Buying a Linux laptop in 2007

Stock laptop imageIt’s time for a new laptop, as I’ve detailed, I’ve ripped apart, inserted coins and duct-taped  the old iBook back together again enough times, and it’s no longer viable. It’ll work fine on a flat surface, but if you try to use it as a laptop the minor flexing must loosen the video chip, because you quickly find your video locked, with a hard reboot the only fix. The wildcards are me as a buyer, since I’m hardly ordinary with my expectation that any laptop or desktop I’m going to buy is only going to run Linux, and the recent announcements by HP, IBM/Lenovo and Dell about their Linux support (some even pre-installed), I knew I’d finally have choices to consider. In the end I came up with a pretty current system, that Debian or Ubuntu will be 100% compatible with, and will be proud to call home. The detailed specs:

Intel Core 2 Duo T5470, 1.6GHz, 800Mhz FSB, 2M L2 Cache 15.4 inch Wide Screen XGA LCD display 1GB, DDR2, 667MHz 2 DIMM 128MB NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS 120G 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive Integrated 10100 Network Cardand Modem 8X DVD+/-RW with double-layer DVD+R write capability Integrated High Definition Audio 2.0 Intel 3945 WLAN (802.11a/g) Mini Card Integrated 2.0 mega pixel webcam Integrated Bluetooth 85 WHr 9-cell Lithium Ion Primary Battery

This is more system that I originally spec’d out, but the price was right, so I’m very happy.  Before I reveal which brand I picked, I’ll tell the interesting story of how I ended up with the ‘top I did, and how things compare for laptop Linux options these days, it’s an interesting ride.

NOTE: feel free to Digg this article if you like it.

MacbookAs I mentioned, my last laptop was the iBook that I’ve posted about often. While I liked it I had tons of trouble with it, however I know it’s specific to that model, so I’m not holding it against Apple; they’re still in the running, especially when you look at the sleek MacBooks. I picked the MacBook that had a DVD burner (aka ‘Superdrive’ on a Mac), which was one of my requirements, and while it has a faster proc, and some other components that were not up to my specs, it was closest to what I wanted. So the MacBook** would would be $1299** - honestly way more than I am prepared to pay for a laptop (I paid ~$950 for my iBook - but times have changed), and I feel I am paying a premium for an Apple, when I’m not even going to use OS X. So while the hardware would be mostly compatible, I haven’t seen many that are running Linux only on these machines yet, so there’s a bit of the unknown to contend with, I have to rate this one as still being expensive.

Then there are the specialty Linux makers, they’ve sold Linux pre-installed on systems for years,System76 Pangolin mostly outside of the US, but still, they’re someone I wanted to target for a long time. Looking at a system over at System76, I found a comparable model with Ubuntu Linux preloaded, System76 Pangolin Value** running is $1051, a little better, and nice that Linux is pre-installed (even though I’d likely wipe it as soon as I got it). Next up, Emporer Linux had a model with a smaller harddrive, but otherwise almost lined up pre-installed with Ubuntu Linux, but the [Emporer’s Tiger model]( would cost a whopping $1475**. So thanks, but really, why would I consider a lessor spec’d system for more money?  I like that they’re selling systems with Linux, but not enought to spend that much more for the pleasure.

hpSo now we move on to the big players, yep, companies like HP, IBM/Lenovo and Dell are selling pre-installed Linux desktops and notebooks to regular Joes like yourself, or so I thought. Over at HP is where I hit my first snag. I found a laptop that compared favorably to my specs, however you couldn’t get Linux, or the FreeDOS option (which basically means a computer without an OS installed, but with install disks for FreeOS) on that one. So while HP’s 6720s Notebook** sells for $799** it includes the garish Windows Vista (a view I’d rather not experience). Still, I wouldn’t have to run it, I would still install Linux right offEmperor Tiger the bat, as I would likely with any of the sytems I’d buy. Seeing how much of a machine I could get for the money when looking at ‘Windows’ systems made the likelyhood of a pre-installed Linux laptop less likely. Undeterred, I pressed on. IBM/Lenovo’s Thinkpad series has been a long running favorite among freaks who want to run Linux on a laptop, and I found a sweet one,  IBM’s Thinkpad R61** for $922** measured up nicely, but again, same disclaimer about Windows, which is annoying when you don’t really know how much more you’re paying to have the ability to choose better systems.

InspironThen there’s Dell, perhaps the noisest, new retailer that pre-isntalls Linux.  If you’re on, from the Desktop or Notebook drop down menus on most of the pages (Even the ‘Home’ section) you can find a link for Open-Source PCs. Now while that doesn’t say ‘Linux’ (and I suspect most wouldn’t equate that with Linux) it’s a start. Going straight to Dell’s Open Source/Ubuntu page gets you there quicker, where you can spec out the Ubuntu Linux pre-installed Inspiron 1420N going for $939. Not bad, the only thing is, that’s the only choice you have as far as Laptops with Linux preinstalled in the Dell world.

So, knowing how cheap the laptops from Dell get, due to their incessant catalogs about their SmallVostro 1500 Business deals I keep finding in my mailbox, I start poking around the site. The catalog showed some attractive prices on the new base Vostro model, the 1000. I found that a one could be had for $449, but that left you with a bunch of upgrades to get it up to something more comparable to the above. Once that is done you’re looking at the Dell Vostro 1000** for $609**.  Wow, that’s not bad - of course it gives you the older Athlon 64 X2 Dual-Core, and I’m personally a little wary of putting such a beast in a laptop. Still, the other components are decent, not the best, but passable. The ATI video used shared memory, something you want to steer away from, but again, for most, this would be fine and the 15.4” widescreen wouldn’t be bad to have at all.

