDIA has a closed-source proprietary driver that is fully capable of 3-D rendering and offers many 2-D resolutions, all in full 24-bit color. These capabilities are impressive, but there's a catch. Due to the driver's closed-source nature, if a particular line of laptops has a problem with the driver, getting NVIDIA to address the issue could be difficult and may not happen at all.

ATI, however, handles Linux in a way that is friendlier to the Linux community: ATI's drivers are open source. Although ATI's support for the Linux platform initially was not up to the standards of NVIDIA, ATI's current supports is growing fast. Because the drivers are open-source, many people are working to provide the community with more than capable drivers that quickly are rivaling NVIDIA. Will ATI surpass NVIDIA in its support for Linux? It already may have, but NVIDIA is a major player and could turn the tables in an instant. Either way, Linux users win.

Other hardware of concern includes the sound chipset, modem, networking chipset and wireless devices. Depending on your needs, you might not require all of these items, but I'll bet the farm that you are going to need at least a few of them. Sound can be the most difficult and perhaps least vital thing to get running under Linux. Fortunately, in most cases on-line documentation can be found that will assist you in getting the sound to run properly.

Modems can be another big stickler for Linux compatibility. Software-based modems are common amongst laptop manufacturers, so it's not uncommon to discover that a particular modem does not work under Linux. If a functional modem is important to you, be sure to do some modem-specific research prior to that final purchase. In a pinch you can always use a PC card-based modem.

Although most integrated networking chipsets are supported by Linux, you never can tell with the off brands. Your networking chipset is definitely worth looking into. If I had to pick one component, LAN connectivity is perhaps the most important. Without it I would not own a laptop.

This bring us to my last area of concern, wireless LAN support. The bleeding edge of wireless networking can offer a plethora of compatibility obstacles. The 802.11 standard itself is hardly a standard, what with all of its substandards—802.11a, 802.11b, 802.11g. Different access points play better with different client cards. Certain cards are faster, certain ones can work for a longer range, certain ones work better in ”noisy“ situations and certain ones are more compatible with those of other speeds. My point is special attention must be paid to wireless if it's support is vital to you.

All of the above-mentioned components go to show the overall quality of the laptop. In my opinion, a 3Com-integrated NIC has a higher value than does a Realtech. Sure, they'll both work, but in the long run you want to get the most for your money. The same goes for all the components of the laptop. An ATI IGP300 with 32MB of shared memory simply isn't as valuable as an NVIDIA Geforce4 32MB video card. You'll find many of these quality/price issues apparent when you start pricing individual laptops. The best method is to take your time, read as much as you can about each critical component and make an educated decision.



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Ella's picture

Pretty informative........thanks for the information. Need hard drive? Check wishes to all of you.

I agree withe him

Anonymous's picture

Sorry dudes, but I agree with the guy that says the article is useless coz it is. I do a search to learn something and I run into an article that says do more research ???? What's the point of the damn article?????? Nothing.

PRETEND you didn't know everything

Anonymous's picture

PRETEND you are new to Linux. PRETEND, just like I'm PRETENDING to be civil.

Linux for Compaq Presario V6102AU

Balaji's picture

I have purchased the Compaq Presario V6102AU. I hadn't checked if it would be compatible with RedHat Linux. I have a RedHat Linux 9.0 with me and I wanted to install it in this. Initially I thought it wouldn't detect the graphics card since nVIDIA gives closed source drivers. But it used a generic display setting and went ahead. The problem however was my hard disk. Anaconda exited saying that it could not detect any hard disks in my machine. I have a 100GB SATA hard drive.

If this version of Linux does not support it, which version do I have to go for? Please help me with this.

check the bios

Anonymous's picture

you can often set the sata drive to act like a ata drive in the bios. my low end presario supports this, so it's probably safe to assume most other laptops do also.

