How to Choose the Best Laptop to Install Linux

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It’s never been harder to install Linux.

Don’t believe me? Just cast your mind back 10 years. Back then, it was just a matter of downloading an ISO, burning it to disk, pressing “next” a few times, and hoping you weren’t unlucky enough to have a Broadcom WiFi card. And if you didn’t fancy burning your own install disk, Canonical would send you one – for free. It was a wonderful time.

linux-shipit

Now, it’s less wonderful. Would-be Linux users have to contend with utterly awful hardware support, UEFI woes, and equipment designed to work with Windows, and Windows alone. If you want to break away from the yoke of Microsoft, you have to be a savvy hardware shopper. Here’s how to find the perfect Linux laptop.

Buy an Old Computer

Last year, I met GNU project founder Richard Stallman in a Liverpool cafe for an upcoming MakeUseOf feature. We sat, ate pastries, and talked about the usual suspects – software freedom, and the NSA. Funny thing about Stallman; you’d expect someone whose life is so closely based around technology to have an expensive, hyper-powerful behemoth of a computer. The type of computer toted by NSA analysts and defense contractors, capable of processing quadrillions of calculations per second.

linux-stallman

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But no. Stallman uses a refurbished IBM ThinkPad.

These computers have been – for over 20 years – the business laptop of choice. They’re robust. They hold their value like a Macbook. They’re easy to service and to repair, and they can take a beating. It is for this reason why their popularity has endured, despite the sale of IBM’s laptops devision to Lenovo, and the startling incompetence (SuperFish, anyone?) that followed.

It’s even possible (and surprisingly simple) to replace the low-level, proprietary BIOS with one that’s entirely free, open-source software.

If you’re balking at the idea of using an old, second-hand computer, let me ask you something. What do you use your computer for? You’re a Linux user so (in most cases) gaming and video editing are things you’re likely not terribly concerned with (although if you are it is simple to install Steam on Linux and start downloading compatible games). No, chances are high you’re going to use your computer to code, browse the Internet, and use productivity apps.

So then I ask you, why do you need to drop hundreds – if not thousands – of dollars on a brand new machine? These ThinkPad’s are cheap, solid, and do the job.

linux-thinkpad

If you’re based in the UK, you should consider getting a refurbished IBM ThinkPad x200 from GluGlug. For just short of £300, you get a machine that can comfortably handle any Linux distribution you could care to throw at it. Including the perennially popular Ubuntu.

More compellingly, it comes with the Libreboot BIOS, which offers more features compared to the standard, stock BIOS. According to GluGlug:

Libreboot offers several advantages over proprietary BIOS/UEFI firmware; faster boot speeds, better security and customization to name a few. You can install GNU/Linux with full disk encryption (including the /boot/ directory), verify GPG signatures on your kernel at boot time, run a full operating system from the flash chip (coming soon!), and more.

Failing that, ThinkPads can be found on Amazon and eBay at rock-bottom prices. I’ve found perfectly adequate ThinkPad T61s online for as little as $50. Of course, your milage will vary, and remember you’re buying a second-hand, old computer. You might need to lower your expectations accordingly.

Get A Mac

I’ve already made a jibe about gaming on Linux. Now I’m telling you to get a Mac. It’s almost like I’m trying to provoke the trolls. But I’m not.

In 2006, Apple ditched its IBM PowerPC processors for ones made by semiconductor titan Intel.

linux-powerbook

The writing had been on the wall for a long time – PowerPC was dead. They simply couldn’t compete with Intel’s fangled dual-core CPUs, which were simultaneously faster and more power efficient. PowerPC had to go.

For Mac users, this meant significantly more powerful computers. It also came with the enticing proposition of running Windows on Apple’s hardware. Eager to penetrate the business market, Apple released BootCamp, which allowed Mac users to dual-boot their systems, and issued Windows drivers for their hardware.

linux-mac-dualboot

But Linux got no such love. However, some enterprising hackers were able to shoe-horn Linux onto the new, x86 Macs. At first, the implementations were shaky, and missing a lot of features. But nine years later, they’ve became more refined, and easier to install.

Now, installing Linux on a MacBook Pro isn’t so much a challenge, but rather a viable option that can be accomplished by the most moderately competent Linux user.

But why should you bother?

Yes, Apple hardware is extremely expensive for what it is. Especially when you directly compare it to machines pumped-out en-masse by the likes of Dell and Lenovo. But that’s not a fair comparison. Apple’s hardware is – yes, I know how controversial this statement is – simply better. It looks better. It’s built better. Their computers can withstand more of a beating, and last longer than their PC equivalents.

