Linux laptop on a budget
May 10, 2024 8:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm in the market for a new-to-me laptop. Budget $400. Must be Linux compatible. Used is fine. What do you recommend?

My use case is typical office work. Battery life is a priority. I type a lot, so if the keyboard has a nice feel/layout (I don't need or desire a full number keypad), that's a bonus. Repairability is also a bonus.

I'm in the US, so shipping would need to reach here.

My own research:

Lenovo looks promising, but which models specifically would I want? (The X seems to pricey, and others like the T14 get good marks aside from shaky wifi performance and suspend/hibernate capability). Envios, Starbook, and Tuxedo computer are all too much money when bought new, and I don't see any on Ebay. Pinebook and PiTop look like fun projects, but their performance and reliability appear bad. Framework is definitely too much money, and I see that it has issues with battery life, overheating, and suspend/hibernate. I own a Purism and have been unhappy with the build quality and reliability of the system as a whole.

What are your experiences? What would you buy again if you could? If you happen to have a listing for sale on a marketplace, please reach out through Memail. Thanks.
posted by mr_bovis to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I've done well with Lenovo Thinkpads on Linux - if the laptop is older than a year then everything on it should be supported.
posted by Jessica Savitch's Coke Spoon at 8:53 AM on May 10 [6 favorites]

The ThinkPad T series are tanks, and it's easy to get replacement parts (batteries, keyboards, fans) and make repairs. I've been running Ubuntu on a series of them for over a decade without significant issues (Suspend was a problem in the early days, but that's been sorted). The keyboards on the current models are O.K. Battery life is O.K. if you pay attention to Amp hour ratings when buying replacements.

My last three have come via Craigslist, from someone who seems to have a sideline helping companies rotate out their equipment.
posted by dws at 9:11 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

I have a Lenovo ThinkPad with Windows for my job, it's very good. For my personal Linux, I usually get HP, but honestly, I just go to a local store (ie. Best Buy) and get anything that fits my budget/desired specs with Windows on it, and then overwrite Windows. Laptops have always struck me as you get what you pay for. When I spend $800-1000+ on a laptop, it's usually great. When I spend $300-500, I can expect it won't last as long, but should be fine for a while (2-3 years, maybe more).
posted by Meldanthral at 9:16 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

Probably used or refurbished ThinkPad T-series will be the best bang for your buck.
posted by number9dream at 9:23 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

Thinkpad. I like to buy from Cascade Assets on eBay, they specialize in retired IT hardware and test their stuff before sale.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:36 AM on May 10 [4 favorites]

nth-ing Thinkpad refurb/used. Best bang for the buck, most reliable, nearly 100% that all components will work well with popular Linux distros, and replacement/upgrade parts will be modestly p[riced and easy to find.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 9:48 AM on May 10

Some ThinkPad enthusiasts will only buy T- or X-series. But I have an E-series (E14) and it seems very well built, certainly on a par with an old Dell XPS 13 which was over double the price.

Memory and storage are upgradeable (second RAM slot, and second M2 SSD slot). Keyboard has much better feel than Apple. 57Wh battery. Metal lid and (optional) metal base. Subjectively, 14" size and 16:10 screen dimensions are the sweet spot for office work/coding.

Only downside is that the screen colour/contrast levels are nowhere near XPS or Apple.
posted by Klipspringer at 9:48 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I see low-end laptops as pretty much a jellybean commodity at this point.

When the castoff Dell Studio laptop I've been using for the past year eventually goes the way of the castoff Dell Latitude before it and the castoff Compaq Presario before that, then assuming nobody has just given me another castoff before then, my plan is to visit my local landfill and see what's available in the tip shop. I'll be surprised if I need to pay as much as AU$100 for something that outperforms what I already have. It won't be a Toshiba because those machines suck. Just about anything else would be fine. If I end up with a Thinkpad that's a bonus.

Then I'll just take the SSD out of this one, stick it in that one, maybe install a new graphics driver and bam. Done. I like Debian Testing a lot.

