August 5, 2004

A Linux laptop that 'just works'?

Author: Preston St. Pierre

Any laptop user who has ever used or tried to use Linux on a laptop has experienced at least some level of frustration. Older notebooks aren't such an issue, but bring in wireless technologies, DVD playback (legally), and power management and you're in a bit of a quandary. While you can find a notebook that maybe some of those features work on, it's been impossible to find one that's completely supported -- until now.The notebook industry evolves at a very rapid pace, and the demand for Linux support hasn't been enough that vendors have taken notice. The result is that, if you want a wireless card to work, you make sure you're picky about what chipset is in it, and you make sure it's 802.11b, as drivers for 802.11g or 802.11a are nearly nonexistent. Don't even consider Intel's Centrino technology, as Intel has a history of limiting the technology to Windows. Linux users have had to work really hard tweaking kernel modules and settings to get some level of productivity out of their notebooks.

Apparently, this has changed. Tuesday Hewlett-Packard launched its first Linux-based notebook. Other manufacturers over the years have "supported" Linux on notebooks, so what's the big deal? It appears that for the first time, this notebook, the HP Compaq nx5000, just works. It comes pre-loaded with SUSE Linux Professional 9.1 HP edition, which is just 9.1 with add-ons to make sure that everything works right out of the box. Don't worry about the add-ons being proprietary either, as HP has given them all back to SUSE for inclusion in later versions.

The unique approach is that this doesn't appear to be a Windows notebook into which Linux has been shoehorned. It has HP's tri-band wireless card, supporting 802.11a/b/g, Bluetooth, USB 2.0, FireWire, DVD playback via InterVideo's LinDVD, CD burning, and power management -- all that, in a not-so-ugly package. Most importantly, none of those features are part of the "it doesn't really work" small print.

In the last year, Linux on the desktop has been a major campaign. Sun, IBM, Novell, HP, Red Hat, and a host of other vendors have really been pushing to get Linux outside of the server room. Until now, those initiatives have seemingly been limited to thin clients and developer workstations. This latest offering from HP appears to signal a change. A serious business notebook from a large PC maker coming with Linux installed and fully functional for about $1,140 -- cheaper than the Windows version of the same notebook -- is welcome progress.

Linux has needed more hardware vendor support for quite a while, especially in the portable computer market. Now new computing technologies are becoming available for Linux much more quickly than in the past. We plan to try out one of these HP notebooks to see if there really is a Linux laptop that vendors have finally made "just work."