The State of the Market: a Laptop Buying Guide

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A wide variety of vendors—now including Dell and Lenovo—sell preloaded Linux laptops. This buying guide should help you find the right laptop for your needs and budget.
EmperorLinux Rhino D830 (Dell Latitude D830)—Power and Graphics in a Portable Package

The Rhino D830, the Linux edition of the Dell Latitude D830, is a desktop replacement machine for those who want a mid-sized presence (15.4" WUXGA display at 1920x1200) with a blend of solid features and excellent performance at a decent price. Weighing in at just more than seven pounds, the Rhino D830 may become annoyingly heavy in transit. Nevertheless, the machine has a sturdy, sleek and durable magnesium alloy frame, responsive keyboard and long-lasting 9-cell battery.

EmperorLinux Rhino D830

Our test Rhino D830 came with a 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 2GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive (7,200rpm), DVD+/-RW drive (Blu-ray optional), the NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M1 video card with 256MB of video RAM and accelerated OpenGL for workstation-level graphics applications, such as video editing and 3-D modeling. You can order the Rhino D830 with up to 8GB of RAM.

In our experience, EmperorLinux is hands-down the most fanatical vendor regarding attention to detail and making sure every feature works well under Linux. EmperorLinux also provides the most complete documentation. The Rhino D830 we tested ran 64-bit Fedora 7 with EmperorLinux's own custom kernel, as well as Windows XP Home. As expected, nearly everything worked as promised, including the Fn keys and fingerprint scanner. Furthermore, EmperorLinux has ensured that the optional Verizon EV-DO cellular data modem works, although it must be activated one time under Windows. This is the only laptop we tested with this functionality working. Finally, EmperorLinux says it is vigilantly improving the 802.11n Wi-Fi on this machine as it begins to ship the IPW4965 wireless Ethernet cards and the state of the driver improves.

Pros:

  • The best documentation in the business.

  • Decent built-in speakers.

  • External “Wi-Fi Catcher” switch, indicating signal locator and on/off switch (not mentioned in the documentation).

  • Optional encrypted /home partition.

  • Has both pointing stick and touchpad.

  • Energy Star-compliant.

Cons:

  • Be prepared for the weight.

  • It would be great if EmperorLinux could run the same promotional pricing as Dell. Otherwise, prices are comparable.

Support/warranty: one year of free, unlimited phone and e-mail support from EmperorLinux and three years of hardware warranty from Dell included.

Price as tested: $2,250.

Lenovo IBM ThinkPad T61—Ergonomic Business Machine

Although you already can purchase the Lenovo IBM ThinkPad T61 from EmperorLinux under its Toucan line, it's refreshing to see Lenovo developing preloaded Linux laptops as well. For this article, we were able to acquire a preview machine that should be available to the general public before Christmas 2007. To its credit, Lenovo has retained the original ThinkPad ergonomic quality in the T61. We liked the intelligent keyboard layout, the keyboard response and the presence of both a pointing stick and touchpad for navigating this machine. Furthermore, although we don't much appreciate that the battery juts out the back and that the casing is the same old plastic (and not a lighter alloy), the classic ThinkPad aura is easy to like. At 5.2 pounds, this machine would work for a road warrior seeking portable power.

Lenovo IBM ThinkPad T61

Our review ThinkPad T61 ran SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop (SLED) and had a 14.1" WXGA+ (at 1440x900) display, an Intel Centrino Core 2 Duo T7700 at 2.40GHz, 2GB of RAM, 160GB hard drive, DVD+/-RW drive and an NVIDIA Quadro NVS 140M video card with 128MB of video RAM.

We caught Lenovo in product-development mode when reviewing the T61, which was evident in the hobbled state of its Linux-based functionality. Therefore, it is unfair to complain about the many things that aren't working just yet. My contact at Lenovo, despite his Tony Snow-worthy evasions, has assured me that its engineers are working quickly and furiously to provide full support for SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop. Some issues in development include full support for the NVIDIA video card (for 3-D acceleration and Xgl/Compiz) and power management (suspend to disk and suspend to RAM). The machine we received had a fingerprint reader, which unfortunately will not be present on the Linux-based production machine.

Politics aside for a moment, it was a smart choice aesthetically and functionally for Lenovo to go with SLED. Not only is SLED an excellent, well-planned distribution with an attractive menu system and the sexy Xgl graphical environment, it offers useful applications, such as Novell AppArmor. At the time of this writing, Lenovo was unsure whether it will offer dual-boot or Linux-only machines.

Although we cannot yet fully judge whether Lenovo has scored a touchdown with the ThinkPad T61, it is clear that the company is trying hard, in cooperation with Novell/SUSE, to offer a top-quality Linux laptop with a competitive (and functional) feature set. We encourage Lenovo to continue its efforts over the long term and not just give Linux a halfhearted try, only to prophesy Linux's lack of viability.

Pros:

  • The most ergonomically pleasing machine of those tested.

  • Useful reading light.

  • Has both pointing stick and touchpad.

Cons:

  • EV-DO and 802.11n capability will not likely run under Linux.

  • The Windows Vista sticker hasn't been removed yet.

  • Wimpy 56 WH battery.

Support: TBA.

Price as tested: TBA.

______________________

James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal

Comments

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I really like the Lenovo

Anonymous's picture

I really like the Lenovo products but they are too expensive.
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You can compare different

Anonymous's picture

You can compare different versions for any given brand over hear - laptop reviews archive and make your decision...this is much better way for a novice to laptop technologies..

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Anonymous's picture

grrr i wont a laptop <3 i want oneeeeee,,,,
i just dont no were to get my dream on from :(:(:(:(

Thanks for the review

John Meyers's picture

I really enjoyed reading this review. I have been dodging reviews left and right but yours is great. I'm looking to buy a notebook, I'm not yet decided but now I have some options. I really like the Lenovo products but they are too expensive.

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