So what's the current scoop on Linux on a laptop?
January 19, 2008 8:25 PM   Subscribe

It's that Linux/laptop question again. Desperate geek seeks cheap, durable gear.

I've read back through the archives, but things change quickly and many of the relevant posts are a few years old.

I need to replace my old laptop on short notice and a small budget. I've always owned macs, but I simply can't afford one now, and I've become fond enough of the UNIX-style command line that I can't imagine switching to Windows. I'll be using it to write code, work with small audio files (I'm a linguistics student), run LaTeX and browse the web. Provided it can do all those things, my biggest priorities are batshit low price (<$700 would be ideal) and durability.

The immediate question is, what hardware? Are Thinkpads still a good choice for this now that Lenovo's making 'em? (Is it worth trying to track down a pre-Lenovo one?) What other manufacturers make cheap, solid, reasonably Linux-friendly machines? Should I still expect the problems with hibernation and wireless that I read about a few years back?

For that matter, I'll need to settle on a distribution. That's not as big a deal — the hardware's the pressing problem, and the nice thing about a free OS is you can't have buyer's remorse over it. But if you've got a strong opinion on which distros work best on a laptop, or if the choice of distros makes a big difference on a specific machine you're recommending, I'd love to hear about it.
posted by nebulawindphone to Computers & Internet (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Ubuntu runs awesome on my Dell Latitude D610. No probs with hibernation or wireless, although the time it takes to boot is best measured in eons.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:34 PM on January 19, 2008

Any laptop manufactured in the past few years will run Linux fine. You may have to scratch here and there for drivers, but in general I've been very impressed with variety of support out there.

So, it's not like the Dell whatchamacallit is going to run Linux better than the Lenovo whosit.

Given the number of manufacturers and models out there, you're going to be better off trying to find a laptop based on some other metric rather than it's ability to run Linux.

So, what exactly do you want out of a laptop beyond the almost universal ability to run Linux? Do you want a large screen or small? Do you want a desktop replacement or an ultra portable? Those are the questions which should guide your choices.

Once you've settled on a few models that have the features you want, then it becomes just a matter of finding the best deal.
posted by wfrgms at 8:42 PM on January 19, 2008

I have exactly the same computer and OS as the previous poster. No complaints about boot time for me (using the next-to-latest release). I did have initial problems with monitor size and wifi, but they randomly stopped not working within a week, so whatever.

This thing is also hella durable. I've been using it constantly since summer '06, carrying it everywhere, and I don't see any problems. Last week my niece knocked it off an endtable. It landed open, monitor first- didn't even freeze. I picked it up, went to a few websites, opened some text documents, and went back to Rock Band. This isn't even the first time it's been dropped.

I personally paid $500 for a 1gig, 1.7h processor, but you could probably pay just a little more for something twice as fast in the same line right now.
posted by sandswipe at 8:48 PM on January 19, 2008

Apparently a lot of people are loving the Asus eee, a 2 pound, tiny screen, cheap Linux laptop. YMMV!
posted by lubujackson at 9:01 PM on January 19, 2008

I run Ubuntu on my (Lenovo) Thinkpad T60. Still every bit as awesome as when IBM made them. (I'm not sure if the T60 will make the $700 criteria, though. It's been a while since I looked at prices, though.)

These days it's very easy to get a $700 laptop... I just don't know which of them have good driver support and which don't.

I'm a big Ubuntu fan these days. I used to be into "hardcore" Gentoo, but it's so awesome to install a package in 20 seconds instead of having it compile for 45 minutes, and it's so awesome to have things just work. (My one beef is that Xen support in Ubuntu seems to blow right now. But this is probably a non-issue for about 98% of Ubuntu users.)
posted by fogster at 9:07 PM on January 19, 2008

Oh, the latter half of your question:

Should I still expect the problems with hibernation and wireless that I read about a few years back?

I've never had hibernation/software-suspend work, but I've never tried too hard. Legend has it that the ATI fglrx video driver breaks software suspend. (How a video driver is able to accomplish this, I can't say... Closed-source FTW!) However, I've heard of plenty of people who do use hibernate/suspend on Linux.

As far as wireless, Ubuntu picked up the T60 wireless card out of the box, and I find its network configuration thing easier to use than Windows. (Imagine not having to enter a WEP key twice, and being able, if you so choose, to see what you're typing!)
posted by fogster at 9:13 PM on January 19, 2008

I've always had either hibernate or suspend work on my T60, and I'm using fglrx. If you're having trouble, you may want to try suspend2.

