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(?) HOWTO find a good laptop

From William Thornton

Answered By Heather Stern, Faber Fedor, John Karns, Mike Orr

(?) Just wondering if you can point me to any good web resources on what laptop hardware is currently supported under linux. What I've been able to find are how-to's (as in how to install linux on a laptop. And these seem to be out of date. You can't even buy the models listed anymore.) Any help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.

(!) [John] One of the originals - and most extensive - was Kenneth Harker's "Linux on Laptops".
It was at utexas.edu, but that URL has since changed, and unfortunately I don't have the updated one.
(!) [Faber]
For those of you watching at home, the link is, of course...
(!) [Heather] ... Kenneth Harker's site full of links to personal testimony and other resources: http://www.linux-laptop.net
Or Werner Hauser's Mobilix:
Alternatively you could cheat, and buy a laptop from a vendor that sells laptops pre-loaded with Linux...
Distros have gotten better about being able to be installed on a laptop; the rise of laptops with accessible CD bays has helped a lot too.
The important thing to know is that you should consider your parts of hardware individually when looking at buying a laptop. Model names and numbers themselves are immaterial, except that those may make it easier to find fellow users of the same hardware. Yes, the same real manufacturers sell through many vendors, with the exception of a few giants like Sony and IBM that build their own stuff.
pretty much no problem. The command 'lspci' can tell you if you have UHCI or OHCI, then you can load up the right one and rock on.
Find out what chipset it has (this is harder than it looks, just "fast" doesn't cut it). Linux supports several but to get Fast IR you need to know which kind, and it needs to be one of the small handful we handle. Mobilix has good info.
luckily most mice are just PS/2; there are a few synaptics style touchpads out there, that have a PS/2 compatible mode anyway. Those "jogdial" things Sony has need a special program, but we have one.
(!) [John] ... and now those of the USB variety are available. I have been using one for the past few months, since I purchased a Dell Inspiron. This allows using an external keyboard which helps to make the laptop a better replacement for a desktop. That way I can use both an external mouse and keyboard, and still have the serial port free for an external modem should I choose to use one.
(!) [Heather] Video card
If you're planning to slash the bleeding edge, you really have to be sure on this one. It's one of the parts you cannot easily replace! Note that some manufacturers throw their own cheap X servers together - check into them further and see if they are going the XFCOM route (which eventually leads to the source being merged with XFree, when the card is yesterday's news) or staying proprietary. And whether they need a kernel module to support GL and/or acceleration. (hey, that'd be sweet. But I wouldn't bet on finding that.) If you're a gamer, check if the video has proper texturing support. Many don't.
Also, X 4.1 is getting there, but there still might be a few cards better supported under X 3.3.6.
Driver Status for XFree86[tm] 4.1.0
For libvga I always recommend trying the VESA setting before giving up. And setting the VesaSave value to a different number can help solve if it's coming out with a text mode that puts your cursor below the screen :)
(!) [John] I had a rough time with the Inspiron - the only way I could get X to work was by DL'ing the XF86Config file from the mfr's Internet site; and I have yet to get it to work for other resolutions than 1400 x 1050. Even though they offer several to cover various resolutions, they did a very poor job - some were just duplicates under different names.
Be careful of the ATI r128 chip series. There are around 10 different variations of that chip, designated as r128 SM, r128 RE, etc., and they are not compatible; so check the X docs to verify that the chip is supported - or better yet verify that the chip is indeed the same as one of the models mentioned on one of the Linux laptop sites, i.e. that it has not been changed by the mfr for the currently shipping models.
(!) [Heather] ATI is actually rather infamous in the community for generating new troubles with every minor BIOS and circuitboard revision. That problem is not at all limited to laptops :(
Your monitor
Sounds odd, but yes, this needs to be considered seperately.
Try to get X modelines from someone else who has the same screen. They don't need to be from the same distro, and in fact, you can steal modelines from an XF86Config that's meant for version 3 and use them on version 4 just fine. You cannot steal the whole file and use it though - the format has changed a bit. Put your modelines in the Monitor section, in either case.
