How to Choose a Linux Laptop

Linux Laptop Specs Explained

Before you begin shopping for a Linux laptop, think carefully about how you plan to use it. This will guide not only your choice of a distro and whether you want to dual-boot, but also which features are most important to you. If there are any must-have apps you rely on, you should double-check up front whether or not they support Linux, or if there are equivalent open source alternatives; if not, you'll be dual-booting for sure.

For users who plan to stick to Linux and non-graphically oriented applications, there's no real need for high-end processing power or graphics support. Those who plan to dual-boot, on the other hand, are going to want just as much power as a traditional Windows user would.

Here's a rough breakdown of some of the configuration options you'll need to consider.

Operating System

If you want to buy Linux preinstalled, you'll need to go to a vendor that offers such machines. If you want to dual-boot with Windows, you can either buy from a Linux laptop vendor and request that option, or you can buy a traditional Windows laptop and add the Linux distribution of your choice yourself. Either way, which operating system you plan to use will be a key driving factor in where you buy your laptop and what specs you choose.

Wireless

Since this has long been an area of trouble for Linux users, it will be worth your while to make sure ahead of time that you get Linux-compatible wireless hardware. Until Broadcom's new brcm80211 driver is widely incorporated, this generally means making sure you have compatible wireless hardware from Intel or Atheros. Broadcom should be OK too, if you're running Maverick Meerkat.

Graphics

This is another area of potential trouble for Linux users, so you'll want to make sure your laptop's video card and 3D acceleration are fully compatible. This is one area where buying from a Linux-specific laptop vendor can make your life easier--they'll worry about this for you and make sure your graphics work.

Processor

As the brain of your laptop, the CPU will determine its responsiveness and performance in completing the tasks you give it. If you're planning to go Linux-only, this is a less critical consideration, but if you're aiming to dual-boot or use high-end applications, you'll want to get something more powerful.

System Memory

Since most laptops today come with at least 2GB of RAM--and since that's good for most purposes, especially if you're going the Linux-only route--this factor shouldn't be too big an issue. Of course, if you're planning to dual-boot or to go with a 64-bit distro, you'll want to get more.

Optical Drive

This shouldn't be a big factor to think about unless you're planning to watch Blu-ray movies, in which case you'll need a Blu-ray optical drive that can read and write DVDs. You'll also have to get some extra software for decryption.

Weight, Screen, Hard Drive, Battery, Keyboard, Software

These are all factors you'll want to consider, of course, but they typically don't involve Linux-specific considerations. Keep in mind, too, that in the open source world, just about any software you want can be easily added later for free.

Linux Laptop Shopping Tips

Ready to start shopping? It's a good idea to begin by checking out some Linux-specific vendors first. They typically offer the easiest route for you, since they deal with compatibility issues ahead of time, and you'll get an idea of what their offerings and prices are like along the way.

Among the best-known Linux laptop vendors out there are Dell, LinuxCertified, ZaReason, EmperorLinux, and System76.

Even more options around the globe are listed at TuxMobil and LXer.

It's also a very good idea to check out some of the sites out there that collect Linux-focused user reviews and status reports on particular laptops and other hardware, often vendor by vendor. Examples include:

If you're able to get your hands on any of the laptops you're looking at before you buy one, it's a great idea to bring along a LiveCD of the Linux distro you're considering so as to try it out. That way, you can have more confidence that it will work the way you want.

In any case, the following specifications will probably meet the basic needs of most users.

Ubuntu 10.10--With Windows 7 for a Dual-Boot

"Maverick Meerkat" is the latest release of Ubuntu, and it's the most user-friendly version to date. It should also include all the key drivers you might need. Canonical, Ubuntu's maker, recommends the 32-bit version of the operating system for most users. If you choose to dual-boot--not a bad idea if you're new to Linux, are a gamer or rely on key Windows-only apps--you'll most likely get Windows 7 too. Most Linux-focused vendors offer dual-boot installations as well.

A 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo Processor

This is a good, solid, dual-core 64-bit CPU that will handle multitasking nicely along with whatever the average user might throw at it. Though you may not need a 64-bit processor for Linux, you'll be glad to have it if you're dual-booting with Windows.

4GB of RAM

Again, you may not need this much RAM if you're running a 32-bit Linux, but if you dual-boot it will stand you in very good stead for most purposes on the Windows side, as well as for gaming and higher-end applications.

Wireless

Look for wireless hardware from Intel or Atheros, and make sure ahead of time that it's supported with the right Linux driver.

Dedicated Video Card

Unless you're very sure that you won't ever be using your laptop for anything involving more than just the most minimal graphics, your best bet is to buy a laptop with a higher-end, dedicated video graphics card. If you'll be dual-booting, that's even more true. The majority of Nvidia and ATI/AMD cards fall into this category, but make sure you confirm before you buy.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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