Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Best Notebook for Linux

Ever since I rediscovered Linux I wanted to have a dedicated computer to run it on. VMWare and dual boot, even though I use both of them for work, were not good enough for personal matters: I wanted 3D-accelerated desktop, fast boot times and "true" Linux experience (whatever that means). Besides, it felt sick to realize how much time I had been spending in my office while I could have done a lot of work outside of it. I definitely needed a laptop.

Apple Macbook Pro
At first my mind was set on MacBook Pro. I adore Apple OS X and to me it is as much UNIX as Linux claims to be. But there were two major issues with this machine: cost and build. With 7200rpm drive and some mandatory software this setup is pricey: dangerously close to $3K territory but I did not see a $3K build quality in Apple hardware. Just by holding the MacBook in my hands and knowing my usage habits - no cell phone ever survives longer than a year, I simply could not see a happy ending there.

What about Linux notebook?
This brought me back to my original idea of running Linux on a notebook PC. Guess what I did first? I googled "Best Laptop for Linux" and was amazed. Apparently Linux still has a lot of issues with portable hardware, especially with el-cheapo sub-1K mainstream machines from Dell, HP and alike. To keep costs in check while manufacturing those throw-away notebooks, Dell and friends have to jump from one cheapest component to another, chasing the best deal I suppose. The brave souls who write open-source drivers simply cannot keep up with all possible "integrated solutions" found on a typical wallmartized laptop. Power management seems to be a big issue as well.

Apparently, to get Linux running smoothly on a notebook, the trick is not to buy cheap crap and try be be very picky about your hardware. In some cases installer will not even recognize your freakin hard drive.

IBM/Lenovo ThinkPad T60p

I looked at several machines and tried out more than one. At some point I was prepared for a compromise, it seemed obvious that every notebook I looked at had some inherent built-in incompatibilities with Linux, and all I I was doing was to pick which component or functionality I could live without: be it a hibernation feature, poor battery life, sub-par graphics card or not working function keys including those that control the brightness of the LCD screen.

Well, I'm glad to report I was wrong - in the end no compromise was needed. The search for a perfect Linux notebook now is over. There have been an elephant in the room, my friends: a big one. From what I learned, the best Linux laptops ever made have actually been made by IBM, and still are. I know, I know - they are Lenovo now but they still are the same dudes in the same offices doing what they do best: they design great looking notebooks that are great performers and last forever.

The Keyboard
To begin, just pick ThinkPad up, open the lid and type "Hello world" or "I hate you all", depending on your mood. You will feel the difference immediately. The keyboard is simply gorgeous. I have owned full-size PC keyboards that were worse than this! As far as notebooks go ThinkPad keyboard cannot be beaten: it has all the important keys of the right size in the right places: nicely aligned arrows, "Ins", "Del", Home/End cluster - everything is proper. This is a full size PC keyboard without any compromises in form of misplaced buttons. Up until recently they did not even have the retarded "Windows" button but finally gave in...

Linux-compatible Hardware
Secondly, they use fairly common, Linux compatible hardware. I installed Ubuntu 7.04 on ThinkPad T60 without a single glitch. As far as I can tell everything works: even all function keys. It sleeps and hibernates, I can control MP3 playback and screen brightness. In case you are curious, click to see my exact configuration. I was even able to install drivers for a built-in fingerprint reader and integrate it into GNOME login and screensaver. Although I ended up not using this gizmo simply because typing a password takes less time than scanning. Bottom line, however, is that ThinkPad T60 is 100% Linux compatible.

Why not ThinkPad T61?
Notice that I did not buy the latest T61 and for a good reason: this one is simply too new and people report that it will not work as flawlessly as T60 would. For instance one needs to be careful which Wi-Fi card to order (go with older one, Intel 3945). Some function keys reportedly are not working yet and standby/wakeup is not reliable. But not for long though: IBM is very serious about Linux support, they even sell ThinkPads with pre-installed Suse Linux with a full suite of "ThinkAdvantage" applications very similar to their windows counterparts. You cannot order one of those off their web site but you can, if you want, do that over the phone.

There is another good reason to go with a T60 if you can still find one. Those gems are available with gorgeous LCDs that utilize more professional and useful aspect ratio (i.e. not wide). For instance you can get a T60 with a 15" LCD with native 1600x1200. Unfortunately I ended up with a wide screen display (1680x1050) but at least I got 1050 vertical pixels. Not only that, but some of those screens (check out 15" @1400x1050 model) produce spectacular colors and are great for someone who's into photography. The screens I've seen on T61 are not like that: the colors have "metallic" tint, they're somewhat dimmer and angle of view is much narrower.

Regardless of that, if you are reading this in the 4th quarter of 2007 or later, all those issues with T61 and Linux are probably resolved already. Go with T61 then.

UltraNav and why it rocks.

I may sound silly but this little thing makes all the difference in the world. Unlike others, who supply their laptops with regular touchpads with a couple of buttons, IBM's approach is very much UNIX-like: they want your fingers on a keyboard doing what they do best: typing. To assist you with that IBM added a second row of mouse buttons above the touchpad. Use your thumbs for mouse clicks and use a little red pin to move the cursor around, while keeping your hands in close combat position: always ready for sudden bursts of keystrokes.

I can honestly say that UltraNav coupled with ThinkPad's perfect keyboard nearly eliminates the productivity difference between a notebook and a desktop workstation. I watched enough of colleagues "working" on their Dell Lattitudes - a profoundly disgusting experience, very much like stop-and-go traffic.

What about Performance?
Are you kidding? The software has stagnated behind hardware for nearly ten years (!) - of course the notebook is fast for everything I do. It's a Linux machine, remember? It does not need to run Windows with a typical 182 pre-installed do-nothing junk-processes that you may need 3Gz quad-core CPU for.

Honestly I did not care for CPU speed at all: anything better than PIII 800Hz would do just fine. I was unable to find T60 with 1.6 or 1.8Gz CPU and I view my 2Gz clock speed as a waste: both cores are running at 1Gz 99% of the time, governed by power-saving CPU frequency scaling feature (just like in any other OS). The things I cared for was more RAM and to have a dedicated video card, because "shared memory" solutions put too much strain on the main bus and affect (in my experience) even tasks unrelated to graphics.

The bottom line - the laptop is fast. With 2GB of RAM I am constantly running two VMWare sessions and a bunch of apps as well. After a while everything gets cached up to memory and I don't even see HDD LED blinking anymore. Somehow Linux manages to get the most out of surplus of RAM: Windows caching schemes are way more conservative, but I suspect it has changed in Vista. When running Linux with plenty of RAM, getting a slower, larger and more power-efficient 5200rpm drive seems like a good idea now.

Want a problem-free Linux notebook?
Here you have it. If you wonder which notebook to buy to run Linux on, the answer is simple: get a ThinkPad. The reasons are:

Great build quality.
Excellent Linux hardwre support.
Best keyboard in the industry.
Awesome LCD screens with crazy viewing angles.
Subtle and purposeful business look.
Runs Linux.

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