Time for a Linux laptop

I’m guessing some of my regular readers are thinking “Why don’t you just rename this blog to Linux Mint Critic and get it over with already?“, right?

Well, I’ve been discussing Linux Mint a lot lately, because it’s the distro in which I have the most interest at the moment, but I do still have other topics.

Like Linux laptops. I’m buying a new laptop in April, and I’m not exactly floored by a dizzying array of options. As if I already hadn’t come to the conclusion that I needed a new laptop, my old laptop completely locked up on me while I was writing this post today. So I’m definitely in the market. Read on.

My requirements

I had decided some time ago that I would never pay the Windows Tax on a new computer ever again. What that means to me is that I’m not only interested in spending $150-$200 less on my computer purchases, but I’m interested in NOT giving money to vendors for their association with Microsoft, and going out of my way to give money to vendors who offer coherent, credible, and reasonable Linux options on new computer purchases. Which brings me to my first requirement for my new laptop.

1. It must have Linux pre-installed

Since I’m not interested in paying any Windows Tax ever again, it’s a no-brainer that I want to support a vendor who does Linux on the laptops they sell. Ideally, I’d like a flavor of Linux Mint to be the Linux in question, but I’d be fine with Ubuntu. Generally speaking, if Ubuntu works well on a particular piece of hardware, you can bet that Mint will as well, so if I find that I can’t stand Ubuntu, I can always install a derivative and not have to do too much hacking to get everything to work.

As DoctorMo says, it’s better to “… buy machines from vendors that sell pre-installed Ubuntu machines and not buy Windows 7 machines and hope for the best“.

Well said, DoctorMo.

2. Smaller is better

While I’m not necessarily looking for something netbook sized (i.e., 10″ screen or even smaller), I have gotten pretty tired of lugging around the 8 pound dead weight that is my old Toshiba laptop, and I’d like something smaller, lighter, and more portable, but still big enough to be reasonably usable for most of my everyday tasks.

Ideally I’d like something in the 12″-13″ range for screen size, but since those seem to be in short supply among Linux laptop vendors, I’m willing in my compromise to go as high as a 14″ screen if I can’t find anything smaller. I realize that smaller laptops sometimes don’t have on-board optical drives, so I’m willing to deal with an external in that case if I can find a laptop that is 12″-13″ and lightweight.

3. Intel Core 2 Duo processor

I’m not particularly interested in Atom processors, otherwise I’d just buy a netbook. I haven’t seen AMD featured very prominently among Linux laptop vendors, so they’re not likely much of an option, so barring that, I’m left with Intel’s Core 2 Duo as my preferred CPU. Dual-core is a must these days, particularly if you want a piece of hardware to be relevant for longer than the next 6 months. Performance is more important to me on this new laptop than battery life, so I want to get the best, fastest, and most powerful CPU I can afford for it.

4. 4GB of RAM or more

On a desktop machine, I have a tendency to just order a box with the minimum memory and do my own after-market upgrades if I’m buying a pre-made computer from a vendor. However, on laptops, memory tends to be a bit stickier to find and buy, and often you don’t save any money doing it yourself after-the-fact, so I’d prefer it if I can order a Linux laptop with a good amount of memory in it to begin with. 4GB is my minimum on this, but I’d be willing to shell out a little more cash if it meant I could get it with 6GB.

5. My budget is $1400

What? That low a budget for a new, and surprisingly beefy laptop? Sure! Why not? I know this is doable. Granted, it isn’t doable with a vendor like Emperor Linux — as a matter of fact it flatly rules them completely out — but it leaves in plenty of other options for me.

My options, given those requirements

So, those are my requirements. Where does that leave me? Not great, but it could be worse. I’ve ruled out a few vendors already, so I’ll discuss those first.

The ones I’ve ruled out

While this completely eliminates Dell’s only Linux laptop that isn’t a netbook, I’m happy to see that they’re at least offering a Linux laptop again. While I’m still not impressed, it’s better than their offerings even only a few weeks ago, albeit not much better. A 15.4″ laptop is the same physical size as my current laptop (which is already too big for what I want), and while they do offer it with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor, they only do it with one option, and it’s one of the lower-performing ones. Still, the price is right, but I’d end up compromising on two of my requirements, size being the more annoying of the two.

Another vendor which I’ve already ruled out (besides Dell and Emperor Linux) is The Linux Laptop. While I’m impressed that they are around, and they have some interesting offerings (including Linux Mint), I don’t like that their stuff is just a bunch of rebranded Dell laptops. That means that the Windows Tax is still there, just rolled into their costs, if not the prices of their products. Unless, of course, they have some sort of deal with Dell that gets them completely operating system free laptops for them to set up and re-sell with Linux on them, but somehow I doubt that’s the case.

