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 Wasp CF-19 (Panasonic Toughbook CF-19)—Battle-Ready Rugged Notebook

Because your company likely will be ponying up the $4,250 for this notebook, you should read on. The Wasp CF-19 is EmperorLinux's Linux-based iteration of the Panasonic Toughbook CF-19. Indeed, this tough cookie is no ordinary laptop. Built like an M1 Abrams tank (and used by the US military), the rugged Wasp CF-19 was a joy to review because we got to see how much thought and effort the Panasonic engineers put into creatively armoring a computer's exterior. The Wasp CF-19 is the kind of laptop to accompany you on the construction site, surveying job, research expedition or field maneuver. It has been tested independently as MIL-STD-810F (US military standard) compliant, meaning it can withstand punishment, such as a fall of one meter, 15,000 feet of altitude and an operating temperature range of –20 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. Other tests include vibration, dust, humidity, water resistance, thermal shock and so forth.

EmperorLinux Wasp CF-19

Given its rugged exterior, the Wasp CF-19 is quite light at five pounds with its magnesium alloy casing. Other features include a shielded yet very daylight-readable 10.4" XGA display (1024x768), recessed and snugly capped ports, tablet with handwriting recognition, a tough swivel and a strong metal clasp that can secure the lid closed or in tablet-up position. The latchable compartment containing the Wi-Fi on/off switch, PC card slot, express card slot and SD reader is another smart addition.

Our test machine was configured as follows: Fedora Linux 7 + Windows XP dual-boot, 1.067GHz Intel Core Duo U2400 ultra-low voltage processor, 1.5GB of RAM, 80GB hard drive and no optical drive (an external USB DVD/CD-RW costs an extra $400).

As mentioned previously, EmperorLinux appears to be the most fanatical vendor as far as offering a rich Linux-based experience, and the Wasp CF-19 lets EmperorLinux show its stuff. In addition to expected features, such as working Fn keys, the Wasp CF-19 has a number of features that are atypical for Linux laptops—for example, the tablet functionality with screen rotation and cellular broadband (EV-DO or HSPDA) and GPS support work out of the box. The custom documentation also is excellent, explaining what does work (and how) and what does not work, saving the user precious time and headaches. If only EmperorLinux would add a custom menu like R Cubed's for custom application installation, system and kernel updates and direct support options, it'd have the best of all worlds.

Pros:

  • Tablet works flawlessly despite well-protected display; tablet also works out of the box.

  • Custom GNOME application to toggle tablet between landscape and portrait.

  • Energy Star-compliant.

Cons:

  • Be sure a machine this small will meet your needs.

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

Price as tested: $4,250.

R Cubed XW1760 (ASUS Z84J) and LinuxCertified LC2520DC (ASUS Z84J)—Low-Frills Desktop Replacements

Both LinuxCertified and R Cubed Technologies offer this same ASUS Z84J platform system, a powerful, handsomely styled, mid-level desktop replacement with some nice multimedia boosts. Although the S-Video and HDMI outs will come in handy, the four speakers and subwoofer raised expectations but never rose above tinny computer audio. With its 17" widescreen display and nearly nine pounds of gravitational tug, this is a beast that generally stays put. In addition, although other ASUS machines offer excellent industrial design, less can be said for the Z84J, which feels a bit more Soviet-era than, say, the Dell Latitude due to its solid plastic (not metal or carbon-fiber alloy) construction. The keyboard is comfy enough; however, the touchpad buttons are sticky, and the body is a little bulky. On such a large spread of real estate, it also would be nice to have the option to choose between a pointing stick and touchpad, as Dell and Lenovo offer, but ASUS does not here. Similarly, it's surprising that the Z84J lacks nice features, such as indicator lights for Bluetooth and Wi-Fi or a Wi-Fi shutoff switch. Cellular broadband and 802.11n also are not options for this machine.

R Cubed XW1760 (ASUS Z84J)

The Linux Experience from R Cubed

Here is the configuration of the R Cubed test machine: Ubuntu Feisty Fawn, 17" WSXGA+ display, Intel Core 2 Duo T7500 2.2GHz processor, 2GB of RAM, 60GB 5,400rpm SATA hard drive, a DVD-RW Super-Multi drive and the NVIDIA G73M 7600 video card with 512MB of video RAM.

If you want to do more with this machine right out of the box, we recommend the R Cubed experience over LinuxCertified. R Cubed is a scrappy young company that seeks to offer a range of tools that aid in package installation and tech support. For instance, in the Applications menu of the installed Ubuntu Feisty Fawn distribution, R Cubed has its own custom menu item, which in addition to kernel, patch and system updates, offers a package installer for applications, such as Google Earth, VMware Server and multimedia applications with codecs. The system updater works without breaking any of R Cubed's customizations, and soon distribution upgrades will be available using this route. There also is a remote support option, which creates an SSH connection to R Cubed, allowing technicians to tunnel securely to the machine to gain shell or VNC access and resolve support issues. Regarding documentation, although R Cubed has a useful knowledge base on its Web site, nothing comes in the box beyond the invoice and login information. Although paper may be passé, we strongly feel that good printed materials specific to the machine in front of you never will go out of style.

Finally, an accurate price from R Cubed was unavailable, as the quoted price from R Cubed for this configuration did not match the last-minute check on the on-line configurator, and some minor hardware selections were unavailable. We regret this lack of information.

Pros:

  • Dual-boot is an option but only with Windows XP.

Cons:

  • No printed documentation.

  • No modem or Webcam support under Linux.

  • Heavy and bulky.

Support/warranty: one-year parts and labor.

Price as tested: see above for details.

R Cubed Technologies provides a nicely customized desktop experience, including its own menu item for kernel and system updates, package installation, remote support and more.

The Linux Experience from LinuxCertified

Here is the configuration of the LinuxCertified test machine: 17" WSXGA+ display, Intel Core 2 Duo T7200 2.0GHz processor, 3GB of RAM, 60GB 7,200rpm SATA hard drive, a DVD-RW Super-Multi drive and the NVIDIA GeForce Go 7700 video card with 512MB of video RAM.

Getting this machine from LinuxCertified means getting a system that's working but with few added luxuries. Customization generally is up to you. Some nice surprises include preloaded Google Earth on the desktop and the myriad preloaded video and audio codecs. On the other hand, hibernation is not enabled, the Wi-Fi on/off function key doesn't work, and the Webcam is not supported. Unfortunately, LinuxCertified takes last prize for documentation—the on-line information is sparse, and nothing at all comes in the box.

Pros:

  • Dual-boot is an option but only with Windows XP.

Cons:

  • No printed documentation.

  • No modem or Webcam support under Linux.

  • Heavy and bulky.

Price as tested: $2,499, “Performance Bundle”.

______________________

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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laptop toshiba

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..

laptop

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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