Don’t believe me? Just go sit in a metropolitan coffee shop for a while. Count how many people show up with aged MacBook Pros and white MacBooks. Then compare it to how many people show up with PCs from 2007, or thereabouts.

linux-mac

It’s for this reason why people choose Apple computers as their Linux hardware of choice. So, how do you pick the right hardware for you?

Fellow MakeUseOf writer Mihir Patkar recently wrote a compelling endorsement of the Macbook Air that’s worth reading. Other MakeUseOf writer Danny Steiben is already running Ubuntu on his Macbook Pro Retina. But really, most Apple laptops should do, and much like the ThinkPads of yesteryear, it’s worth investigating whether a second-hand MacBook will fulfill your requirements.

linux-macbookair

The only Apple laptop that should be avoided at this time is the latest, fashionista-focussed Macbook. This looks the part, but the drivers aren’t there, particularly for the new (and atrocious to use) butterfly keyboard, and for the force trackpad.

Perhaps in a few month’s time.

Get a Dell

Dell can’t seem to make their mind up about Linux. At times they’ve embraced it with open arms, and at times they’ve turned their backs on it.

Their tumultuous history with Linux starts in 1998, when one-time Green Party presidential candidate Ralph Nader asked Dell (and a number of other major hardware manufacturers) to offer Linux as an alternative to Windows. At the time, lawmakers were concerned Microsoft was developing a monopoly in the operating-system sphere.

linux-nader

Dell became the first PC manufacturer to offer Linux as an alternative on its entire range of computers. But its flirtation with the fledgling open source operating system was short lived, and by 2001 they’d quietly stopped selling penguin-powered PCs.

Fast forward to 2007, when Dell CEO Michael Dell announced that it would start selling machines with Ubuntu pre-installed. Geeks loved it. People who accidentally bought laptops sans-Windows were less enthused, however.

Initially, Dell sold a broad range of machines with Ubuntu pre-installed, at a variety of price points. But that number dwindled to the point where today Dell only sells two Linux laptops, with both being expensive, high-end machines. Two models are available: The Dell XPS 13″ Developer Edition, and the Dell Precision M3800 Developer Edition.

Both come with a Dell-tailored spin on Ubuntu 14:04 LTS, with all the drivers, tools and utilities required for it to work smoothly. Both come with oodles of RAM, and sufficiently beefy processors. As you’d expect, both are aimed at developers.

The Dell XPS 13″ Developer Edition is your bog-standard, high-end ultrabook. Simultaneously svelte and well-built, it boasts impressive specifications and the customizability one expects from a Dell. Those with deep-enough pockets can add 4k touch screens and zippy Core i7 CPUs. But that comes with a price though. The most tricked-out XPS 13 costs $1,849. The cheapest model is still quite expensive, costing $799.

The M3800 Mobile Workstation is similarly impressive, and similarly expensive.

The cheapest model costs $1,533.50, and comes with an Intel Core i7 4712HQ CPU as standard, clocked at 2.30GHZ and packing HD 4600 Graphics. Throw in a beefy Quadro K1100M GPU and the optional 4K touchscreen ($99 extra), and you’ve got one impressive computer.

But as you will have noticed, this isn’t the cheapest option. What happens if you can’t afford a Dell, don’t fancy a Mac, and want a new computer?

Do Your Research.

If you’re hoping to use Ubuntu exclusively, have a look at Canonical’s list of Ubuntu certified hardware. These are computers guaranteed to work with Ubuntu out of the box.

linux-ubuntucertified

If a particular computer has caught your eye, consider googling its name along with the distro you want to install. This is a pretty good way to gauge hardware support.

Finally, if you’re still stumped, consider getting a Chromebook and installing Ubuntu via Crouton. Most Chromebooks can be had for less than $400 – save the ultra-high end Pixel – and are able to run the world’s favorite distro in a chrooted environment.

Did I Miss Any?

Have you found the perfect laptop for Linux? Do you find one particular manufacturer works well with Linux? I want to hear about it. Drop me a comment, and we’ll chat.

Photo Credits: Ubuntus! (Silveira Neto), Thinkpad x100e usb audio workaround (Acid Pix), Apple Garamond and pixels (Dana Sibera), Contradictory (Caco Oportot), Catching up on email (Ed Yourdon), Day 47/365 — 02/16/2014: Apple MacBook Air (Brandon Nguyen), Ralph Nader (Don LaVange)

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