Choosing the FOSS Fighter’s Gear…

…is still as difficult as ever! Recent study of minimal GNU/Linux desktop setups helped me jot down the bare essentials I expect from a work-centric PC laptop:

  • 2-core processor clocked at 2.0+ GHz
  • 2+ GB RAM
  • 250+ GB hard drive
  • Intel HD or AMD integrated graphics
  • wireless (Intel or Atheros)
  • DVD-ROM
  • 13-14″ screen

You might laugh at this point, dear reader, all you want. I’m an old geezer (mentally, at least) and anything past year 2000 is new and shiny to me. Also, not every cheap laptop fits the bill. Usually budget computers have 15″ screens, which is perfect for sitting on the desk, though far from perfect when sitting on my lap when horse riding. On the other hand, 13″ ultrabooks often lack a built-in DVD-ROM to save on space and weight. 14″ laptops are perfect, because some of them still do have DVD-ROMs, regardless of how much Apple considers DVDs and CDs legacy stuff. One can still buy music on CDs, mind you!

To cut the story (and crap) short, old Dell and IBM/Lenovo laptops are the best. They typically have tried and tested components, mostly manufactured by Intel. Some IBM/Lenovo Thinkpads sport a CPU and more rarely a GPU slot that accepts a set of various units. While not mandatory, it’s often a nice bonus when one thinks of how easily laptops break and how expensive it is to replace the motherboard ($200+, ouch!). No wonder OpenBSD developers choose Thinkpads for work on the run.  A major piece of advice, also – never entirely trust any wireless adapter/chip that is not from Intel or Atheros. Broadcom is notorious for shifty drivers and Realtek is like mining for gold at an earth gas deposit. Maybe it will work or maybe it will blow up in your face…

Alright, we have the basics downs, where is the problem? The thing is, getting the details from laptop manufacturers is tricky. Lenovo, Dell and HP typically post complete datasheets on their websites, though they produce decent hardware so no problems there. Asus let me down royally prior to my purchase of an 13″ S301 ultrabook. Not sure why it was more important to include in-depth information on Windows 8 and skip all of the relevant hardware details. I still bought the ultrabook, because it was nicely built and had impressive cooling. Enough said.

The other problem is hardware vendors. Why should I be forced to fish for datasheets when shopping for laptops? I thought it’s the hardware vendors’ responsibility to post the basic details of a device on their websites. No, ‘N/A’ next to the ‘Integrated Graphics Memory’ category is not the correct way to do it. Also, there is a huge difference between Intel GMA and Intel HD Graphics 3xxx/4xxx. They should NOT be thrown together into the ‘Integrated HD Graphics’ happy basket. At least this much should be available. Not to mention that quite often the description is incomplete and a lot of the details are missing, like RAM capacity. I’m not asking for RAM operating frequency, because that would obviously be outrageous, no?

To wrap it up, I wish choosing hardware suitable for GNU/Linux and other Unices was not as demanding. Fortunately, we have the Power of the Community to back us up. Plenty of online resources are available for the taking.

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