Things to Consider when Purchasing Ubuntu Laptops

Monday Jun 10th 2013 by Matt Hartley
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Should you buy a laptop with Ubuntu pre-installed, purchase a Windows system or go for a PC without a pre-installed operating system?

Also see: Ubuntu Laptop Buying Guide

Getting a new laptop is always fun, no matter which OS you prefer. However, getting Ubuntu installed on a new notebook can be a hit or miss process. Despite those who downplay the compatibility issue, installing Ubuntu on a laptop designed for Windows doesn't always go as planned.

In this article, we'll examine the advantages and disadvantages of laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed, laptops without an OS installed and putting Ubuntu on laptops with Windows installed.

Installing Ubuntu on Windows Laptops

When you wander into a big box store or order a laptop from a popular national vendor, chances are excellent you're going to end up with a laptop that has Windows pre-installed. Things start to get complicated when you want to install a Linux distribution like Ubuntu onto these units. It amazes me when individuals are surprised when something like the audio or wireless chipset turns out to be problematic when installing Ubuntu on a Windows laptop. Of course, it's not "always" going to work out of the box, you purchased the laptop with a non-Linux OS installed!

Granted, I'm familiar with the usual reasons why someone would purchase a Windows build laptop to install Linux on it. Usually, folks purchase these laptops because of their price, but sometimes because they really like the design. Whatever the case, there are some things you need to know before you rush out and buy a laptop running a non-Linux OS:

  • The laptop was built to run Windows, not Linux. While it's possible to install Ubuntu on these laptop models, good luck getting support from the vendor when something goes wrong. And if you have to send it in for service, you'd be wise to check with their policy regarding running a non-Windows installation before sending the laptop in for a repair.
  • Among other compatibility challenges, audio and wireless chipsets may not work. To be more specific, those chipsets may not work without substantial intervention from you, the end user. I can't speak for everyone, but when I buy a new computer, I prefer absolute compatibility. A Windows laptop may not always offer this, and you're gambling that it will. Example: I have an ASUS Eee netbook which was able to run under Linux, so long as a specific grub parameter was used. This parameter ceased to work in the latest releases of the Linux kernel. Put plainly, this means this netbook's ability to have functional back-light controls stops at kernel v3.7. Had this netbook been a model built for Ubuntu or another Linux distribution, I could likely find support from the vendor. Sadly, this isn't the case.

Purchasing Laptops with no OS Installed

Another option for purchasing a laptop is to buy one without an OS installed. The obvious advantage is that it will save you having to wipe the old OS before installing Ubuntu. On the flip side, however, you're once again left in charge of making sure the laptop's compatibility is on par with your expectations. Generally, this isn't considered too much trouble, unless you happen to run into issues that the Ubuntu documentation can't help you overcome. Personally, I've never been a big fan of no-OS laptops. They seem great at first—unless a compatibility headache happens to crop up later on.

Now obviously, there are ways of increasing your odds of finding a successful no-OS laptop to meet your needs. The best approach for taking this route would include the following:

  • Verify that the laptop you're considering offers great compatibility. The Ubuntu laptop compatibility guide is a good place to start. With newer laptop models, I would recommend using Google to check around for any reported issues others may have experienced.
  • Be ready to take charge of any potential issues that may arise. Remember, just because the laptop is working with this release of Ubuntu, doesn't mean there won't be problems down the road. In short, be ready to take charge of your hardware early on.
  • Know thy hardware. You should know exactly what your specs are, down to the letter. Broadcom wifi? Great, which chipset are you going to be using? Is the laptop running with UEFI or something less annoying? You will need to know exactly how your system is put together. That way, if something becomes a problem later on, you'll be able to research the problem with greater ease.

Opting for Laptops with Ubuntu Pre-Installed

With a couple of exceptions, most of my recent computer purchases (including laptops) have come with Ubuntu pre-installed. Because my time is valuable, I decided that I'd rather spend my free time not trying to determine why something wasn't working.

The advantage to buying an Ubuntu pre-installed laptop is you know everything works and is likely going to stay compatible regardless of future Ubuntu releases. Different Linux laptop vendors have various approaches to ensuring compatibility; the common approach has been to use PC hardware known to offer solid Linux support.

When selecting an Ubuntu pre-installed laptop, I recommend considering the following before jumping into a new purchase:

  • Is the manufacturer in the Ubuntu forums? If you're buying an Ubuntu pre-installed system, it's worthwhile to make sure support is active in a public forum in addition to offering email support.
  • How long has the Linux hardware vendor been in business? Obviously, longer is better.
  • Is the build quality of a high standard? When looking at products from a Linux laptop seller, you will need to make sure the build quality reflects the asking price of the product. Thankfully, most vendors out there sell high-quality products. I've found the vendors to avoid are those who don't specialize exclusively in Linux products. They're usually more focused on making a quick dollar vs. offering a quality product.

Selecting the Best Ubuntu Laptop for You

Not every model of Ubuntu laptop is going to meet everyone's needs, equally. Therefore I recommend following these guidelines when deciding which is best for you:

Programmer/developer – Generally, you'll see a gravitation to a standard laptop with Intel graphics or perhaps even an ultrabook.

Blogger/writer – Same as above, although I would also point out that netbooks are also an option in this regard, since you're basically needing a laptop with minimal resources.

Gamer/Desktop replacement – With this example, power is everything. To date the most powerful Ubuntu pre-installed option is offered by a company called System76, and the laptop is called the Bonobo Extreme. Dedicated graphics, extremely powerful CPU options and a strong NVIDIA GPU puts this monster of a laptop ahead of the curve when compared to other models. Keep in mind that this model weighs in at eight and a half pounds, so this is indeed the laptop for someone looking to replace a full desktop PC.

Final Thoughts

Shopping for a new Ubuntu laptop can be a very personal experience. The decision process is often filled with angst and tense emotion, since there is often considerable investment taking place.

The thoughts and considerations I've shared above are based on many years of experience in dealing with Linux and installing Linux onto laptops, especially Ubuntu. Fact of the matter is, if easy is your goal – buy Ubuntu pre-installed. If instead, you're willing to take fate into your own hands or simply have extensive Ubuntu experience with hardware compatibility, then by all means buy the hardware that works best for you.

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