- hope that helps.

linux compatibility with sata hard disk

sanjudon's picture

my computer is compaq presario
sata harddisk 160gb
can i load linux in my computer

SATA drives and RH9

Lnuxius's picture

My friend, try UBUNTU 6.05; also known as Dapper Drake. I too attempted to load RH9 on a SONY Vaio S4XP.It would not load, and why? The kernel could not see a SATA drive-, it was actually looking for an IDE drive.

What you'll find is that later distros have the capability of configuring later devices. I loved RH9 while I used it. Ubuntu satisfies my everyday computing needs and mounts USB key drives etc on insertion. There's still no mp3 or mp4 support however. Its Ogg Vorbis for compressed audio and Ogg-Theora for film. But it installed on my Sony Vaio S4xp and Toshiba P20-801 with almost no issues at all! Impressive. Also check the web for linux compatible laptops.

problem with SATA HDD.

anis_huq's picture

I am having problems in installing Red Hat Linux 9.0 on my SATA HDD of 120 GB. Linux can't seem detect any HDD.

reply V6102AU

martin's picture

Fedora Core 5 (AMD64)
Ubuntu 6.06 (AMD64)
Gentoo Linux (AMD64)

i too purchased compaq V6102AU recently i suppose the following linux flavours would be supported!. I havent tried installing linux yet.
for more info pls visit

Regards Martin

Please give advice for AIX laptops

Abhishek Joshi's picture

Dear All,

Any one knows about AIX compatible laptops.


Linuxcertified's laptop

Anonymous's picture

Consider getting a linuxcertified laptop ( I have been fairly happy with mine.

Re: Buying LINUX Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I just want to say to the editor, we all know how to choose a laptop and what’s our budget to spent on the system, so, it will be much easier for you to do a little research and give us exact model number that will be fully compatible to LINUX of each brand instead of just write out the whole article of what your personal interest is and no useful information! Remember, every one can write the article like that, so, please do not waste readers time by going into some baby stuff such as, do you need to watch DVD on the laptop? How much money do I spent on my new computer..., and explain the retun policy of the store!#$? Every one know the return policy, we can read it on the back of the receipt, thanks!

If you don't like the

Anonymous's picture

If you don't like the content of the article then don't read it. Why don't you try writing the article you describe in you're well written request?

You don't know if an article

Anonymous's picture

You don't know if an article is useful until after you read it. Only then can you know it was a waste of time.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

don't buy toshiba portege 3480CT as it won't boot with knoppix,phlak,morphix and other distros

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

Does anyone have any comments about portables from Los Alamos Computer?

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I am considering buying a used Compaq Armada 1571:
Intel 200MHz processor with MMX
3.0 GB hard drive
1.44 floppy + 20x CD-ROM drives
serial & USB ports
SoundBlaster soundcard
Internal 56K modem

Distro: Libranet 2.8.1

Would welcome comments from anyone familiar with this model. It is almost certain that the modem will have to be replaced as it is probably a Winmodem and that is fine with me. The soundcard and my printer are supported by Libranet. TIA

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

You can test the linux compatibility by booting the laptop with knoppix, which supports a lot of hardware.

Doing so , you will know instantly if there is z good compatibility without spending hours in configuring things.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

Even better than a big name's labtop, i advice a labtop with Linux pre-installed. There are not a lot of them available through the web, but there are some, -- like mine -- and it's the easiest choice.

various options

Anonymous's picture

The other option would be to buy a refurbished laptop, quite inexpensive, running linux from various vendors, e.g.

Auction possibility

rknop's picture

If you don't need the latest and greatest laptop, you can find two-year-old models on eBay for a decent price sometimes. There are some advantages to this. First, chances are better that everything will be supported. (You're less likely to find a 3d video card, though, if that's what you need.) Second, you're much more likely to find several sites on the web where folks have gotten Linux working on that model. Third, even if it has Windows on it, at least you can rest confident that Microsoft isn't getting any money off of you.

And, of course, the cost can be quite a lot lower than it would be to purchase an acceptable laptop today. You do have to be careful to set your own limit and stick with it, and be a little patient to let a few go by until you get the one you want at the price you want. If you're realistic, it can be done.

