Advice for Buying a Linux-Compatible Laptop

by Jay Docherty

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.

To Pay for Windows or Not to Pay for Windows?

This question is a loaded issue in the portable Linux community. When you build a standard desktop the issue doesn't arise. You buy each component independently, so there is no Microsoft-enslaved reseller watching over you. Due to the general proprietary nature of laptops, however, in many cases you have no choice but to deal with a reseller (as most major manufacturers are resellers) and, in turn, purchase a Microsoft-based OS. Stories are going around that you can call the laptop manufacturer itself and specifically request to have them ship you a system free of Microsoft OSes. In turn, you save the cost of the licensing fee. I personally have tried this tactic and to no avail; both IBM and Dell turned down the idea. This may be a major issue for the die-hard users, but I think most people don't get hung up on the idea of buying something they are never going to use. Keep in mind that the resellers are selling Windows at their discounted rate. In some cases the rate is as cheap as $15. So unless you can't stand the thought of Redmond getting your undeserved cash, I wouldn't put much thought into the issue. Yes, it sucks, but unfortunately its a necessary evil.

So You Found Your Dream Laptop

You found it, and now you're trying to find it for the best price. This is the final hurdle to your life in portable-Linux nirvana. You have four main choices, a walk-in retail store, an on-line retail store, the laptop manufacturer itself or an auction site. Browse the auction sites to get a ball-park figure of what people are willing to spend. If the system you want is going for over retail cost, you can be sure it is a high quality product and in demand. In my experience, though, I wouldn't recommend making that final purchase through an auction site. Not only is your purchase not warrantied in any way, there is a good chance that you could be paying too much. For example, I recently purchased a laptop directly from its manufacturer for $1,500. Later that evening the same exact laptop was sold on eBay for $2,100. People often get caught up in the frenzy of bidding and don't take the time to research where the best buy can be found. If it's available, I suggest purchasing directly from the manufacturer. Some manufacturers, such as HP/Compaq, do not sell certain lines of laptops through their site and refer you to an outside retail store. The biggest advantage of a walk-in store is the immediate satisfaction. Or, if you have any initial problems with the laptop, you can return it without having to worry about RMAs and extra shipping costs.

The last major item of concern is one that can be easily overlooked—return policies. The return policy is your safety net to protect you from spending your days with an ugly stepson of a laptop. Let's say you finally get your laptop in hand and installed. Then, for some reason beyond your control, you find that whenever you close the lid X crashes. You've checked the newsgroups and forums, but no one can help you. This may be a good time to cut your losses, make the return and go back to the drawing board. Many manufacturers have 30-day, ”satisfaction guaranteed", money-back return policies. It's common place that retail outlets, whether walk-in or on-line, have 14-day return policies. An eBay purchase, for the most part, has no warranty. Be sure to take this all into account when dropping that last coin.

Remember, as with any purchase, knowledge is your friend. A hasty purchase could lead you to hours of headaches down the road. A big issue I had when making my recent laptop purchase was the overall cost. I went into it wanting to spend $500 and in the end spent $1,500. I paid for those extra nine yards to be sure that my purchase was money well spent on a machine that I could rely on for years to come. I was fortunate enough to have a flexible budget, but if you're stuck with a certain dollar amount, be sure to do plenty of research. And don't forget to have fun!

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