July 19, 2005

Tips for buying a Linux-compatible laptop

Author: Jem Matzan

Though it served me faithfully for nearly five years, it was time to send my old Dell Inspiron 3800 laptop out to pasture. As much as I like buying new toys, I wasn't looking forward to shopping for a laptop -- I thought I'd find something just adequate that would cost a ton of money. As it turned out, I spent less than I expected, and my new laptop system is as perfect as I need it to be. Here are a few things I learned about shopping for Linux-compatible laptops.

If you're stuck with an old piece-of-junk laptop computer, the first thing you have to accept is that you need a new one. I was in denial about retiring my Inspiron because I paid a lot of money for it and had taken good care of it over the years. Repetitive stress had broken one of the screen hinges, and it was on its second keyboard and touchpad assembly. The replacement keyboard was starting to fail, the original battery wasn't good for more than a few minutes, it was upgraded as far as it could go, and the 600MHz Celeron CPU that powered it wasn't fast enough for the software I needed to run. The hinge couldn't be fixed, and a replacement part was no longer available.

While my old computer badly needed replacing, you might find yourself in less dire circumstances. The basic question to ask yourself is, "Can I get more work done with a new computer?" If the answer is yes (and don't cheat! A few more megahertz than you have now won't get you much further, in most cases), stop hesitating and start shopping, or start saving if you don't have the money or credit to make an immediate purchase.

Of course, you may not need a new laptop system. An old computer is not necessarily a bad computer. If everything works well, but it doesn't seem fast enough, you may be able to upgrade the RAM cheaply. You can also get better performance by switching from resource-heavy desktop environments to lightweight window managers such as Fluxbox or Enlightenment. You can also ditch the GUI entirely and run everything from the command-line interface, which will give you a speed boost and dramatically decrease battery power consumption.

But if you're going to buy a new laptop, the next step is to prevent yourself from over-buying. When I started looking at new computers, I immediately gravitated toward expensive, high-powered AMD64-based systems, because that's what I use at work. High-powered systems are nice to have, but they're painful to buy, with prices ranging from $1,200 to $3,000. I thought this was reasonable at first because I hadn't shopped for a laptop computer in almost five years. Today you have far more manufacturers and CPU choices. You can buy a more than competent laptop for less than $1,000 and get the same amount of work done as you would with a system that costs twice as much (assuming normal desktop-related work tasks, not gaming or scientific visualization).

CPUs and pricing

A few years ago, the only x86 laptop choice was Intel, and the CPUs were basically the same as those used in desktop machines. Today Intel offers a variety of laptop-specific processors, and you have an array of CPUs from AMD, VIA, and Transmeta. Which one should you choose?

Transmeta-based computers are a little too expensive for the amount of processing power they have. Laptop systems that use the Transmeta Crusoe processor cost between $600 and $1,200. The newer Efficeon processor is faster than the Crusoe, but I didn't find any laptops under $1,300 that used the Efficeon, and these Windows benchmarks and review suggest that it lags behind Intel's laptop processors. The Crusoe uses very little power -- as little as 1w in some designs -- so computers that use it should see outstanding battery life. It relies a little too heavily on software wizardry to increase performance, however, which shows in benchmarks. (Note that these benchmarks are done in Windows, but the reasons behind the Crusoe system's poor performance should apply to any operating system.) A processor that has trouble keeping up with a VIA C3, which uses old technology, is not worth that much money. In short, you don't want a Transmeta-based system unless battery life is your only concern and price isn't an issue.

VIA specializes in Mini-ITX motherboards and related integrated technologies. VIA-based machines have never been known for their performance, only their small size and low power consumption. If you're looking for the cheapest laptop worth buying, ECS makes a VIA-based laptop for less than $600 that looks pretty good. Just don't expect excellent performance from it.

Although AMD is known for making desktop, server, and workstation processors that cost little but perform well, I didn't see anything in its laptop products worth getting excited about. I also didn't find any reliable benchmarks that compared the Mobile Athlon 64 with the Intel Pentium M; however, I did discover some user reviews about the Mobile Sempron processor at online computer retailer Newegg.com. According to two reviews, laptops that use the Mobile Sempron get very hot and use a lot of power. I found no reason to believe that the Mobile Athlon 64 would not be a top performer, though few manufacturers use this processor, and every system I looked at that did was expensive.

Intel is truly king of the laptop processor market. The Pentium M is extraordinarily fast and doesn't consume a lot of power. There are other Pentium M variants, such as the Pentium 4 M, and the Celeron M. Then there's the Mobile Pentium 4 and the Mobile Celeron, which are both re-engineered versions of desktop processors. The Pentium M gets excellent performance at considerably lower clock speeds than the Pentium 4. The term "Centrino" refers to a Pentium M-based laptop computer that also has Intel's 802.11a/b/g PRO wireless network adapter built in (no, the wireless LAN does not work natively in Linux). The Pentium M and Celeron M are the only mobile CPU designs that Intel is actively engineering, according to its processor roadmap. Intel-based laptop prices cover a wide spectrum: the Celeron M-based computers are inexpensive, and the newest and fastest Pentium M-based laptops can be very expensive.

