Linux is amazing unless it won’t install. Then it just hurts. Fortunately, a number of laptop makers build Linux laptops that don’t suffer from driver or software faults. But how many of these offer good performance?
Best Linux Laptop Companies
Who makes Linux laptops in 2018?
Several companies make purpose-built Linux-flavored laptops. The three best manufacturers are System76, ZaReason, and Dell. Other companies offer repackaged systems from Dell, HP, ASUS, and Lenovo that include Linux distributions optimized for that particular laptop. These devices normally come with Windows installed, but have been tested and certified for Ubuntu.
There’s one downside to buying from small manufacturers: most purpose-built Linux laptops cost slightly more than those with Windows. Even low-end laptops, oftentimes with Intel Celeron processors, can cost extra. Part of the reason Linux costs more is that boutique manufacturers produce small numbers of product, which makes per-device costs more expensive. The exception to this rule is Dell, which actually reduces the price of their devices when you choose Linux over Windows.
One more thing: As of 2018, true quad-core laptops have become far more common. Whereas in 2016, even most Intel Core i7 laptops often had two cores instead of four, now even Intel’s lower-end Core i3 includes four cores.
System76 produces an entire range of devices, including laptops, desktops, and servers. All models come with configurable RAM, storage, and processors. If you’re familiar with System76, you should know of a recent change. System76’s used to come with Ubuntu. That’s no longer true as Ubuntu has shifted its business model toward enterprise. System76 now produces a custom Linux distribution called Pop!_OS. Pop!_OS looks a lot like a mashup of Google’s Material Design and GNOME. (You can still choose Ubuntu as an OS option.)
Their designs are mostly plastic, but a few come with aluminum chassis and Ultrabook form factors. Their latest designs include Kaby Lake Refresh (Kaby Lake-R) CPUs. Unlike older Intel processors, the Kaby Lake-R designs come with four cores, instead of two. The models range in price from $700 to 2,800. Unlike many Windows laptops, System76 offers matte screens as an option, instead of forcing ubiquitous glossy models on customers.
- Starting price: $2,799
- CPU: either Core i7-8700 or Core i7-8700K (both are full quad-core desktop Kaby Lake-R CPUs)
- GPU: GTX 1070 or SLI configured dual GTX 1080
- RAM: 8GB to 64GB
- Hard drive: 500GB HDD to 1TB NVMe SSD
- Linux version: Ubuntu or Pop!_OS
- Screen: 17.3-inch matte 4K IPS, 120MHz
The Bonobo edition also includes room for two M.2 drives, two 2.5-inch drives, and can optionally replace its optical bay drive with either an HDD or SSD. This means it’s possible to have a five-drive laptop. However, the price for a fully loaded system can run past $7,000. Even so, this is one of the beefiest laptops that I’ve seen in my life. The dual Nvidia 1080 GPUs are unbelievably powerful (and make for a killer cryptocurrency miner).
I should also point out that System76’s lines of Linux laptops include the $700 Lemur, $700 Gazelle, $900 Kudu, $1,500 Oryx, and $1,900 Serval WS models. Of these, the lighter and less expensive Serval WS also received a Kaby Lake-R upgrade, meaning it offers four cores. You might notice, though, that none of System76’s refreshed models include an Ultrabook. Fortunately, ZaReason does offer one such device.
ZaReason offers customizable desktops, mini-PCs, servers, and laptops outfitted with your choice of Linux distribution. Its 2018 lineup includes laptops, desktops, servers, and peripheral devices.
As of 2018, ZaReason’s laptop lineup includes an Ultrabook-like notebook called the UltraLap 5440 and the beefier Verix 7220. Out of the two, I can’t recommend the Verix. It uses an older Kaby Lake (not the refreshed series) processor and hasn’t gotten a price cut. Its slimmer brother, the UltraLap, does include the latest quad-core Intel processor and for a reasonable price. However, the Kaby Lake-R unit costs $200 more.
- Starting price: $799
- CPU: a Kaby Lake i3-7000U (dual) or a Kaby Lake-R i7-8550U)
- GPU: Intel integrated
- RAM: 4GB to 32GB
- Hard drive: 120GB SSD to 2TB NVMe Solid State Drive (SSD)
- Linux version: any version of Linux
- Screen size: 14-inch 1920×1080 IPS, with matte coating
- Battery life: probably less than 8 hours
Dell is perhaps the only laptop manufacturer to sometimes offer Ubuntu as a discounted alternative to Windows 10. For some models of laptop, choosing Ubuntu on checkout lowers prices by around $100 (a substantial amount). However, there are two caveats: First, all of Dell’s computers are configurable, so you must select Ubuntu as the operating system. Second, only two models of laptop come preloaded with Ubuntu and there’s a limited stock available.
