ISO better Linux laptop
June 5, 2016 3:47 PM   Subscribe

Last year I took my old Acer Aspire One and replaced Windows with Kubuntu, and in general I was quite pleased. I have been carrying it around in my backpack with my work Windows laptop. I use it for personal/educational development projects, and in general things that go easier on a laptop than a tablet (real keyboard, larger hard drive and screen, standard *nix software, etc.)

So the marginal cost of that Acer netbook + Linux was essentially zero. I was wondering what the state of Linux laptops is today in 2016, and whether I could spend about $500 or so and get a significantly better one (?). I tried Google research but it's a fragmented topic (e.g., dual boot is not interesting to me, I see different laptops have different driver or overheating problems, price range and age of Web advice varies also).

The limitations with my Acer that I am trying to overcome:
- 8.5" W x 5" H screen (at least 13" would be preferable)
- 160G hard drive (probably 300G would be better)
- a bit more horsepower than the Acer's 2G, 2 cores 1.3 GHz

The Acer gets about 8 hours battery life if not doing anything too intense, which is more than satisfactory. Somewhat less would be OK.

I don't think a Chromebook would match my use case (as described at the top of this question). For instance, I do not always have an Internet connection. But I do see mention of people installing Linux on a Chromebook (?).

If there are a lot of possibilities, feel free to recommend your favorite. Thanks.
posted by forthright to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I use Linux on the desktop and have for many years. I have two recommendations, one new, one used:

I've been using the ASUS Zenbook UX305F as my one and only portable computer for a year and a half. I love it to pieces. This is the later model. There have been zero problems with driver support under Linux. The only downside is that if you want wired Ethernet, you need to use the included USB Ethernet dongle. However, this tiny machine has 3 USB ports, so there's still room for other stuff.

My previous portable was a ThinkPad T420s, which I bought from my old employer in 2012. It was the latest in a relatively long line of ThinkPads that have had barely a single problem with driver support, going back to an old T600. I'd get a used ThinkPad that's slighly newer than the T420s, maybe the T450. They're a make of computer I've only ever acquired used, because of their high liability for sticker shock, but they are machines which age very well, and Linux will put years on a machine anyway.

Hope this helps!
posted by sninky-chan at 4:06 PM on June 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have a ThinkPad T450s, it's fantastic. Linux ThinkPad support is mostly top notch.

While the T450 is significantly more powerful than what you're looking for, mine is almost exactly a year old and only cost ~$1200 new with a friends+family discount. I would look for a used T440/450. Likely within your price range now that the T460's are out. Also look at X220s.
posted by so fucking future at 4:21 PM on June 5, 2016

Definitely a used Thinkpad of the T generations, replace the HD with an SSD and max out the memory and you have a beast. Try to find one with an Nvidia Geforce GPU. One sweet hack, the DVD drive is on a cartridge which can have a second HD instead.

My other crazy idea is a used chromebook with a replaced ssd (Acer C720?) for a machine that's lighter to haul around.
posted by sammyo at 5:59 PM on June 5, 2016

Don't want to thread sit, but let me see if I follow your helpful suggestions so far:
- When I look for T450s some are indeed near my price range but come with Windows. I assume I will just need to do what I did with my Acer (replace with Linux, or maybe dual boot)?
- A chromebook would only work for me if I dual booted or replaced with Linux right? And my brief Googling seems to suggest there are a variety of approaches to doing this, with pros and cons to each approach?
- However, it seems like the hard drive capacity of a chromebook is far less than the 150 Gig I now have on my Acer Aspire One (?).
- Also, opting for SSDs in other machines would probably put them out of my price range (?).
posted by forthright at 6:26 PM on June 5, 2016

A used T or X series Thinkpad is pretty much ideal for your situation. Unless you are doing serious number crunching anything made in the past 4 years or so will do just fine, especially if you put an SSD in it.

Something new enough to have an i3 branded processor will do better on battery life, but even a T60 will go 6-8 hours on a charge with a 9 cell battery. Power consumption improved a lot with Sandy Bridge and again with Haswell, neither of which are terribly new any more.

On preview, don't buy it with an SSD, put your own in and you'll save a bundle. And yes, most everything aside from Chromebooks and Macs come from the factory with Windows. There used to be Thinkpads with Linux preloaded, but they quit doing that a long time ago.

