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Advice for Linux on a Laptop? 276

Posted by Cliff
Trillian_1138 is seeking your advice on the following: "So I'm looking at replacing my aging laptop. I have a desktop running Ubuntu, which I use as a primary, and it is more than adequate for my needs. However, I'd love a small, portable laptop to use in class and on trips. I've been looking at the MacBook Pros and, more recently, the MacBooks, and was almost ready to buy the low-end MacBook and be done with it. I liked its ability to dual-book to Windows for a couple of school-related programs, but the more I thought about it the more I like using Ubuntu at home and the less reason I saw to buy a Mac if I could use Ubuntu on a laptop. This brought me to the idea of buying a laptop to use as a dual-boot Linux/Window machine, either with Linux or Windows pre-installed, and setting up a dual-boot with the other OS. Might any of you have advice, anecdotes, success stories, horror stories, or general input?"
"Please note I am not looking for a discussion on whether Linux is 'Ready for the Desktop'. I switched over to Ubuntu earlier this year and haven't looked back. As far as I'm concerned, Linux is ready for *my* desktop, which is all I really care about. This laptop is for me, not my mom. I'm not a command-line guru by any means and likes having a nice GUI, but am comfortable Googling when my DVDs stop playing after an update or poking around in configuration files to get things working. What I'm now curious about is what to expect - positive and negative - with Linux on a laptop.

I know a quick Google search yields lots of information on laptops running Linux, and I am continuing to use Google to look at information on running Linux on laptops which came with Windows, buying OS-less laptops, and buying laptops with Linux pre-installed, but I'm curious what the Slashdot crowd thinks. Is it even worth the bother? Would I be better off buying a Dell and installing Linux or buying a laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed from somewhere like system76.com or Linuxcertified.com?"
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Advice for Linux on a Laptop?

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  • Research! (Score:2, Interesting)

    by zanglang (917799) <zanglang&gmail,com> on Thursday May 18, 2006 @10:58PM (#15362865)
    It would be a good idea to list down the brands and make of the laptops you're interested in buying. Don't worry about compatibility at the moment, deciding on how your future laptop would look like comes first.

    Afterwards you might want to visit Ubuntu's forums [ubuntuforums.org] and run a search on them to check out how current users of those laptops are faring with Ubuntu at the moment. There's usually quite a bunch of threads discussing the graphic drivers to use, how much of the system is working perfectly etc.

    And check out the wiki as well!
    https://wiki.ubuntu.com/?action=fullsearch&context =180&value=laptop&titlesearch=Titles [ubuntu.com]
  • vmware (Score:4, Interesting)

    by yagu (721525) * <[moc.liamg] [ta] [ugayay]> on Thursday May 18, 2006 @11:03PM (#15362894) Journal

    I've done many dual boot laptops, but the last laptop I bought I wasn't in the mood for jumping through all of the hoops (especially wireless drivers).

    On a whim I downloaded the vmware virtual machine software, and in less than an hour had a fully functional full color, wireless working, all peripherals working, full Xserver resolution laptop. It was WONDERFUL. And worth every penny!

    What started out as an experiment for another way yielded other unexpected benefits. Suddenly I could run a fully loaded linux in the vmware server, and communicate with it from XP! Suddenly what used to require two machines I was able to do on the one.

    Some of the configuration required some good indepth linux knowledge and a few google visits. If you can tweak, it's worth the investment.

    Good luck. (And feel free to send e-mail if you have specific questions, I'll gladly fill you in on some of the tweaks)

  • Laptop Linux (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mr micawber (803118) * on Thursday May 18, 2006 @11:05PM (#15362907)
    Check out http://emperorlinux.com/ [emperorlinux.com] for a lot of options for pre-installed Linux on your laptop. You can order a notebook with dual-boot and they list all the devices etc. that are available to your Linux environment.
  • by zhobson (22730) on Thursday May 18, 2006 @11:14PM (#15362955) Homepage
    Ubuntu on a laptop can be made to work quite well. Ubuntu is the only operating system on my G3 iBook as well as my desktop PC. While it's fairly simple to put together a 100% Linux-compatible desktop machine, many people are surprised to learn that an iBook can be a full-featured Linux machine as well. The only drawback is that since the open-source world is x86-centric, there are issues with multimedia support. While you can get proprietary video and audio formats chugging along on an x86 PC by wrapping Windows codecs, this option doesn't exist on PPC. However for most other tasks it's quite sufficient.