I recently purchased an IBM Thinkpad X20 off of eBay, and am very happy with it. My "must-have" criterea were (1) good Linux support, (2) 1024x768 screen, and (3) very light. I didn't need a ultrafast processor, or 3d acceleration (although the X20 has an ATI card which might work with an experimental DRI driver; I haven't tried it). With new laptops, (3) in particular means that one has to pay a premium, and given that I didn't really need the latest and greatest, it made sense to get an older one. I use the laptop to take notes on the road, to hook into the net on the road, to show presentations and (occasionally) movies/animations to a class. The 600MHz processor in the X20 is more than adequate for this, as is the hard drive. And, a couple of years ago, I'd installed and ran Linux on a couple of X20's at work, so I knew first hand that it would run well-- though there were plenty of sites on the web assuring me of that.


Dell Laptops

Anonymous's picture

I have to say that Dell laptops are very good in their Linux support, as far as I know. I have an older Inspiron 8000 and everything works perfectly (except the Winmodem, but I could probably get that working if I had the time). Dell even has some support downloads for Red Hat Linux. I reccommend at least looking at Dell laptops for your next laptop. People say that video cards are the hardest things to have Linux support for on a laptop but Dell has either ATI or NVIDIA cards in all of their laptops, so this shouldn't be too much trouble.

Re: Dell Laptops

Anonymous's picture

I bought a Dell Inspiron 4000 with RH 7.0 installed by Dell. The modem was a PCMCIA card. It worked perfectly. I next bought a refurbished Dell Latitude C600 with Win 98 installed. This turned out to have the full 3 year next day on-site warrantee. Because win 98 was not current, Dell sold me the laptop for about $700 less than I paid for the Inspiron. My point: buy refurbished from Dell with the most obsolete Windows OS you can find. Then either use PartitionMagic and add Linux, or install Linux over Windows. I swaped out the original 10GB HD and put in a 20GB HD. I installed RH 8.0, RH 7.3, Mdk 8.2 and Slack 8.1 each in a 5 GB partition. Don't try using lilo to boot (although it can be done) use grub as bootloader (if you're dual booting).

Re: Dell Laptops

Anonymous's picture

I bought a refurbished Dell Latitude C600 laptop on eBay. 20 gig HD (empty), 750mHz CPU, CD and 3.5" floppy drives, 512 meg RAM (I'd upgraded from the 128meg it was offered with), 14.1" TFT screen. I bought a Lucent WiFi card for it, it came with a Xircom combo 56k modem and10/100 ethernet card.

I installed RH 8.0 on it no problemo. I'm not savvy enough to be able to set up the WiFi or ethernet stuff yet (I'm working on that now). My point is, six months ago this was a top-of-the-line laptop. Today it's avail on eBay for 'prox $500 -- ok so I've more invested in mine, but the total is STILL under $1000 (even with all the extras for it I've bought). And it runs Linux -- beautifully.

Re: Dell Laptops

Anonymous's picture

I agree. I have an inspiron 4100 and everything that I use works - 1400x1050 resolution on the ATI card, sound card, network. I have previously had experience with a 3200, 5000 and an 8200 also. All filled my needs with a few minor quirks. The only one that I've heard to be problematic is the M50 / Latitude C840. My colleague could not get 1600x1200 to work on either of those. 1400x1050 worked fine though.

Closed drivers == upgrade disaster.

Anonymous's picture

The biggest problem with closed source drivers with GNU/Linux

is that it means that when you upgrade, you may lose the capability.

In some cases that isn't QUITE as likely with X-windows 4,

because they try to support some binary capability, but it's

still a problem (ESPECIALLY for drivers that directly hook into the

Linux kernel).

About IBM and Linux

Anonymous's picture

I recently checked IBM's web site to see if I could buy a Linux laptop from them. To my surprise, they recommended either Windows 2000 or XP to customers. By ''recommended'', I mean ''didn't offer any other choice''. That is coming from a company that boasts about the revenues it gets from selling Linux servers.