Dell Precision 5520 (2017 Edition)
The Dell XPS 15 offers a winning combination of workstation-class performance and a reasonable price-point. It hasn’t yet received a Kaby Lake-R upgrade (it has regular Kaby Lake hardware). Its lowest-priced configuration, though, still includes a quad-core processor. Its midrange GPU is a Nvidia Quatro M1200 discrete graphics card. Combined with its Full High Definition 1920×1080 screen, the Precision is suitable for Computer Aided Drafting (CAD) and other design-heavy uses. It’s worth noting that buyers can upgrade the screen to a 4K IGZO LCD, although that raises the price by almost $300.
- Starting price: $1,399
- CPU: Intel Core i5-7300HQ (quad-core) up to a Xeon E3
- GPU: Nvidia Quadro M1200 with 4GB VRAM
- RAM: 8GB to 32GB of RAM
- Hard drive: 500GB to 2TB HDD, 256GB to 1TB NVMe SSD
- Linux version: Ubuntu 16.04 LTS (knocks $107 off the price tag)
- Screen: 15.6-inch 1920×1080 matte IPS LCD up to a 4K IGZO LCD
- Battery life: reported to be around 12 hours
Overall, the Precision 5520 offers the best value out of the laptops mentioned here. However, as a bonus fourth option, I’m including the ridiculously expensive Dell XPS 13 2018 edition, just for you to drool over.
The Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook (we reviewed the Windows XPS 13 version) employs a combination of aluminum, magnesium, and carbon fiber in its clamshell design. The combination of light, high-durability materials allows the XPS to weigh in at a very low 3.03 pounds. The XPS can include Ubuntu Linux 16.04, LTS (long-term support). But all these features don’t come cheap! The developer version runs comes in at over $1,800.
- Price: $1,849
- CPU: Core i7-8550U (quad-core Kaby Lake-R)
- RAM: 8 to 16GB of RAM
- Hard drive: 128GB to 512GB M.2 NVMe SSD
- Linux version: Ubuntu 16.04 LTS
- Screen size: 13.3-inch 1920×1080 IGZO LCD (options go as high as 3200×1800)
- Battery life: reported to be between 10 and 14 hours, depending on workload
Dell XPS 13 Developer Edition (2018) Alternatives
I should also note that the older 2017 XPS 13 costs only $750 at its base price, and it includes Ubuntu. Its specifications fall short of the 2018 Developer edition. It also uses a Kaby Lake dual-core CPU instead of a Kaby Lake-R quad-core.
If you prefer a laptop designed specifically for Linux, an alternative to the 2017 XPS 13 is the KDE Slimbook II. This comes with an Ultrabook form factor, a Kaby Lake processor, 4GB of RAM, and the KDE Neon operating system. On the downside, it’s sold only in Europe, which means it comes with a two-year warranty. However, you can choose a US keyboard layout if you want to import it.
- Price: €699
- CPU: Intel Core i5-7200U or Core i7-7200U (dual-core Kaby Lake)
- RAM: 4GB to 16GB of RAM
- Hard drive: 120GB to 1TB M.2 NVMe SSD
- Linux version: KDE Neon
- Screen size: 13.3-inch 1920×1080 matte LCD
- Battery life: reported to be around 7 hours, depending on workload
Other Companies Selling Linux Laptops
Several companies sell laptops from Asus, HP, Dell, and Lenovo (and some from Acer), which come pre-installed with various Linux flavors. You might also have good luck with buying a used laptop from another website.
- EmperorLinux: EmperorLinux offers a very wide selection of Linux-equipped products including laptops, desktops, and server gear. Additionally, EmperorLinux includes its own special variant on the Linux kernel, which includes additional features of use to the average laptop user, such as throttling.
- Purism: Purism offers several Skylake-equipped laptops with integrated graphics.
- The Linux Laptop: The Linux Laptop sells three models of Dell Inspiron with Linux pre-installed.
- ThinkPenguin: Specializes in selling Thinkpads with Linux installed.
- LinuxCertified: Sells a range of products, and at least one custom laptop, designed for Linux.
- Google: While Google doesn’t sell laptops designed for Linux, most Chromebooks can install Chrubuntu, a custom version of Ubuntu.
Should You Buy Linux Laptops or Install Linux?
For Linux users, there’s a large number of laptops that come with your favorite operating system pre-installed. This means no more hunting for drivers or tweaking your settings. However, for those of you who feel like installing Linux on your own, you can always buy an Ubuntu-certified laptop. Ubuntu keeps a list of all equipment, including laptops, that received an Ubuntu Certified credential, meaning they work with Linux out-the-box.