    I'm in the market for another laptop, and I will be continuing to use Ubuntu as the primary OS. The new MacBook seems like an excellent choice, except that Linux support tends to follow behind a month or two behind Apple hardware releases. Probably the MacBook Pro has cleared the path a bit, but I'm skeptical that I'll be able to use all the hardware features in Linux right away, and in that case what is the point?

    While I can't offer too much advice regarding what laptop to buy for yourself, I'll tell you what my decision will probably be. Simply being an x86 gives the MacBook an advantage over the iBook for multimedia support. Even though Linux support for the MacBook will lag behind, there's no reason why I can't dual-boot OSX and Ubuntu for a while until there's enough hardware support to allow me to run Ubuntu full-time. OSX is a pretty respectable unix system and I'm sure I'd have fun using it for a while, even though experience has taught me that I will eventually get frustrated and go back to a free-software OS. Seriously. It's a cultural thing.

    So for me it'll be a maxed-out black MacBook. If Ubuntu isn't shiny enough right away I'll use OSX to hold me over. I'll probably try running GNOME on it just for fun. ^_^
  • My Thoughts (Score:5, Interesting)

    by acidrain69 (632468) on Thursday May 18, 2006 @11:14PM (#15362957) Journal
    Buying a laptop with Linux installed on it is like buying a car with the engine already.... no wait. Buying a laptop pre-installed is like buying a house with the furniture already.... damn.

    What I'm trying to say is, there's something about linux that just lends itself to a self-initiated install. You'll have an easier time of it if you have to go through the grunt work on your own. You'll know where things are, what you changed, and you get a better pick of distros than you will probably find pre-installed.

    This coming from a Debian-addict. I haven't looked at Ubuntu yet. I go vanilla Debian and add what I need for the machine I am using. I also still use windows on the desktop, but all the servers I operate run Linux. I go for flexibility. Yeah, you could use Wine or VMware as someone already mentioned, but what else am I going to do with that Windows license that came with my laptop?
  • I have two Dells (Score:3, Interesting)

    by kbielefe (606566) * <karl@bielefeldt+slashdot.gmail@com> on Thursday May 18, 2006 @11:49PM (#15363107)
    The last time I needed laptops, I shopped around for a while, and ended up buying two Dell Inspiron 1200s. It ended up the cheapest, even though I never even booted the windows partitions once before wiping them out. Battery life is about 2 hours, and could probably be more if I fooled around with power saving settings. Suspend to disk works great. The recommended wifi card works just fine with ndiswrapper. If I boot up away from my home network, then it automatically connects to the strongest access point. I use gentoo, but the Ubuntu live cd worked fine when I tried it on my laptop.

    My previous linux laptop ran Mandrake until the hard drive crashed due to the sudden deceleration after a 6 foot drop. I ran it just fine with a Knoppix CD for over two years, until it stopped working piece by piece. The built in keyboard, touchpad, and battery all died one by one until I finally had to stop using it when the CD-ROM drive gave out. Call me stingy, but being able to run Linux on that laptop when I was a poor college student really saved me some money.

    Basically, running Linux on a laptop is no different than on a desktop. Just be a little bit careful about checking hardware compatibility and you should have no problem. Enough people run the big names like Dells that finding help should be relatively easy.

  • Re:Yeah. Buy a Mac (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Sean Riordan (611520) <(moc.liamg) (ta) (naes.nadroir)> on Friday May 19, 2006 @12:00AM (#15363158)
    Weird you should say that.

