Rethinking Linux Hardware: Upgrade or Buy New?

Monday Jul 23rd 2012 by Matt Hartley
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Using Linux gives users a wider array of hardware options.

When you come from the proprietary operating system way of thinking, it's difficult to get your mind around the idea of not automatically needing to upgrade your PC hardware every two years. While upgrading is not an absolute necessity, more often than not we feel compelled to, as if to make sure we enjoy maximum compatibility.

On the Linux desktop, however, it's completely different. You aren't bound to the usual set of rules that come with a proprietary desktop. Generally speaking, peripherals from any time period are going to do well on the Linux desktop.

Unlike Windows 7 or OS X, today's modern Linux distributions have very solid 'out of the box' support for just about any peripheral you happen to throw at it. Even better, most new peripherals work without ever needing to concern yourself with installing drivers.

This means the end user is free to upgrade to a new PC because they're seeking a performance increase, not because of compatibility concerns. And it's worth noting that sometimes upgrading for increased performance is beneficial.

In this article, I’ll highlight examples of instances where a PC upgrade makes sense and which distribution is best suited for older hardware.

A new PC

For the most part, I've found that any PC capable of running LibreOffice is more than enough to meet my needs. The one exception to this is when I need to do a lot of video editing. While older PCs are still capable of running most video editing suites for Linux, rendering edited video is another story. Fact is, the faster the machine, the quicker you'll have a finished video project.

So for anyone needing to run high-intensity applications like video editing/rendering and some image processing, owning a newer PC is a bonus. And on this new PC, you're free to run any distribution and desktop environment you happen to think will be the best fit for you.

Common choices include Linux distributions that come with KDE or Gnome immediately available. Obviously, you can install any desktop environment you like. For the sake of this example, we're looking at the desktop environments installed by default for different distributions.

Distributions such as Ubuntu, Fedora, and OpenSuSEdo well on new PCs. Each of these distributions offer either Gnome, KDE or the option to choose one of these desktop environments during the initial setup.

If you're looking at running one of these three distributions, you might be wise to consider a newer computer. It's not a must, but it will allow you to get more out of the three above distributions.

Older PCs

When dealing with older PCs, the options do become a bit more limited. Because even if you opt for light-weight friendly distributions using light-weight desktop environments, the fact of the matter is some software needs more resources than the old PC can provide.

However, if the PC is destined for merely light tasks – video viewing on YouTube, working within the constraints of an office suite such as LibreOffice – then you will find that most older PCs will do just fine.

Distributions that are well matched for older PCs include Xbuntu, PCLinuxOS, Arch Linux, CrunchBang, and Puppy Linux.

Yes, there are others, but these are the distributions I feel good about recommending. And I'd also point out that Puppy Linux is so light-weight, it will run on ancient PCs that even the other distributions in the above list won't work well with.

Think tasks, not hardware

Now that I've separated the two classes of PC options into new and old, the next step is to consider the components of each computer. Is the PC an older model that has really poor cooling?

If so, then it's probably not a good option for CPU intensive tasks. That particular computer is likely best suited for jobs that are going to offer a lower impact on the existing hardware.

In my view, what you need to consider when deciding between re-purposing existing computers or opting to buy a new one are the tasks the PC is to perform.

For example, if you were opting to buy a new low-impact nettop PC, you might be doing so for casual workstation type tasks. On the flip side, a larger, older desktop computer with a dedicated graphics card may be better suited for working with more intensive tasks.

Even though it's older, you can feel confident that, with additional RAM added, it has enough power to handle tasks that the nettop can't. This is where really mapping out the tasks for each PC can come in handy.

Unfortunately, some PCs simply aren't worthwhile to re-use. Not because they don't work any longer, rather because using an old Pentium II tower as a router isn't nearly as efficient as buying a typical consumer quality routing appliance.

If buying new, don't buy 'big box'

I know that most people buying new computers will buy based on factors somewhere between performance and price. That’s understandable, except that those who buy in this way are supporting those who aren't supporting Linux users.

One of the dumbest things I've ever seen are those people who buy brand new computers, only to remove Windows and then install their favorite Linux distribution. I understand and applaud the value in doing this with existing hardware, but why support Microsoft only to install Ubuntu? It's kind of stupid, if you stop to think about it.

The underlying problem is that it's often these same people who then go on to complain about how this very same computer worked with one release of a popular distro, only to flake out on the following one. See, the sellers of this Made For Windows PC, don't offer Linux tech support. So this buyer is left to their own devices.

As an alternative, I ask people to consider buying from PC vendors who will be there to support you, year after year as you are using the Linux desktop. There are lots of great vendors to choose from. My favorites include System76 and EmperorLinux.

There are, of course, many other great vendors as well. But these are the two I feel best about recommending. Both companies offer Linux pre-installed. And both work hard through their own R&D departments to verify that everything is going to work out of the box.

The biggest differences between them is target market. System76 most certainly has solid computers for those in the enterprise space, but they also make sure to cater to the casual user as well. EmperorLinux, by contrast, offers computers aimed mostly at enterprise users.

To offer some middle ground, some options such as certain ThinkPads have a fantastic history with Linux support. Dell, despite their horrid long-term commitment to offering Ubuntu systems off and on again, is back in the game with an ultrabook. These are certainly valid options, as they will work just fine. These are not options I choose for myself, but they're available nonetheless.

Closing thoughts

Rethinking the way we see Linux hardware starts in our hearts. Intention, throughout the life of our PC hardware, means something. It says a lot about how we interact with our world and our surroundings, as well as who we choose to support and how we handle the equipment that we're no longer going to use.

Additional considerations include using the PC hardware that not only provides us with adequate specs, but also supports the ideals of the Open Source ecosystem. Be mindful of what you're buying and from whom.

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