You actually have a pretty good chance here. So far lspci has always been good for me at coughing up what chipset the sound is, and after that it's easy to look up. (This doesn't work on older models that have ISA sound, but you're talking about new machines here.) The important tidbit is, there are three different ways to get sound support working, and you only need one of them to work. In order of preference, it can be a normal kernel module, the ALSA project probably has drivers for you, or you can use OSS. SuSE makes sound setup easy. Your distro may vary.
Usually isn't much of a problem. lspci should tell you what it is, then just load the right module. In fact lspci is usually better than the box for telling what's in it; many manufacturers are licensing chipsets these days.
If you have a builtin modem...
Ouch. Most of these are winmodems, er, 'scuse me, "controllerless". In other words they are born missing one or two of the three core chips that make a real modem work. For anyone who's been under a rock for the last few years, that means that they are "easily upgradable" but also cheap and prone to breaking down under heavy CPU load.
I list the ones mentioned at linmodems.org here, because many of the projects have moved recently. The linmodems links still work too.
Don't be afraid to buy a PCMCIA card to replace these. Nobody will blame you. But do check the resources at linmodems before buying a card - some folks have been burned by PCMCIA softmodems, those pretty much don't work for us.
(!) [John] In my case, I had to DL the pcmcia pkg from the 'net and install it separately after installing SuSE 7.1 due to a quirk with the newer TI PCI4451 PC card Cardbus Controller chip that the machine uses. Trying to use the SuSE packaged version would hang the machine. This was explained in one of the pages about my machine referenced from the harker site.
Also, one can check the docs that are pkg'd with the pcmcia stand-alone pkg. There has in the past been a document included which lists the cards known to work, with the caveat that card mfr's sometimes change the chips inside the cards without changing the model designation - it's rare but not unheard of, so you can find yourself with a card that doesn't work, even though it's on the compatible list. I've had pretty good luck with Xircom in the past - a CEM33/10 and a CEM56/100 which both have a full modem implementation rather than a winmodem (the only people who 'win' are the mfr and Microsoft :-( ).
(!) [Heather]
(!) [John] These are perhaps the most ubiquitous of winmodems, and some say offer the best chance of working under Linux.
(!) [Heather]
(!) [John] Dell was shipping two versions which they were designating as mini-pci 3com ether combo cards. The one that was shipped in my machine is known under the name of Actiontel, and has an LTModem paired with an Intel eepro-100 ethernet chip - luckily for me both components are Linux compatible; probably because they were offering machines pre-installed with Linux. They have since changed their policy and are no longer offering pre-installed Linux, except on their servers. Consequently they are now shipping one of the modem chips mentioned above, which people don't seem to having much luck with, and many have bought a pcmcia card to use instead. However, there are two items of interest in this regard, IMO:
  1. many of the pcmcia cards seem to run quite warm, even hot - especially the ether / modem combos cards, which adds extra heat to your laptop, and also means more battery drain.
  2. many laptops are implementing the ether / modem combo cards for the mini-pci slot connector which is also being offered on many desktop style mobos. This connector very much resembles the one used for the type of memory module (so)dimms currently being used. Thus if desired it is possible to purchase one of these from an after market 3rd party and replace an incompatible card with one that is Linux compatible.
(!) [Heather] Did I miss anything?
Oh, probably. But if you have a feature listed that you're wondering about, try Google! Linux (http://www.google.com/linux - and do NOT put a slash on the end) and type in the buzzword or chipset. Chances are good you'll find something on it.
(!) [John] ... not too much!
Just one more thing. We need to make the hardware co's more Linux cognizant. Be sure to mention that you're buying the machine because you have reason to believe that it is Linux compatible, and if it wasn't you wouldn't be purchasing from them! Also mention any items that you know not to be compatible, such as the winmodem. Express your interest that they consider increasing their Linux support in the future.

(?) Wow! I thought I MIGHT get one answer to my question. Instead I get three very good answers. The info at linux-laptops.net seems to be much more up to date than what I'd been finding.

Thanks! I should be pretty well armed with info for my next trip to the computer store.

(!) [Mike] Thanks for the encouragement.

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Published in issue 71 of Linux Gazette October 2001
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