After my research, I was convinced that my best choice would be something based on the Intel Celeron M. If you have greater performance needs, the Pentium M would be a better solution. The main difference between the two processors is the level of onboard cache memory -- the Celeron has 1MB and the Pentium has 2MB. In my case, the desktop work I do doesn't require lots of cache.

Physical design

With the processor decision made, it was time to turn to physical considerations. Some people like fancy computers with all manner of flashy plastic bezels, lights, designs, and other cosmetic superfluities. During the several years I worked as a laptop computer technician, I came to regard aesthetics as a weakness. "Pretty" computers always seemed to break more often and more seriously, and they were more expensive to buy, upgrade, and fix than their ordinary relatives. In the early days of car hot-rodding, I believe the phrase used to describe such a situation was, "If it don't run, chrome it."

Along the same line of thinking, any laptop described as "thin and light" can just as easily be called "fragile and flimsy." Stay away from laptops that use magnesium alloy bezels -- they break easily compared to cheaper and more flexible plastic. Thin screens break easily, too, but the LCD is not the real concern. The true danger lies in breaking the cold cathode fluorescent lamp that serves as a backlight. It's a thin glass tube that spans the length of your screen, usually at the top. Break that and the screen is unreadable.

In general, ask yourself, "Will the computer break if I drop it, and if it will, how badly will it break?" Some good examples of brilliantly designed laptop computer chassis are the IBM Thinkpad and the Panasonic Toughbook, although both are fairly pricey.

Onboard components

Because Centrino-based computers have wireless network chips that don't work with Linux, there is a project to create open source drivers for earlier Centrino wireless chips, but the newer ones don't seem to be supported. There's also ndiswrapper, but I haven't had much luck with that either. If you're looking for a safe bet in terms of well-supported wireless chips, look for something that uses the Intersil Prism GT or Duette, or buy a Linux-compatible PC Card wireless LAN adapter.

Although it has improved over the past several months, the ATI Linux driver still is nowhere near as good as the Nvidia driver. If available, onboard Nvidia graphics are a better choice.

If your new laptop has an onboard modem, it's most likely a softmodem or winmodem, which won't work natively with Linux. Just as with the wireless network chip, you might be able to use software to work around the problem, but a better solution is to buy a PC Card modem that works natively in Linux.

Don't overlook small details, such as which processor and video chip are used, and whether the computer comes with an operating system. Saving $50 by going with the Mobile Sempron or VIA C3 Nehemiah processors instead of the Celeron M can have a severe negative impact on performance and/or power consumption.

If you can delete Windows from the order, you can save money. If the vendor won't let you do that and you buy a laptop that comes with Windows XP, you can try to return the software to the manufacturer for a refund. Some people have had more luck with this than others, and your chance of success may boil down to whom you speak with on the phone, or how loudly you yell.

Where to shop

Although chain stores such as Circuit City and Best Buy are convenient, they have higher prices than online alternatives, they collect sales tax, and they typically outsource your warranty service to the manufacturer.

I started out looking at Linux Certified and Emperor Linux, two online stores that specialize in selling Linux-compatible laptops. While their merchandise looked excellent, their prices were a little out of my range. It's not that they were over-expensive, but the computers were high-powered and beyond what I needed. As much as I wanted a killer AMD64 laptop with a 7200RPM hard drive and a big screen, I didn't need to spend $1,500 on one.

A time-tested and reliable online retailer of laptops is Power Notebooks, but here too you won't find anything new for less than $1,000.

You may also locate good deals on laptops at Froogle and Pricewatch, but before you buy from the lowest-priced retailer, be sure to check it out with Reseller Ratings.

One reputable online store that has excellent service is Newegg. Widely known as a parts store, Newegg sells complete laptop systems as well. Newegg offers several decent computers for less than $1,000. The one that caught my eye was the Acer TravelMate 2300. After a month of use, it's everything I'd wanted it to be -- fast enough; a nice, big screen; and enough RAM and hard drive space to comfortably store all my data and run several programs at once. Best of all, I paid less than $700 for it. At that price, I could replace it every year with a newer model and be happier than I would with a considerably larger investment in a machine that would have to last for several years.

Buying a Linux-compatible laptop is a series of compromises. You have to accept that there is going to be at least one feature or function that won't work -- or won't work immediately, without tweaking, downloading, and configuring. No laptop computer will be perfect in all categories; you can have it cheap, fast, or efficient -- choose any two.

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