Sunday, 07 October 2007 15:09

Locating Linux-loyal Laptops

A look through most department store catalogues reveals a bevy of alleged “deal” laptops; you know the type – cheap and cheerful, sub-$1,000 – but far from bleeding-edge specs. These may be naff at resource-hungry Windows apps but can be a great Linux machine for no extra cost. But can you check out any hardware gotchas prior to purchase, and be sure the Penguin will run?
Happily, yes. Here’s two ways. One is to buy a laptop which comes with Linux pre-installed (a pretty good guarantee it will work!) and the second is to consult online, regularly-updated, lists of laptops which are known to have available Linux drivers.

Pre-installed Linux systems

Hardware suppliers and resellers are becoming more savvy to the growing popularity of Linux. Despite this it’s still very much the resellers taking the lead here; few major hardware vendors will sell notebooks that do not come bundled with Windows (or MacOS if you prefer), which means the local computer store has an opportunity to provide a value-added service by adding Linux themselves.

Dell, for instance, have made a single Ubuntu desktop PC available for purchase but are yet to extend this to their laptop line. Toshiba has no Linux offerings, nor do Sharp or Fujitsu, or other significant manufacturers.

Not to worry; Linux-ready laptops are found in slightly more obscure locations: Pioneer Notebooks in Sydney is one such company who offer Linux, and do so across their entire range of custom-built laptops. Selecting a laptop allows you to customise your preferred specs, with Ubuntu Linux being an operating system option at the exact same price as if no operating system was pre-loaded (By contrast, versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista range in price from $126 to $304.)

There’s a catch, though: you have to be confident that Pioneer Notebooks models are right for you, and it will be harder to make such an assessment when it is unlikely you know many – or any – people who have purchased from them before, or when it will be harder to find reviews of their products in magazines or news sites or blogs. Conversely, there’s no end of independent reviews of, for example, HP or Lenovo laptop lines. Be aware, too, that the Pioneer price doesn’t include any shipping. You need to either pick it up or elect a shipping method on the system configuration page.

Look around and you will also find other niche vendors producing their own hardware with Linux as an option – another is System 76 in the U.S. The same risk applies, namely you need to dig harder to find objective testimonials on the product.

We’re not saying this is a bad thing; in fact, kudos to these companies for making Linux laptops available without the customer having to pay for a Windows license if they don’t want it. What we would advocate is you open lines of communications when considering a purchase to ensure you have confidence in the seller and their wares. If they have a shop front, or will permit you to visit their warehouse, see if you can drop in. Check out the feel of the keyboard, the build of the case and any other features that ordinarily influence your choice of laptop.

You might prefer a known brand. That’s fine too. In this case, you can also find resellers who are filling the gap left by the hardware vendors themselves.

One such reseller is VG Computing in Melbourne. Like Pioneer Computing, they offer their own home-built machines where Linux is a choice, albeit with a far smaller variety.

Where VG Computing differ greatly, however, is in their very long list of known brand-name laptops that they onsell, and will install Linux on. At time of writing, this encompasses 17 Acer models, 18 ASUS models, 7 from BenQ, 23 Hewlett Packard options, 20 from Lenovo, 6 LG and 16 from Toshiba: that’s 107 reputable and easily-researched hardware choices in one spot.

What’s particularly outstanding is that for each model VG Computing give you a rich choice of Linux flavours. You aren’t constrained to Ubuntu if that’s not your cup of tea (but this said, Ubuntu is extremely popular and has a reputation for ease of use; no doubt these are reasons that influenced Dell in their decision to adopt it.) Instead, for any laptop you can elect to buy it with any modern version of Fedora, CentOS, SuSE, OpenSuSE, Ubuntu, KUbuntu, Xubuntu, SimplyMEPIS, Mandriva Linux, PCLInuxOS, Debian, Gentoo, Slackware or Freespire distributions.

To my mind, this site offers a remarkable and unique commitment, whereby you are guaranteed a working installation of your choice of a popular Linux distro on your choice of well-known laptop models.