To me, philosophically, buying a laptop that has Windows on it (or had Windows on it to begin with) is still just supporting the Windows model of computer sales, so in my opinion vendors like these don’t cut it for me.

So what’s left that’s still on the table? Here’s my list of viable options, from the bottom of the list to the top.

Next page: My list of reasonable options, from the bottom to the top

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25 thoughts on “Time for a Linux laptop

  1. I dunno, but I’m commenting so that when someone else gives you some great advice, I can have it too :D

  2. I have read that Ubuntu and Dell are a good match, and that Ubuntu and Dell have made some arrangements for mutual give-and-take. And like you said, if it runs Ubuntu, you can bet it will run Mint. I’m not a Dell fanboy or anything, just offering the thought that hardware compatibility with Dell is prob’ly a “given,” more so than with some other manufacturers.

    • You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Most of Dell’s laptops have Broadcom wireless and Intel graphics modules that are a real pain to get working in Linux, even something relatively forgiving, like Ubuntu.

      I wouldn’t do Dell again, not until they start using more Linux-friendly hardware, and have better Ubuntu options available. Their lone laptop offering is rather insulting, frankly.

  3. I know that you always have your reasons, but, only Intel? I have been more content with AMD.

    All AMD CPUs include hardware virtualization support. Only the high end Intel CPUs have it.

    Intel is famous for skimming the high-end market and hobbling their CPUs to fill the low end niches. And, Intel has historically lost the price / performance comparison (much like a certain software tyrant).

    Once, long ago, Intel was the only robust choice — but times have changed.

    So, what am I missing, Trent?


    • I know that you always have your reasons, but, only Intel? I have been more content with AMD.

      Availability. Show me a laptop that meets my other requirements that has an AMD processor on it and I’d gladly add it to my list.

      I like AMD just fine (currently the most reliable, best performing computer I have in my house is powered by an AMD processor) but I don’t know of any Linux laptop vendors that offer any of their products with AMD processors.

      So, since those aren’t an option, that leaves Intel, and among Intel’s laptop processors, I prefer the Core 2 Duo for performance reasons.

  4. I’ve got the same requirements, a similar shopping list, and the identical heartache at the dearth of choices. The Lemur is my favorite (with its cute Ubuntu key) — the only thing that’s stopping me is a few reports of ~2h battery life. I’d love a 3 button mouse, such as on the Lenovos and some older HP Compaq laptops. Finding a Linux laptop shouldn’t be so hard!

  5. I have the 12″ System76 that was exactly what you are looking for. While it’s a darned impressive machine, there are a couple of issues with Flash performing properly, but nothing unlivable. I think it was only phased out as people are starting to look to i5/i7 processors and DDR3 RAM over it’s Core 2 Duo processor and DDR2 RAM.


    • … there are a couple of issues with Flash performing properly…

      If you’re running Ubuntu 9.10 on it, I can believe that… as I posted in the Mint Fluxbox forums this morning, I’ve consistently run into the same Flash issues on Ubuntu 9.10, Linux Mint 8 Main Edition, and Linux Mint 8 Fluxbox CE.

      Unless you’re talking about a different issue, of course.

  6. Agreed: Emperor may support Linux, but they sell their PCs are sold for ridiculous prices for what you get.

    Tried zaReason?

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  9. Any determinations yet?
    I’m trying to decide between a ZaReason or system76 laptop, anyone purchased a system from either of these companies? Good, bad, indifferent?

    • Ken,

      Well, I ended up buying a System76 laptop… but Los Alamos Computers would have been in the running I think, had I been aware of them a few months ago when I was still shopping around. I see a couple of their smaller “ultra portables” that would have met my criteria or come pretty close anyway.

      At any rate, I’m pretty happy with the Darter Ultra I got from System76 (I got the last one they had!).

  10. I picked up a Dell Vostro 1014 for $329. It came with a Celeron 925 single core processor, 1gb of RAM, a 250gb HD and Ubuntu Linux. I upgraded it to 8gb of RAM, a 64gb SSD and Linux Mint. Now it’s really fast and I only have $550 into it.

  11. I grabbed an acer aspire laptop from linucity that was surprisingly light for its 15.6″ size and the power of i3 core was a perfect solution for me.

  12. Pingback: Most powerful linux laptop – Most powerful laptop | Gaming Computer » Blog Archive

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