If you're looking for something cheaper, you could probably get a T30 on ebay for about $400.
posted by leviathan3k at 10:35 PM on January 19, 2008

A Thinkpad X31 or X41 should do it for you just fine. I ran Ubuntu on one and it felt great.
posted by furtive at 10:46 PM on January 19, 2008

I'm running Ubuntu on a Dell D600, and have no issues. I wouldn't call the boot time instantaneous, but it's a hell of a lot shortr than waiting for XP to come up on an identical machine I have. My only issue currently is that it refuses to completely power off by itself if it's plugged into my wired network, and I just haven't wiggled around with that enough yet to fix it.

Really though, $700 is a pretty good price point. You can buy a 'new' model Dell refurb with lots of bells and whistles for <$500, and shouldn't have much trouble getting a solid distro running in no time.
posted by pupdog at 10:47 PM on January 19, 2008

Check out Asus and MSI barebone laptops -- you're not paying for an OS to throw away.

The trouble with Dell is that they charge the same price for Linux and Windows preinstalled (or they did last time I looked), probably because they have to go it alone in developing the product line and supporting it. So you're still paying the Windows tax, pretty much.

Asus has a lot more going on than just the Eee, they go all the way to the top end, and with many models you can pick your CPU and drive. MSI has better prices but a somewhat narrower range of models.
posted by George_Spiggott at 12:13 AM on January 20, 2008

ThinkWiki has details on which ThinkPads work well with Linux.
posted by grouse at 2:17 AM on January 20, 2008

It's actually kind of remarkable how good Ubuntu has gotten on a laptops. I've run it on all kind of different machines, really with a minimal amount of trouble. If you haven't played with it, I bet you'll love it...

As an aside, cygwin gives ya all kinds of command line awesomeness in windows, if you end up on that platform.
posted by ph00dz at 7:06 AM on January 20, 2008

I'm definitely fond of Ubuntu and may indeed run that as my OS on my next laptop due to a perceived hole in Apple's laptop lineup (I've got a 12" PowerBook now). But I think for $700 you could find a used MacBook if you put a bit of effort into your search.
posted by 6550 at 7:08 AM on January 20, 2008

Linux-laptop has an excellent collection of links to reports of people's experiences installing Linux flavor X on laptop Y.
posted by schrodycat at 7:44 AM on January 20, 2008

Low End Mac is showing a 1.33ghz 15" aluminum PowerBook G4 for $700. Other than that, I'm gonna have to go with the ThinkWiki vote - Running DSL on a T40, no complaints.
posted by Orb2069 at 9:03 AM on January 20, 2008

You can get a Thinkpad T40 on eBay for $400.
posted by lukemeister at 10:26 AM on January 20, 2008

I bought a refurbished Thinkpad a year or so ago and am still very happy with my purchase. I haven't had a single problem with the laptop to date.

I use it for programming and math sort of stuff. Right now I'm running Fedora 7. It runs Mathematica perfectly, and I was also able to get Excel and STELLA running on it using Crossover Office.

Getting the wireless working was the most difficult thing I had to do, and is always a chore.
posted by ZeroDivides at 11:19 AM on January 20, 2008

Asus Eee PC + external monitor + external HDD external keyboard would get you an uber-portable and no-spinning harddrive-durable laptop that can double as a reasonable desktop. With the biggest thing being the $400 Asus, careful shopping can probably get you set up for your $700 budget, or less if you already own some of the add-on components.

Definitely read up on the Eee if you consider this route. Pretty much every review I've read raves about it, but its small size and storage space make it different from the "regular" laptops out there.

As far as Thinkpads go, my ~ 4-year old T40 work computer still rocks. I wouldn't hesitate to get a refurb of one of these or a regular used one from a reputable seller.
posted by altcountryman at 11:20 AM on January 20, 2008

First, let me explicitly counter what wfrgms said: research whatever you buy thoroughly or you could be very sorry. Some laptops are a total debacle. That being said, I researched this just a few weeks ago and IMHO the best price/performance linux laptop was the Dell Vostro 1500. They can also be had on eBay for very cheap. Dell does sell laptops with Ubuntu on them, but you'll get more hardware power for less money if you buy the windows computer and install Ubuntu yourself.
posted by systematic at 2:47 PM on January 20, 2008

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