December 10, 2004

Being realistic about Linux hardware compatibility

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Try installing Windows on Apple or Alpha hardware, then complaining to Microsoft that it doesn't work. You won't get far. In fact, you probably won't even get a reply. And Windows user group people will explain to you that if you want to run Windows, you need to get Windows-compatible hardware. It's the same with GNU/Linux.I make sure all hardware I buy is Linux-compatible. My scanner, wireless gear, two digital cameras, webcam, and printer were all chosen at least in part because they work with Linux. Ditto the nVidia graphics card and SoundBlaster Audigy cards in my desktop.

My next major computer acquisition will be a video capture/editing workstation I'll use with software that runs on Linux (but not on Windows). I chose it with Linux in mind from the start, just as a person who wants to run the latest Mac video editing software must choose hardware that works with Mac OS X.

Note that I can't indiscriminately install Windows, either. Windows 98 will not work on my HP D220 desktop, period. Windows XP will -- or so I am told; I don't have a copy around to try, and I have had no luck finding a free, legal download site for this operating system, although I have found many for Linux. And this computer works flawlessly with all version of Linux I have tried on it. In fact, it was shipped by HP with MandrakeLinux, not Windows, so I have no right to complain that it doesn't work on the flavor of Windows I happen to have available to install.

The fact that Linux works on as much hardware as it does is amazing. I think we're at the point where we can safely -- and provably -- say Linux works "out of the box" on over 90% of all mass-market PC hardware.

The one place Linux falls much below 90% hardware coverage is on Winmodems, where my experience says compatibility runs about 75%. I explicitly say in my latest book that while it is often possible to get a Winmodem to work with Linux, it is often easier and faster to buy an external hardware modem. I also tell readers to accept the fact that AOL and some other ISPs won't work with Linux, and that they will need to switch ISPs, and how to find one that will work with Linux -- which isn't exactly hard, since at least 80% of all ISPs, up to and including giant Earthlink/Mindspring, are happy to take Linux users' money. (I also note the irony that AOL is a heavy Linux user internally.)

"You can't please everyone" is as true in computer software as in any other field. What's amusing about the people who whine about Linux's current level of hardware compatibility is that hardly any of them are paying customers for any of the distribution publishers -- but still carp about their desires not getting high priority. If they wanted to have a particular PC
or peripheral supported, they could probably find someone willing to write drivers or custom .config files for a fee, but the idea of paying for Linux customization seems alien to the complainers, even though many of them have no problem comparing (free) Linux with operating systems whose publishers charge substantial licensing fees, and even more substantial fees for customization or one-on-one support.

Yes, we'd all like to see all major hardware vendors support Linux, ideally with open source rather than proprietary drivers. But for the moment, the smart thing to do is select our hardware with an eye toward Linux compatibility.

It is no longer hard to find computers and peripherals that "just work" with Linux. A few moments worth of searching before buying can save hours of setup stress, and will absolutely save us from the kind of failure we'd have if we tried to install Mac OS X on a computer meant to run Windows -- or the other way around.


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