Linux Laptops Get a Boost from Hacker Board Projects


Recently, Linux desktop usage has grown from 2.14 percent to 3.23 percent according to NetMarketShare. Much of this increase appears to have come from Linux-based Chromebooks, which are likely undercounted due in part to their widespread use in schools.

Yet, there are signs of Linux desktop life beyond Google’s Chrome OS, which exists in a somewhat parallel universe to mainstream Linux. Ubuntu, for example, continues to expand into the mainstream, although at a grindingly slow pace. As with Chrome OS, most of the action is happening in lower end laptops, often emerging from hacker board projects. The newly shipping Olimex Teres-A64 and upcoming Reform laptop, for example, are based on open hardware and software. Two of the most popular new low-end Linux laptops — the newly revised Pi-top and Kano products — are hackable Raspberry Pi based kits aimed primarily at education.

On the high end, meanwhile, Purism is pushing the limits of open software with its Librem laptops, although the hardware is still closed. Finally, traditional Linux laptop dealers like System76 and ZaReason are now selling Linux-equipped laptops with the latest Intel 8th Generation “Coffee Lake” processors (see farther below).

Olimex Teres-A64

Earlier this month, Bulgaria-based Olimex, which is known for its community backed OLinuXino SBCs, launched an open source Teres-A64 laptop kit for 240 Euros ($284). The 11.6-inch laptop runs Ubuntu Mate on the same quad-core, Cortex-A53 Allwinner A64 used by the A64-OLinuXino SBC.

The highly modular Teres-A64, which also includes removable keyboard, I/O, and touchpad boards, features open schematics and CAD files so developers can customize add-on boards and other features. The laptop ships with 2GB RAM, 16GB eMMC, and a microSD slot. There’s a 1366 x 768-pixel eDP LCD, a full keyboard, mini-HDMI and USB ports, and a 9500mAh battery. There’s no Ethernet, but you get WiFi and Bluetooth.

MNT Reform project

The MNT Reform project, which was recently revealed by Liliputing, aims to build a similarly modular and open source laptop kit, in this case built on the NXP i.MX6. The i.MX6, which is underpowered, but well supported with open source software, was also used by the fully open source Novena laptop. The Novena was a hit on Crowd Supply back in 2014, but the last update, posted Jan. 2016, indicated the project was still struggling to fill its original orders.

The Reform project appears to have learned one lesson from Novena by making a simpler device. Still, this is a more advanced design than the Teres-A64, adding SATA, USB 3.0, and mini-PCIe expansion, among other extras. Like the Teres-A64, it has a modular design, letting you exchange the screen or remove the keyboard to swap boards.

The prototype’s mainboard, which supports up to 4GB of RAM, is built on the TinyRex Ultra module from Slovakia-based Fedeval. The TinyRex is not open source, but the developers are considering moving to Fedeval’s similarly i.MX6-based, but fully open OpenRex SBC, or expanding to the faster i.MX8.

The Reform integrates a Commodore 64 like clicky keyboard and old-school trackball. There’s a netbook-like 10-inch HD screen, a 120GB SATA SSD, and a 3,000 mAh battery. All these specs may change by the time the laptop goes on sale for $600 to $950. Meanwhile, the developers are attempting to include as many open source drivers and omit as many proprietary blobs as possible.

Raspberry Pi laptops: Pi-top and Kano

Not surprisingly, the Raspberry Pi has been the foundation for many Linux-based laptop projects. The two most popular commercial products are the Pi-top and Kano, both of which have been revised in recent weeks.

The $320 Pi-top upgrades the circa-2014, 13.3-inch laptop with a faster, Raspberry Pi 3 mainboard, a 14-inch HD screen, and a more modular design. The Pi-top has a slide-off keyboard that reveals a new cooling unit for the Pi and a DIY hacking space with a magnetic sliding rail. The kit includes a breadboard, motion sensor, LEDs, and a microphone.