I think that IBM and all the other big vendors should get their act straight : either they allow people to choose which OS they're going to use or they publicly say that they are just testing waters (but are afraid of Microsoft).

I know that before PCs get out of factories, they are tested to see whether they will function properly with Windows. As others have said, how hard is it for computers manufacturers to have copies of a Live CD OS (Knoppix, Demolinux, FreeBSD Live, ...) that would make sure that their hardware is supported ?

Re: About IBM and Linux

Anbu's picture

I know Fujitsu used to test their products for Linux compatibility mainly with video as I was told by my friend who was working on those projects in India!

Re: About IBM and Linux

Anonymous's picture

keyword: servers

does not mean that ibm think linux is viable (for them) on the desktop yet.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I'm actually looking for the lightest, cheapest linux laptop I can find -- and I'm not planning to run X on it, so it can actually be fairly slow and old -- and recommendations for a tiny, barebones laptop?

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture


IBM ThinkPad 600X

If you change your mind and want to run X, it will do that just fine.

Only downside is battery life (as with any pc laptop).

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

My Toshiba Libretto CT110 runs Linux without a problem and is tiny. My other laptop is a IBM T20 with a 13" screen and runs linux beautifully. If you want tiny go for the Libretto - it's the size of a VHS video cassette. If you want fully funcutional and 5lb light go for a IBM T20,21,22,23 or IBM Thinkpad 600e.


nick's picture

Do you by any chance have the original installation discs for your CT110 - mine are missing and the machine needs a complete rebuild



yvon's picture

I am in the same situation, I have a ct110 with pcmcia cdrom from PORT
pcmcia ethernet card 3com.The toshiba win98 manual .
It crash, I found the way to reformat the disk but I don't have the original boot disk and CD.

I woul realy appreciate your help, if you got the info.

thank you

More info on 'Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop'

neovada's picture

Please expand, did you install SUSe linux 9.x on the IBM thinkpad T20?

I happen to have a problem, it seems with the microsoft usb scroll-bar mouse---it hangs the system all the time.
Should I use a ps/2 mouse?
Or can I adjust a unix software tweak in the system for this?

Glad to hear from you soon,

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

Well, the Lindows MobilePC sounds like it might fit your bill:

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I've got 2 Toshiba Porteges 320CT with docking stations & 96MB RAM & 4GB harddrive.Great little laptops.

I DO NOT care about sound and DO NOT need a Winmodem. I've loaded RH 7.1 & 8.0 without a problem. PCMCIA NIC, USB mouse work fine...Portege has a slightly odd screen dimension so a bit of hand work required in the Xconfig file but that was all...RH flawlessly finds the CDROM & floppy drive when docked...

Use Knoppix to test-drive the system

Anonymous's picture

The Knoppix bootable CD with a full desktop Linux system on it: That's 1200+ packages and 2GB of applications and data. Test drive your candidate systems with this.

If the system doesn't come up clean and fast with full video, audio, network, disk, PCMCIA, USB, and/or support for any other devices and baubles the system touts, explain to the salesdroid why you're walking away from it (tell the manufacturer as well), and try another system.

And manufacturers, if you're reading this, andand are wondering how to satisfy your Linux customers who would prefer to perform their own installation, but want to be assured of Linux compatibility, two suggestions:

  • Boot your systems on Knoppix. If they come up and are fully functional (video, sound, networking, USB, PCMCIA, modem, disk), then you're Linux friendly.
  • Run the "system-info" script from and include its output as an informational file among system documents (along with the other useless information you're inclined to put on CDROMs and/or floppy disks).

Those two simple steps will address 99% of the concerns Linux users have when considering new laptops.