    My Dell Latitude D600 is perfectly happy dual booting XP and Linux. Currently SuSE 10 and everything just works. Have had Ubuntu, Debian (Sarge and Etch), and Fedora on it at some point. Fedora works fine, but I didn't care for it. Ubuntu worked well but had issues with the Intel a/b/g card. Debian was great when it was great, a lot of work when it wasn't depending where I was in the sarge/sid the etch/sid cycle. Debian always hated my docking station as well. The current SuSE 10 install is pretty much flawless. The only thing not working is my Sony Erricson GPRS/EDGE/WiFi card and that is due entirely to my being to lazy to go look it up, and therefore haven't even plugged it in booted to Linux.

    My laptop is my primary computer, for work and personal so it has to be stable and useful. I currently run about 60/40 booted to XP/Linux. For dev work both are needed and for network audits linux is a requirement. Gaming, Visio, and our ground system require windows. Between OO and picking up a copy of crossover everything else works fine whichever way I happen to boot.

    Some things to watch out for that bit me here and there. Remember that with the Dell utility partition and XP installed you only have two primary partitions left and plan accordingly. What several people have said about a FAT32 partition is critical if you want to actually use you data. Watch which WiFI card you get. The Intels are the best bet. If you don't need triband, then the b/g units seem to work on more setups.
  • Re:vmware (Score:4, Interesting)

    by irc.goatse.cx troll (593289) on Friday May 19, 2006 @12:11AM (#15363201) Journal
    You'd be even better off virtualizing it with something like CoLinux. Just boot the linux kernel inside windows and either run a vnc server in it to vnc to, or run an X server on windows and remote X to it from inside. Much speedier(and I assume less battery) than vmware.
  • HP (Score:2, Interesting)

    by glens (6413) on Friday May 19, 2006 @12:33AM (#15363283)
    I was one of the lucky 15 in my town who got an HP ze2000 [hp.com] from Wally-World the morning after last Thanksgiving, for $400 out the door.

    Ndiswrapper works the Broadcom wireless nicely, the ATI driver gives me 3D screensavers, the sound works, and I even spent a couple of hours getting the modem working just to see if I could.

    I sprung an extra $50 for another 512MB of RAM. I'm loving the crap out of this thing...
  • Buy Old (Score:3, Interesting)

    by smvp6459 (896580) on Friday May 19, 2006 @12:47AM (#15363337)
    Look for something 2 years old and then research that laptop. It's rare to find a new machine that will run Linux seamlessly. At the 1 year mark a lot of major issues have often been solved by early adopters and at the 2 year mark it's as fully functional as it will get for that machine.
  • Re:Considerations: (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Tragek (772040) on Friday May 19, 2006 @01:04AM (#15363400) Journal
    I have to say this: If you can handle NOT using Linux, FreeBSD by far has the best ACPI implementation i've used yet. It's stable, usable, and well integrated. Wireless is decent, many drivers work well. WPA is really well put together (for my uses) too. I've been using a D-link (atheros chipset) without any problems. Apparently (and I have no experiance here), Nvidia puts out it's binary drivers for FreeBSD too. That said, this advice will probably fall on deaf ears, considering that he wants linux, but that's Ok.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19, 2006 @03:58AM (#15363885)
    IBM certified used is the way to go

    Just replaced my old IBM 600x (display was bashed when laptop fell off desk so its now useful only by ssh or with an external lcd monitor). Bought a used T30 from IBM used equipment web site. It came with XP on the hdu, and all the usual goodies (usb, parallel port, vga out, s-video out, ethernet, wireless (802 B), irda, pcmcia, full 2 channel audio (many laptops, unlike most IBM laptops, only support 2 audio channels from the cdrom or a file NOT from the mic and line inputs). Serial port and floppy not supplied (but you can use usb if you need them). No manual or recovery cdrom supplied - apparently they expect that the customer is a windows person. Units come with a 7 day return for refund and a 90 day warranty.

    I've use many laptops and in my experience nothing compares to the reliability of the IBM thinkpads (I've not yet used anything manufactured after the sale to Lenovo).