The Pi-top exposes 10/100 Ethernet, 3x USB 2.0, and audio and power connections, and you can access the other RPi interfaces when the bay is open. Most of the hardware is not open source, but there’s an 8GB microSD card loaded with the Raspbian based Pi-topOS Polaris. The stack includes a Pi-topCoder Python environment, as well as Scratch and a coding game. Other software includes the Chromium browser, LibraOffice, and Minecraft Pi Edition.

The Pi-top competes with Kano’s educational-focused, Raspberry Pi 3 based Kano Computer Kit, although Kano is aiming at a younger audience. You can’t build a complete laptop, but the revised, $250 “Complete” kit adds a keyboard and detached 10.1-inch screen to the kit to give you something similar. You also get battery pack, USB hub, and a Debian based Kano OS augmented with educational software and a visual programming interface.

Librem 13 and 15

Before Purism successfully crowdfunded its Linux-based Librem 5 smartphone, and gained Nextcloud as a cloud partner, the company launched a highly regarded, Linux-driven Librem line of laptops. As with the phone, these are not fully open source products, but the Librem 11, 13, and 15 models are equipped with the same open PureOS Linux distro, and offer security and privacy controls which are generally attractive to the FOSS set.

The currently shipping models are the $1,399 and up Librem 13 and $1,599 and up Librem 15, which run on Intel’s dual-core, up to 3.1GHz Core i7-6500U “Skylake” processor. The CPU offers a relatively low 15W TDP, giving the laptops a claimed 7 to 9 hours of battery life.

The laptops ship with up to 16GB of DDR4, as well as SATA and M.2 slots for HDDs and SSDs. A second M.2 slot provides 802.11n WiFi. To add Ethernet, you need to use up one of the up to 5x (Librem 15) or 3x (Librem 13) USB ports. There’s also an HDMI port, 720p camera, and audio I/O.

Like the Librem phone, there are hardware kill switches, in this case for WiFi, mic, and camera. Purism has also avoided using proprietary chips that could be used for spying.

Linux laptops move to Coffee Lake

Most Linux desktop users buy bare-bones laptops from major vendors and install their own Linux, or dual-boot or erase Windows. For an easier installation, however, you can buy x86-based systems with pre-installed Ubuntu from Dell, and increasingly from other major vendors like Acer, Asus, and Lenovo. Meanwhile, System76, ZaReason, and other smaller resellers have long offered more customized Linux laptops.

Until fairly recently, Linux buyers had to wait for many months to get the latest Intel chips, but now you can get them when the Windows models come out. System76, for example, is now selling the 14.1-inch Lemur and 13-inch Galago Pro with the latest 8th Gen Kaby Lake Refresh chips, also known as “Coffee Lake.” ZaReason has introduced a 14-inch UltraLap 5440, and Dell is expected to release a Linux-driven Coffee Lake laptop soon.

Coffee Lake is yet another 14nm chip like Broadwell, Skylake, and Kaby Lake, with relatively modest performance and power efficiency improvements. However, the U-series chips used in the new laptops offer slightly faster quad- instead of dual-core designs with the same price and 15W TDP, giving you greater performance and power efficiency when running hyperthread-intensive applications. 

The System76 and ZaReason laptops run Ubuntu on either 7th Gen chips or the up to 4GHz Coffee Lake generation Core i7-8550U. The i7-8550U adds $179 to the cost of the Lemur, or $928 in an otherwise minimal configuration, and $219 to the cost of the Galago Pro, or $1,178. The ZaReason UltraLap 5440 goes for $998 with the $198 i7-8550U option. 

The ability to buy laptops with the latest Intel CPUs certainly adds to the allure of high-end Linux laptops. Yet, as with Chrome OS, most of the growth will likely come in lower-cost laptops, in many cases based on community backed boards. Their modular, and in some cases, open source, nature not only appeals to hackers, but also to those looking to extend the life of their laptops with the latest technology.