Karsten M. Self (

Re: Use Knoppix to test-drive the system

Anonymous's picture

On my Toshiba Notebook (which is one year old), Linux works very well, but to use Knoppix, you have to set the "noscsi" boot parameter, otherwise it hangs during startup. So while the Knoppix test is generally a good idea, you should know the "Knoppix cheat codes" to avoid getting stuck in unnecessary hardware detection.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

If you REALLY want to know about GNU/Linux compatible laptops check:

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

And see the Linux-Mobile-Guide

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I think the article misses one sore point of linux laptoping of today. That is thermal and power management. Older laptops usually adhere to the APM-standard, which is quite well supported in linux today, and therefore those laptops generally work quite good. However newer laptops implements ACPI, which is another way of doing thermal and power management. Due to many manufacturers bad implementation of ACPI in ther bioses, many laptops won't work as intended when used with linux.

The one thing I have missed most from using linux on newer laptops is the ability for processors to change frequence on demand. Intel calls this technique speedstep and it drastically reduces power requirements of the processor.

I think this is very important, because of the smaller current needed. This implies longer battery-time, and maybe even more important, makes the fan of the system a lot quiteter since it doesn't have to run all the time.

In my system, a compaq laptop with 1.6 ghz processor I get about 4 hours of battery-time and a very quiet computer, when used with Windows XP and "light" computing like typing and so on. That is what I do most of the time, and the processor then drops to 1.2 ghz. In linux, the processor is always on 1.6 ghz and battery time drops to 2.5 hours. The fan is also on all the time.

All in all, my advice for people wanting to buy a new laptop for use with linux, is therefore to buy a computer which supports APM, or if ACPI is the only alternative, check if the manufacturer is known to support the standards. I know that compaq is not...

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

See lwn and Con's patch page for CPU frequency scaling kernel support. 2.4.21-ck3 includes preemptible kernel, low latency stuff, O(1) scheduler, ACPI, XFS, grsecurity; tons of good stuff for workstations.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

This is true. I did a lot of research before buying my laptop. But with all the research it still doesn't talk about ACPI and bios shortcomings. Fortunately for me my laptop is pretty well supported. Speedstep actually works on my machine. When I run off the battery it runs at 1.2 Ghz. When I am on AC it runs at the full 1.8 Ghz. I think it works too well. My whole computer slows down. The sound slows down the hard drive. So it is not perfect. I have even used a newer kernel and recompiled and it still is not perfect. But it works. I'm happy. I'm sure in the near future these things will be worked out. I have a VPR Matrix 180B5. It is actually a Samsung laptop rebadged and sold under BestBuy.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I've been looking at the vpr Matrix models from BestBuy. Several years ago I swore that I would never buy another computer from BestBuy, but these are sweet and priced very right. I looked around, downloaded windows drivers to find out exact hardware and it would seem everything is supported.

Quick features:

* 2.0GHz Intel

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I have the VPR Matrix 180b5 and am happily running Mandrake 9.0 on it. Everything installed and ran out of the box. The onlu exceptions are the winmodem and ACPI does not work either. But other than that it runs great. I'm pretty much running a cooker install so as far as Mandrake 9.1 support it should be just fine. Just follow the Linux How-to and you should be fine.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

I have one and I really like it. I've installed Gentoo and have X and wireless working beautifully. I'm having a little trouble with KDE misunderstanding my keyboard (it thinks that I always have the fn key down), but that should be fixable. I recommend this laptop, especially with all the deals best buy is offering right now.

Re: Watch the distribution!

Anonymous's picture

One further note: be sure you get a new distribution of Linux, whichever flavor you prefer. If you don't buy the latest, greatest, most expensive laptop, but do buy the latest and greatest Redhat/Suse or whatever, there's a much better chance that the distribution has worked out a lot of problems for you. Sure, you can spend hours, weeks, or months having the satisfaction of working out all those niggling bugs. But you could also slap the CDs or DVD in, install it, and run.

Re: Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

Anonymous's picture

If you believe *ANYTHING* the manufaturers say in terms of Linux driver support, you deserve to lose your money!

Download a KNOPPIX boot disk, go to a store with a good selection and ask to boot the model of your choice into Linux.

If it boots into X with a specific driver and autoconfigures the USB, wireless card etc. then you can be 100% sure that Mandrake, Debian, Redhat etc. will install without difficulty.

Don't be a sucker, try before you buy!