Vostro 1500Then I took at look at the Vostro 1500, still the 15.4” screen, but available with the lower power (compared to other new dual-core systems) Intel® Core™ 2 Duo T5470 (1.6GHz, 2MB L2 Cache, 800MHz FSB).  The thing I like about this is that while it’s a dual-core, it’s not excessive (the MacBooks we started looking at were 2.0Ghz Duo chips), and it fits in well with my wanting to use the tools and ideas put forth by Intel on their new site, Less Watts.  On the site they document how you can get the most of the battery life on Intel based systems running Linux. They even have a new app, PowerTop that acts like the old Unix utility Top, but instead or apps it lists the devices in your machine by power usage.  So while this may have been a clever PR move, it worked for me because I can see that I will be able to get the most of an Intel laptop with Linux, far an away over what I could do if I were running Mac or Windows. So, with the Vostro 1500 in my sights I started more targeted research. After some nice reviews I found that a link from one of those deal sites showing that the Dell Vostro 1500 could be had for $599.  Well that was that, for the specs I listed above:

Intel Core 2 Duo T5470, 1.6GHz, 800Mhz FSB, 2M L2 Cache 15.4 inch Wide Screen XGA LCD display 1GB, DDR2, 667MHz 2 DIMM 128MB NVIDIA GeForce 8400M GS 120G 5400RPM SATA Hard Drive Integrated 10100 Network Cardand Modem 8X DVD+/-RW with double-layer DVD+R write capability Integrated High Definition Audio 2.0 Intel 3945 WLAN (802.11a/g) Mini Card Integrated 2.0 mega pixel webcam Integrated Bluetooth 85 WHr 9-cell Lithium Ion Primary Battery

So I bought the Dell Vostro 1500 for $629 (the only thing I added was the webcam), that was far and away much more computer for the money than I had seen anywhere else.  The new Vostro line is of course Dell’s ’basic’ line, but what does that mean?  It means it’s not as flashy, thin or light as the Inspirons, and that’s OK, I just want a laptop that is going to have a good screen, and be able to be jostled around while I check my email, play toons and adminstrate my servers.  This fits the bill, and while its looks may only say “Hey, I’m a laptop” it just leaves me to imagine it covered with stickers.  Now if you follow my original link you’ll just be redirected to a basic landing page at Dell, but if you follow another link from those deal sites, you’ll find the price is now $679, but if you just go to and configure a 1500 the same way it will come to about $778.  Regardless, more deal-site surfing should reveal a better deal by now.

Conclusion: Here I site with a nice, new, fast laptop running Ubuntu Linux, 7.10 (Gusty) Beta and it’s awesome. Install was normal, I ran it from the desktop LiveCD so I could use the desktop while it was installing, everything worked there, after the install and I rebooted, graphics were good, wireless came up automagically, and after I set some desktop settings it prompted me to auto-install the fast nVidia drivers. After restarting the desktop session all of the Compiz eye-candy was working! Nice. Had issue with the sound, quickly solved after searching the great Ubuntu forums, same thing with suspend, it’s working great now too. Last night I checked my email, downloaded the new Radiohead release, used Ubuntu’s Add/Remove feature to enable mp3 usage, played the mp3s in Rhythmbox, burned the mp3s to cd (cdrw ‘just worked’), plugged in my iPod, it showed up under Rhythmbox, dragged the new Radiohead to it, that ‘just worked’ too. A little round button with a home icon is next to the power button, I didn’t expect it to work and was going to bind it to something, but clicking it brings up Rhythmbox (notice a pattern of what I use computers for?) and then hitting the media buttons in the front of the laptop started the songs playing; so those all ‘just worked’. Later I pulled up my resume on Google Docs, then opened it as an Open Office document, and yeah, that ‘just worked’ too. At first I was hesitant to get the 15.4” screen over the 1400’s 14” one, but I’m glad I did. The screen is big, but not unruly so like the 17” ones I’ve seen, and I actually really like the TrueLife (read glossy, very glossy) screen. They say it gives better brightness and contrast, and it must because things look hella sharp. I run the fabulous conky for feedback on my system stats, we’re seeing it running in the low 40s range for Celsius, and I’m monitoring both cores on the CPU. Since Ubuntu runs the powernowd daemon to scale up/down by default, they’re almost always both running at 800Mhz. It’s fun to watch one of them jump up to 1.6Ghz when needed, sometimes joined by the other, and then drop back to idle a split second later. I will be looking more into how much lower they can drop (the old laptop was a single 800Mhz and would drop to 400Mhz) and have already installed Intel’s Powertop app that I mentioned above, so watch for more posts on battery saving. I feel pretty good about that since I can make the ‘top run cooler, and sip from the extra large 9-cell battery.

So, I have a new laptop, it’s running the latest version of my favorite desktop Linux beautifully; I couldn’t be happier. I’m still stoked about the price too - take a look, you might be able to do better! If anyone has issues with the 1500, leave me a note below, or hit the Ubuntu Forums, it seems everything can be easily solved.

Finally, I found a topical New York Times article about Linux as a desktop option titled The Next Leap for Linux, that includes a perfect image for the end of this story, a Vostro with Linux in front of XP and Mac laptops.

Linux on a Vostro FTW!

Linux FTW!