    My thinking is older (not ancient) thinkpad and older (but not ancient) release of Linux provides the best possibility of success. dd'd the T30 hdu to a (larger) fresh hdu, put the IBM supplied hdu on the shelf and installed the fresh hdu. Using dd and a larger disk will give you a free region that you can use for the linux install without having to futz with the windows partitions and resizing windows partions. Opted to install FC4 flavor of linux (I've been using RH9 on the 600x and FC5 is the current version of fedora). Googling for your laptop model number and FC4 will produce records of other folks experience (smart coders don't reinvent the wheel - they build off existing knowledge).

    I wanted dual boot (XP and Linux). Install was straight forward for my use and needs. Do NOT connect network/cat-5 to the laptop (so win xp can't phone home) - turn on the laptop and the IBM installer installs windows xp. When you are happy with the xp installation turn the laptop off, turn the laptop on, before windows can boot you have the opportunity to select a boot device, select the cdrom, place the first FC4 install cdrom in the cdrom drive and hit return to begin the FC4 install. Assuming that you are not using DHCP, things you might want to know before beginning the FC4 install are ip adrss you will assign to the laptop's wired and wireless ethernet ports, name and ipadress of upstream machine/router, name and ipaddress of DNS servers, name and ipaddress of printer or printer server, netmasks. Also decide if you want to enable SELINUX, and do you want to enable firewall .... FC4 will ask you about these during install so unless you are OK with editing various config files (/etc/hosts, resolv.conf......) you need to have these answers ready to answer FC4's questions. FC4 installer will detect windows stuff on disk - tell the installer to use all the space after the windows stuff for Linux. FC4 will then go thru install process.

    All went well for me. Only gotchas were FC4 didn't ask about wireless network mode (my local wireless net runs Ad-Hoc) and it also didn't ask about WEP key (pick a good key - not all keys are created equal - Google is your friend) so I changed the mode to Ad-Hoc and added key by hand. Also had to edit the grub config file to add windows and its recovery system to the list of boot options. End result is a working dual boot xp/FC4 system that uses my wired and wireless networks and their goodies (like DNS, printers, outside world connectivity) without problems.

    Downside Info: FC4 does not ship with some goodies that might be legally encumbered in some ways - this means that you will need to get familiar with Fedora Extras for thinks like playing mp3 files. ACPI on the T30/FC4 combination seems to be flaky - editing grub config I disabled acpi and enabled apm - now unit will suspend when top is closed.

    Personal observations: I tried the Gnome desktop and I still don't like it. Also don't like the new pretty/minimal Linux boot screen info. Editing grub's config file brought back the old informative boot time
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday May 19, 2006 @07:16AM (#15364388)
    If you're serious about having a laptop that is 100% supported by Linux (And as a side-effect Solaris 8+), get a tadpole. They range from ultra-portables to mobile workstations. To put it simply. They are the cats ass of laptops.

    If you want a x86 based box.. Sager NP 5950 is 100% supported by Gentoo (With the exception of the built in camera (I've never bothered trying to get it working)). The wireless madwifi-ng card works, the SLI graphic system works, Modular X 7 had no trouble automatically configuring the screen. It suspends well, and comes back afterwards. (So far at least.) The 7 in 1 smart card/memory cards worked. It's powered by the ML-44 Turion so it has power to spare, but is still easy on the battery. The only downside is since it has a 19" widescreen, it's fricken huge, and weighs in at a svelte 14lbs(or maybe it's 19lbs.. I didn't really care.).
  • Re:Advice (Score:3, Interesting)

    by oyenstikker (536040) <slashdot@@@sbyrne...org> on Friday May 19, 2006 @08:55AM (#15364734) Homepage Journal
    Watch out for the new ones with the 1400x1050 displays.

    I got a T43 with the aformetioned display. It does not come with Windows install media. You can create a restore DVD. This DVD is only capabale of wiping the hard drive and making 1 partition with Windows on it. Numerous calls to IBM have gotten me only "That is the only supported configuration, you must buy a retail copy of Windows if you want any other configuration." The retail copy DOES NOT WORK. I don't know if its just the SXGA+ T43 or all SXGA+ Thinkpads. I called Microsoft to tell them that the Windows XP Professional install CD does not work on a new laptop with a "Designed for Windows XP" sticker. They told me that they don't care, I'll have to take it up with IBM.

    No more IBM products for me.

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