I don't recommend the Chromebook option, BTW. I have one that dual boots ChromeOS and Ubuntu and it keeps losing the ability to boot into Linux. I've had to fix it 3 times in the last two years. Very annoying, especially now that it decided it won't boot into ChromeOS either. (I need to make another recovery USB and have been lazy about it) Also annoying is that you have to actively hit Ctrl-D or Ctrl-L to make it boot into ChromeOS or Linux respectively. It won't start up into either OS unattended.
posted by wierdo at 6:35 PM on June 5, 2016

Thinkpad with a Samsung or Intel SSD. What SSD you buy depends on your size needs/budget.
posted by thewalrus at 9:16 PM on June 5, 2016

I have a used Thinkpad X220 and it's fantastic - I bought it last year from a UK company who refurbish ex-corporate laptops. They upgraded it to an SSD and 8GB RAM before sending it to me at just the cost of the components, which was brilliant, and sent it to me with no OS and no Windows licence, which saved me a little off the cost and allowed me to just install Linux when I received it.

The laptop itself is great - I run Debian 8 on it and I've noticed no hardware compatibility problems at all. Thinkpads are generally well-supported in Linux. Suspend and resume work fine when I close and open the lid, and while I had to connect up via Ethernet after installing Debian to get the non-free wi-fi driver from the repos, it was a single apt-get command and the wi-fi now works fine. (This isn't a problem in Ubuntu, which works out of the box.)

The X220 is from 2011 and has an i5 processor, which seems fast enough even for some fairly complicated stuff - the only drawback (and it's not really a drawback for me) is that the graphics chip is too weak to play most games. I'd definitely recommend it - I wouldn't be able to afford a brand-new Thinkpad, but running Linux is a great way to get more years out of a refurbished machine.
posted by winterhill at 12:23 AM on June 6, 2016

Nthing the x220. I bought an i7 x220 new five years ago, I use with Ubuntu, and I love it. I use it for work, for entertainment and for studying. I've replaced the keyboard twice (I wear them from typing), and I plan to go through at least a couple more keyboards before I retire it.

First Google result says you can expect to pay about $200 for one with 4GB memory:

For an extra $70, you can get a 240GB SSD and it will feel like a screamer.

New batteries from Lenovo are expensive, but the good thing about the x220 is you can get a 9-cell (it protrudes slightly from the back of the computer) which has 50% more life in it than the default 6-cell.

The only bad thing about the x220 is that it was the first of the "bridge" model Intel processors, so it uses more energy. Still, I get 4 to 6 hours on my original battery, which has already lost quite a bit of capacity. And I have an i7, and load it quite a bit.

Finally, be careful with the 230, 240, 250, make sure you like what you get. People complained about the modified keyboards (touch panels instead of f keys) and touchpads (reduced number of buttons). The reviews for the x260 say it's fine, but it's the latest model, and will be out of your price range.
posted by kandinski at 4:02 AM on June 6, 2016

FWIW I've been nonplussed with my Thinkpad T510, but yeah, previous experience with Thinkpads has been grand.

My SO had really good luck with Ubuntu on one of Asus' ROG laptops, but I'm not sure which one.
posted by eclectist at 5:36 PM on June 6, 2016

Thanks everyone for sharing your personal experiences and machines matching my requirements!

I think I'm going to just start watching the prices at various sellers and checking reviews of the various models you've mentioned, and when I see something that looks like a good value I'll place my order.

I'm not only happy for the advice but also that you've confirmed this is very viable. Thanks again!
posted by forthright at 6:49 PM on June 6, 2016

I have a Chromebook (Acer C720) and am dual booting Linux LXDE desktop environment via Crouton. This link is more or less the home of Crouton. I love my system. I have tried a good many Linux versions but I tend to prefer the lightweight environments such as LXDE or Lubuntu -- I've come to be a minimalist with computer stuff over the years.

Installing Crouton is somewhat challenging but there's plenty of help out there....
posted by gilast at 8:46 PM on June 6, 2016

I know, this is kind of late for me to add to this thread, but I just wanted to let everyone know what I ended up doing. At Costco I bought this HP 15-BA013CL laptop for $399, took it home and tried the Live Ubuntu 16.04 which seemed to work fine. So I then divided the 1 TB in half and put Ubuntu on the freed up space. I have never been crazy about Unity but after some missteps into KDE I went back to Unity because it nicely supports the Touch Screen. I added Okular, Compiz, VLC, customized assorted options and now I am very pleased.

I realize this may not be as durable over the long haul, but I think it's good value for today. And I realize I back-tracked on my statement that I wasn't interested in dual boot, and for skewing your answers I apologize. In retrospect I see I should have left that option open.

If anyone strongly disagrees with what I decided, please feel free to reply for the sake of future people who stumble on this thread (even if it makes me look foolish, that's OK). I will leave the thread open a bit longer for that purpose. A sincere thanks for everyone's help!
posted by forthright at 12:46 PM on June 19, 2016

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