Ubuntu Laptop Buying Guide

Monday Nov 3rd 2014 by Matt Hartley
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Selecting the best Ubuntu laptop for your needs requires understanding the market for Linux compatible laptops.

Also see: Things to Consider when Purchasing Ubuntu Laptops

Over the years I've seen a lot of bad advice with regard to selecting the best Ubuntu laptop to purchase. To make matters worse, most laptop buying guides were Windows specific – not addressing Linux compatibility at all.

In this article, I'll share which brands of laptops are the best bet for Ubuntu users, and I'll also share my insights about the advantages of choosing a Linux pre-installed laptop.

Ubuntu Laptop, “Designed for Windows”

When shopping for a new Ubuntu friendly laptop, it's critical to be aware that those sold in the stores are designed for Windows. Getting any of these machines working with Linux is a bonus – and should never be an automatic expectation.

In the old days, we knew this and did our hardware research before buying a new notebook to install Linux on. These days, folks assume that distros such as Ubuntu will just "work" out of the box, due to the modern kernel offering great hardware support.

My advice when buying a new notebook from a big box store is to bring a smartphone and get to know its specs first hand. Even better, do this from home where you're less likely to make an impulse purchase.

The three things that will get most people in trouble are wireless chipsets, video cards and sound cards. With most laptops, sound cards aren't really as big of an issue anymore. However if you're buying a laptop with a Wireless LAN or an AMD graphics card, you need to research the components carefully first. Just because AMD and Broadcom openly support Linux doesn't mean they have a great track record here.

My suggestion, whenever possible, is to go for "made for Windows" laptops using Intel graphics and networking. By going this route, you're all but assured that you'll have native, no nonsense support for your Ubuntu laptop. With Intel, there's no ndiswrapper for wifi and the video will "just work" without any extra configuration. The latter issue is sound under Linux. In 2014, the kernel is up to date enough that you'll rarely see actual audio hardware compatibility issues. Most user experienced problems happened due to a lack of a proper understanding of Linux sound tools and their controls.

The point to remember here is this: If it has a designed for Window sticker, it's designed for Windows. If you don't do your research prior to purchasing a laptop for Ubuntu, Linux working in its entirety out of the box is going to be a roll of the dice.

Laptop compatibility shopping

When shopping for a laptop that you'll be installing Ubuntu onto, it's helpful to consult with past experiences of others. Some rely on random forum posts for guidelines, however I would instead suggest using Ubuntu's laptop compatibility database. The plus side is you can in some cases, match up newer laptops to compatible options from the database. One obvious downside is you have to spend a lot of time trying to match things up. The same applies to the compatibility database over at Linux on Laptops.

Both are useful databases for existing laptops, however, sadly neither provide a useful resource for new laptop shoppers. My suggestion instead is to try looking to pre-installed solutions. Amazon, NewEgg and others all offer solutions in this space.

  • Ebay – eBay offers a nearly endless selection of new and used laptops running Linux. Some have had Ubuntu installed by the seller, others simply come with it installed out of the box. Definitely a good place to buy a Linux laptop on the cheap. Just make sure to buy carefully to make sure you're not purchasing a “parts computer” by accident.
  • Amazon – At the time of this article's posting, Amazon listed 27 Linux laptops available. Brands ranging from Acer to HP. New and used solutions are available and the prices, like with Ebay, are all over the place. The nice part is being able to see the reviews from others as to whether the potential purchase is right for you. I was also pleasantly surprised to see two touchscreen enabled laptops with Linux offered. It should be noted that while Ubuntu is pre-installed on some of these laptops, other distros are also being offered.
  • Newegg – I'd file this away as good place to compare with Amazon. It offers the same type of selection, with the difference being some of their Linux laptops are "open boxes"; likely meaning returns. Still, I feel this also means that Ubuntu laptops from Newegg are certainly worth a consideration.

Each of the sources above are not going to offer you any tangible Ubuntu compatibility support, should an update create issues with your hardware. So while it's compatible now, in the end, you may want to buy from a company that offers end-to-end support.

  • System76 – Speaking as a happy customer since 2008, I’ve had very good experiences using System76 laptops. One of the deciding factors after being burned by Dell's early entrance into the Ubuntu space was that they weren't a large faceless company. System76 is local to the state of Colorado and it does a lot of hardware customization to ensure compatibility from upgrade to upgrade. This compatibility includes a custom BIOS and the System76 driver; to help pave over any kernel specific "gotchas." So if something comes up, their support team usually has a solution.
  • Linux Certified – One of my other favorites is a longtime vendor of all things Linux related. Linux Certified offers a decent selection of Ubuntu compatible laptops with support of other distributions as well. A bonus with this company is that they also offer awesome training as well.
  • ThinkPenguin – Definitely a good option if you want to use Ubuntu, but want to only use FoSS friendly drivers. This means Think Penguin also specializes in supporting GNU-friendly distros such as Trisquel. They're a solid option if you're prefer to buy your Ubuntu laptop using Bitcoin, too.

It should be noted that there are other vendors as well, however these are vendors I trust myself and feel good about recommending to Datamation readers. That said, there is also one unusual Ubuntu laptop worth mentioning. It's a bit pricey for the specs provided, but it's cool nonetheless:

  • SOL laptop – This is the world’s first Ubuntu laptop powered by the sun. It's thick, a bit lackluster with the specifications, but the SOL laptop offers those looking to go green with their Ubuntu experience a usable alternative to a standard wall-powered laptop.

Ubuntu Laptop and AMD/Intel

In this article, I've offered an honest roundup of my personal recommendations for purchasing your next Ubuntu compatible laptop. I stand by my recommendations in buying an Ubuntu pre-installed laptop over anything else. Simple fact is, if it's pre-installed with the OS of your choosing, you know it's compatible. However for the more adventurous among you, I've made some worthwhile suggestions to help you make your selections as well.

My final words to you on this will be as follows: avoid AMD graphics on laptops at all costs. They're going to give you ample grief and even if you do get it working correctly, you will be rolling the dice each time you upgrade your video drivers. Outside of that, think Intel – they offer the most reliable notebook experience bar none.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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