If I manage to destroy this installation, which hasn't happened so far over eight years of daily use with sporadic updates, I'll probably try having a play with building my next one around NixOS.
posted by flabdablet at 9:48 AM on May 10

I use an old Thinkpad X1 Carbon (5th gen? it's not new) as my Linux writing laptop and it's amazing. I've upgraded it since I got it years ago and everything from the fingerprint reader to the LTE drivers all worked out of the box.
posted by bradbane at 10:57 AM on May 10 [1 favorite]

I'd get as much refurb Lenovo ThinkPad X you choose to afford. So with your budget, I might choose this one at Microcenter. 16G RAM, 256G SSD, 8th gen Core i7. Linux on laptops that aren't known good Linux machines is super frustrating, so I would stick with ThinkPads.
posted by advicepig at 11:30 AM on May 10 [3 favorites]

I'd get as much refurb Lenovo ThinkPad X you choose to afford. So with your budget, I might choose this one at Microcenter. 16G RAM, 256G SSD, 8th gen Core i7.

I have this exact model as my work computer. This means I have to use Windows on it, but it does a terrific job with that, so I have to imagine it would be screaming fast on Linux.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 11:34 AM on May 10 [2 favorites]

I got here late, but the reason so many people are saying “corporate refurb t-series thinkpad” is because that’s the right answer.
posted by mhoye at 3:46 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

The Lenovo Thinkpad T series is that Brother printer of the laptop world.

I recently bought an off-lease T480 (i5 8350U 8th Gen Quad Core (1.7GHz up to 3.6GHz), 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD HD, 14.1in 1920x1080 LED Screen) and am running stock Debian 12 on it. It hangs together really well. It even installs firmware and hardware driver updates (this basically never ever happened on linux machines before). It was $400 Canadian.

What I really like about it is that it will charge from any USB C outlet. Sure, it'll take a really long time, but you don't have to cart about a huge power supply
posted by scruss at 4:36 PM on May 10 [2 favorites]

"Brother printer of the laptop world."

Scruss nails it.
posted by dws at 8:17 PM on May 10

Good keyboard? Thinkpad. Every other laptop keyboard is garbage in my experience.

I'm typing this on a t460 (i7/32GB) that runs Linux like a champ. Bought it on ebay a couple years ago for $400ish. It's eight years old, but lacks nothing.

The beautiful thing about being a thinkpad user is that they're super popular in biz, so even though they're desirable in the secondhard market, there's plenty of supply and prices are kind. If I needed to, I could replace my T460 tomorrow with the equivalent 2017 or 2018 model for $400ish.
posted by Sauce Trough at 9:08 PM on May 10

With new Thinkpads you need to watch out for soldered RAM and lack of hardware support for S3 (real suspend rather than pretend suspend which eats your battery and tries to set your bag on fire). This is not a Lenovo-specific problem (the memory thing is a general hardware trend; the S3 is something chip manufacturers hate, and AMD and now Intel have dropped support for). I'm just mentioning it because Thinkpads have such a good reputation for maintainability and upgradeability, and it turns out that that's changing.

The refurb suggestion is solid, though, and you can go quite far back in time to get something that can be upgraded to a good level of usability. I have an X260, which is 8 years old. About a year ago I got frustrated with its slowness, but I upgraded to the maximum RAM it can support (32G, twice the maximum in the official original specs), and swapped the HDD for an SSD, and now it's great -- feels like a new computer. This series is optimized for battery life, and it really is pretty good at that. I did have to replace the external battery a year ago (it was working, but I noticed that it was getting puffy).

I'm not a hardware person, and I was able to replace both the RAM and the drive without difficulty (the external battery is plug-and-play). The new RAM and SSD cost me about $150 converted from my local currency (and that probably includes a significant markup for import costs). YMMV, but you may be able to do the refurb yourself pretty cheaply if you can find a good model which has not been upgraded on your local second-hand market.
posted by confluency at 3:29 AM on May 11 [1 favorite]

(If you do go the DIY route, you can look up specific models on Wikipedia or search for / ask about them somewhere like the Thinkpad subreddit, to find out what upgrades are supported.)
posted by confluency at 3:30 AM on May 11

Another ThinikPad aficionado. As for deals, I needed a small "bike" notebook. Found a $60 X240 on ebay with no HD, memory or battery. Easy to add what I wanted so totaled about $120 for a very sturdy carry anywhere unix box!

What you can't change is the CPU, optimize that. If you find one with a NVIDIA GPU, golden!
posted by sammyo at 9:28 AM on May 11

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