All major laptop (notebook) hardware is supported by Linux. The important things to take into account when looking to buy a Linux powered laptop are as follows to avoid any hardware compatibility problems. Selecting correct specification is important. In this first part, I will cover what to look out for when buying a Linux powered laptop.
Why I switched to Linux?
There are many reasons and here is mine when I switched to Linux:
- Linux is stable, and you will hardly get a blue screen of death (BSOD).
- Faster boot times.
- High-quality free and open source software. For example, I often use Gimp, LibreOffice, Firefox, Inkscape, Krita, OpenShot, Blender and more to unleash your creativity and productivity. To watch movies or play music I can use VLC or MPV or Clementine/Rhythmbox players. You can find thousands of free and open source apps for Linux and easily install it using the command line or software center.
- Linux is secure by default. Very few viruses/malware exists, or many described threats in the news do not affect a Linux based laptop. You do not need an antivirus in Linux.
- You can try various windowing system as per your needs. You can do customization with icons, themes, Conky, panel, dock launchers, and more.
- Gaming on Linux very well supported. You can choose from thousands of games. You can use services such as Steam and GOG.
First, you need to decide and define the purpose of your laptop. Linux laptop can be used for simple office tasks and browse the Internet or sending e-mails, then a mid-range laptop may be good enough:
In short, decide how you are going to be using the Linux laptop.
Central Processing Unit (CPU)
CPU is the brain of your laptop. Linux supports all sort of mobile CPUs. Linux does supports SMP CPUs on servers, and it does support portables CPUs too. The following are well know mobile CPUs:
- Intel Atom
- Intel Core 2 Duo
- Intel Core i5 Duo
- Intel Core i7 Duo or Quad
- AMD Athlon 64 Mobile
- AMD Turion 64 X2
- AMD Ryzen
- Intel Nehalem/Sandy Bridge/Ivy Bridge/Haswell/Broadwell/Skylake/Kaby Lake
The speed range from 1.3GHz to 2.4GHz or more. The number of cores plays an important role too. Naturally, a quad core CPU should be able to increase the number of calculations. This is useful when you run multiple applications, you will get fast and smooth response from the system. The Intel i5 or AMD 64 bit is pretty popular choice for CPU. My advice is go for 64 bit CPU with 64 bit Linux distro.
Video Card and X Server
This is the most important part in Laptop which is used by X Windows. However, selecting correct Video card is important; otherwise you will end up with 3D hardware accelerated card with 2D Linux driver or just basic display. So make sure your video card with 3D acceleration is supported under Linux. Nvidia has pretty good support with a proprietary driver which can deliver full 3D acceleration with 24 bit color. On other hand ATI drivers are open source. My advice is simple visit the following driver pages and make sure your video card is fully supported including 3D acceleration:
- ATI/AMD Linux drivers
- Nvidia Linux drivers
- Linux Graphics drivers from Intel
- Look here at X.org to check, if your graphics card / chipset is supported or not.
Low End Video Cards
The following list summaries low end fully supported Linux video cards:
- Intel GMA 4500MHD
- Intel 945GM
- Intel 950 GMA
- Intel X3100 GMA
- Intel HD Graphics 4×00
- Intel Iris Graphics 5100
- Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200
- See this comparison on Wikipedia for Intel graphics
- NVIDIA Quadro NVS 160M (256MB)
Mid to High-End Video Cards
The following list summaries mid-high end priced fully supported Linux dedicated video cards (useful for playing 3D videogames or engineering Linux apps or video / photo editing):
- NVIDIA Quadro
- NVIDIA GeForce
- AMD/ATI Radeon
Finally, make sure external X display to your desktop monitor is fully supported. This can come handy when you want to watch movies, play games or do business presentation.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is another factor which can boost your speed easily, especially if you use RAM intensive apps like virtualization desktop software (e.g., VMWare or VirtualBox), photo editing (e.g., Gimp), video editing etc. 4 to 8 GB should be more than sufficient for most apps. A few high end laptops can support upto 64GB ram and Linux can access more than 4GB ram using PAE or 64bit kernel out of the box. If possible go for DDR4 ram. Some vendor also support ECC ram.
Hard disk is used to store all your data and boot into Linux. Hard disks are cheaper, nosier and stores data on moving parts called rotating platters. You can have 7200rpm drives. Another option is to use SSD ( Solid State Drives ) as storage device which offers the following benefits:
- Speed (2 times faster than hard disk)
- Lighter and quieter (no moving parts)
- Consume less power
- Faster booting time.
You can add additional storage using USB or Firewire ports (i.e. external hard disk). My advice is go for SSD.
Linux does support DVDs, Blu ray and other optical formats. This is useful for playing DVDs or backing up data via DVD/CD burner. DVD burner is fine for most applications. But, if you are interested in playing movies using Blu ray (HD DVD / Blu Ray disks), you will need to get Blue ray optical drive which can read and write DVDs too. However, the AACS ‘Digital Rights Management’ system in most HD-DVD and all Blu-Ray discs attempts to stop consumers from exercising fair use rights, including – playing purchased Blu-Ray and HD DVD films using Open Source software. To play Blu ray you need the latest version of mplayer and DumpHD to perform the decryption necessary to play the film. If you can afford go for Blu ray. See how to play Blu-Ray and HD DVD video under Ubuntu Linux.