This service can be found elsewhere too; Emperor Linux in the U.S. have a range of Dell, Lenovo, Panasonic and Sony laptops which they resell, in this case with their own EmperorLinux as one of the distro options.

There is a downside; VG Computing charge $59 to $79 for this service, the price varying by the distribution chosen (Ubuntu is $59, for example, while Debian is $79.) Some might grumble that you are paying for a free operating system but you do need to remember the reseller is adding a time-consuming service on top of the base hardware which they themselves have sourced, not built. (EmperorLinux do not add any fee for this service.)

To my mind the bigger catch is that you are actually paying twice for an operating system. All these brand-name systems already come with differing versions of Windows. VG Computing do not offer any rebate on these if you elect a Linux OS instead. That said, the software still comes to you as part of the bundle so you might have some luck if you take up your case with the original supplier – be it Toshiba or HP or any other. A small number of stories exist on the Internet where plucky individuals have sought refunds from systems manufacturers for their unused OEM copies of Windows.

Generally, each of these stories relates some measure of difficulty due to the vendor having no real procedures with how to deal with such a situation but a cash cheque does arise in the end.

{mospageload david}The authors of these tales do advocate, however, that you carefully document your refusal to accept the Windows licensing conditions that are displayed when you first turn on the laptop (and Windows attempts to configure itself.) If you are purchasing a laptop with Linux pre-installed, then you lose the opportunity to reject this license yourself and it is possible this lack of documented evidence may hinder any attempts for a refund. If you go down this route, we’d be delighted to hear of your adventures.

Do it yourself

Rather than buy a laptop with Linux pre-installed, you can have unlimited hardware choice by simply adding Linux yourself to any laptop you choose. This gives you unlimited flexibility, but here’s where the problem of hardware really comes in.

Fortunately you’re not on your own; there are at least two heavily-trafficked collaborative web sites where individuals can look up the experiences people have had in getting Linux up-and-running on specified laptop models as well as contribute their own stories.

We’ll start with the Linux Online laptop list which presently covers a moderate amount of models, albeit from a wide variety of vendors. Click any link to be directed to an external web page where a brave Linuxphile records their success and how they brought it about.

The downside of this site is that the links are all external. This means, firstly, the pages can disappear over time, but more significantly, there is no consistency or quality control. The Dell Inspiron 9400 receives an excellent wrap with the author producing a comprehensive HOWTO. In contrast, the Digital HiNote fares less well with a few sparse paragraphs in German. Make no mistake, Linux Online have made a great resource but the best is to come.

The pinnacle, which we have saved to now, is Linux on Laptops which is a veritable cornucopia of information on, well, Linux on laptops.

The range of vendors and models is unparalleled, and systems are classified both by the hardware and the Linux distro that was applied. Clicking the Apple page brings up no less than a whopping 79 distinct guides to getting Linux running on Apple hardware. The HP page scrolls on and on, as does Toshiba.

Popular Aldi store brand, Medion, is included as is Alienware and even the short-lived Commodore PC from Commodore Business Machines of Commodore 64 fame, the latter two being in the final “Other” section.

Put shortly, if you want to run Linux on a laptop, and there’s a model which has caught your eye you simply must stop here and check it out. New submissions are easily found and a busy forum aids with troubleshooting problems that arise.

Whichever way you choose, you'll find no end of help from the friendly Linux community and your local user group. Go for it!



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David M Williams

David has been computing since 1984 where he instantly gravitated to the family Commodore 64. He completed a Bachelor of Computer Science degree from 1990 to 1992, commencing full-time employment as a systems analyst at the end of that year. David subsequently worked as a UNIX Systems Manager, Asia-Pacific technical specialist for an international software company, Business Analyst, IT Manager, and other roles. David has been the Chief Information Officer for national public companies since 2007, delivering IT knowledge and business acumen, seeking to transform the industries within which he works. David is also involved in the user group community, the Australian Computer Society technical advisory boards, and education.


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