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How to choose a Linux laptop

Get the right hardware to work with your open source OS

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With the many choices and factors to consider, choosing a laptop of any kind can be a considerable challenge. Choosing one for use with Linux, however, brings its own special set of considerations, since it's not yet always a plug-and-play world for the open source operating system.

Linux is typically not fussy about hardware, that indeed is one of its most endearing advantages. Some hardware, however, still doesn't work well with Linux, due primarily to a persistent lack of the right drivers.

Still, there are more laptop choices today than ever before for the Linux user. Here are some guidelines for choosing the one that's right for you.

Key features

Shopping for a Linux laptop involves many of the same key considerations as shopping for a Windows laptop, and is easier in some ways due to Linux's modest hardware requirements. There are also unique considerations to factor into any Linux laptop purchase, owing largely to potential problems with driver coverage. If you're planning on dual-booting your laptop with both Linux and Windows, of course, you'll need to keep both sets of requirements in mind.

Operating System

One of the first things you'll need to think about is which distribution of Linux you want to use, and whether you want to buy it preinstalled on a laptop or to install it yourself on top of a (presumably) Windows-based laptop. You'll also need to decide if you want to keep Windows on your machine as well, known as a "dual boot" scenario.

On the first of those questions, choosing a distribution, or "distro", is something that will depend on your interests, level of expertise and so forth. Check out our guides to choosing a distro and to the top 10 distros for more on that. In general, the best distros for laptops include Ubuntu, openSUSE and Fedora, but there are also smaller footprint ones such as Puppy Linux and Damn Small Linux (DSL) for low-resources machines. Once you pick a distro, check its website for hardware recommendations, even though most will be far exceeded by today's laptop offerings.

As far as getting the distro on your computer, many vendors out there sell laptops with Linux (usually Ubuntu) preinstalled, so that's certainly a safe option. The added advantage of taking that route is that such preinstalled offerings typically come with key Linux drivers (more on that below) installed as well, making it easier to start up and go.

Of course, installing Linux yourself is by no means difficult, and it can be handy to have a dual boot setup in case you ever need Windows for something specific. Doing it this way also gives you a wider range of hardware to choose from.

Processor

Among the most commonly found CPUs today are the Intel Atom N450, the Intel T4300, Core 2 Duo, Core i3, Core i5 and quad-core Core i7 and the AMD Athlon 64 Mobile and Turion 64 X2.

Basically, the more cores in your processor, the more calculations it can handle at once, making for better response times when you're running multiple applications. Dual core is good for most purposes today. Processor speeds, meanwhile, typically range from 1.8GHz to 3GHz or more.

Of course, Linux can play well with just about any processor, even the lower-end Atom, particularly given that there are distributions designed just for low-resource contexts. For a nice basic laptop setup, though, the Intel Core 2 Duo and the (slightly slower) dual core AMD Turion 64 X2 could both be good choices for either a dual-boot or Linux-only scenario. If you're planning on performing tasks such as encoding video or running engineering applications, of course, the higher-end Core i3, i5 or even i7 might make more sense.


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