Power Management: Suspend and Hibernate
Linux supports both AMP ( Advanced Power Management ) and ACPI (Advanced Configuration and Power Interface ) which allows you to hibernate the system to a disk partition using swsusp (Software Suspend). It is a suspend-to-disk implementation in the 2.6 series Linux kernel. However, some laptop may give you problem with swsusp. You may also need to compile kernel to include swsusp support. Make sure you get ACPI compliant BIOS and you should be fine with power management. Some time you may need to download a patch from 3rd party or vendor site to enable suspend and hibernate support under Linux.
Another hardware device may not work at all; if you do not pay attention to wireless devices. Most laptops comes with on-board 802.11 (a/b/g/N) wireless cards. Not all card supported so make sure you get Intel Pro series card such as 3945 or Atheros based cards. My advice is use Google to search for your driver or use specialized databases (a more or less complete listing of wireless devices with information about the chipset they are based on and whether or not they are supported in Linux) to search for your laptop card.
Biometric Fingerprint Scanner
Fingerprint scanners are security systems of biometrics. If you work for Government, DoD, police, security industries and, if data security and authentication is your top priority, you need “Biometric Fingerprint Scanner”. Every fingerprint is special and different from each other. You can use Linux PAM to hook fingerprint reader with KDM, GDM, sudo, su and many other services. The fingerprint scanners on the following models are known to work:
- IBM ThinkPad T and X series selected models (see list of supported devices)
- Dell Latitude selected models
- HP Pavilion (selected model)
Please refer the following additional pages and make sure your laptop model is supported:
- The fprint project aims to plug a gap in the Linux desktop: support for consumer fingerprint reader devices.
- Fedora project wiki page describing supported devices and software for fingerprint devices.
Fn key (BlueKey) Support
Fn, or Function, is a modifier key on many keyboards, especially on laptops, used in a compact layout to combine keys which are usually kept separate. It is mainly used for the purpose of changing display or audio settings quickly, such as brightness, contrast, or volume, and is held down in conjunction with the appropriate key to change the settings. These features may be supported under Linux via driver or software. I found most laptop from reputed manufacture (such as Dell, IBM) does supports Fn keys.
The following are common ports for laptop:
- USB – It is well supported under Linux for external hard disk, pen, mouse, keyboard and much more.
- FireWire – It may or may not work out of box. In most cases you need to compile the Linux kernel so that you can access Zip drives, hard drives, and CDRW/DVD drives. However, support is limited. See Linux kernel IEEE 1394/ FireWire drivers wiki page for more information.
- eSATA -External SATA provides a variant of SATA meant for external connectivity. It allows you to connect external SATA hard drives directly to the SATA bus. You get faster speed as compare to USB or Firewire external hard disks. This may or may not work out of box.
Most on board sound card should work fine with Linux. You can play all sort of music file such as .mp3, .wav, .ogg and much more. Linux comes with various playback and mp3 players. You can rip audio cds too.
Docking Station (Port Replicator)
A Docking station and port replicator provides a simplified way of plunging an electronic device such as a laptop computer via common peripherals. You can plug desktop monitor, keyboard, printer, mouse, Palm Pilot and more. Most docking station should work out of the box. Just confirm this with your vendor.
Most NICs are supported but it is a good idea to go through Google and make sure your Ethernet card is supported. Usually, Intel and Broadcom (tg3) Ethernet cards are well supported. See Linux PCI ids database and search for your sound and Ethernet card names. Usually, most drivers are included in running kernel. In rare case you may have to compile the kernel or driver to support your Ethernet card.
Tip: Test Your Laptop With Linux (Try Before You Buy)
Most vendors have a showrooms and shops. Visit nearest shop with Linux Live CD (such as Knoppix or Ubuntu or Fedora ) and ask them to boot laptop using Live CD. See if it works or not; boot into Linux. Make sure you can see X Windows, connects to the Internet via wireless card and so on. If you get 100% result, then just purchase it.
Recommend Linux Distribution
Linux is all about choices. Personally, I use CentOS 7.x 64 bit at work and Ubuntu Linux 64 bit at home. My recommendation for new Linux users:
- Ubuntu (any flavor) Linux – For the average user, with a strong focus on usability and ease of use and installation.
- Fedora Linux – Another popular disro for the average user with rpm based packages. Fedora is also popular among Windows and UNIX/RHEL/CentOS sys admins.
- elementary OS – A fast and open replacement for Windows and macOS.
- Linux Mint – Linux Mint is an elegant, easy to use, up to date and comfortable GNU/Linux desktop distribution.
- OpenSuse Linux – Easy to use and certified on selected HP / IBM laptops.
- Debian Linux – For the advanced users, sys admin and academic researchers.
- Slackware Linux – One of the oldest distro, preferred by sys admins, BSD lovers and academic researchers.
Linux Laptop Vendors
Now, you know how to choose a laptop, especially you need to pay attention to wireless, video card and Ethernet card. And here is exact model names & number that will be fully compatible to LINUX and vendor website (the list is for information and ready references only; please do your own research before purchasing system):
- Dell sales Ubuntu Laptop in USA, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Spain and Latin America. (See official Ubuntu page).
- System76 provides Ubuntu Linux laptop and support in USA and Canada.
- Zareason provides Ubuntu Linux laptop in USA, but claims to ship to many other places across the globe.
- See 15 places to buy a Laptop with Linux preloaded
Got a Linux laptop brand you trust for its reliability and support? Add your experience in the comments below.