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Buyer's guide: How to choose a Linux laptop

Key features you need to consider

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. Here are some guidelines for choosing the one that's right for you.

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.

System memory
RAM is particularly important if you plan to use memory-intensive apps like virtualisation (via VMWare or VirtualBox, for example), photo editing (such as via Gimp) or video editing, or if you plan to dual-boot. Most laptops offer between 2GB and 4GB of RAM; many are also upgradable with more than that. If you go for a 64bit Linux distro - or if you dual-boot - it's a good idea to go for 4GB of RAM for maximum flexibility. On the other hand, 32bit distros alone don't typically need more than 3GB.

Wireless support is one of the areas that has historically given Linux the most trouble, but thankfully that's improving every day. However, wireless chip maker Broadcom announced a fully open wireless driver that's compatible with the operating system. Expected to appear in the Linux kernel late this year or in early 2011, that new 802.11 driver will allow Linux distros to fully support many common Broadcom wireless chips. The new Ubuntu, Maverick Meerkat, includes that new driver. In the meantime, however, Atheros and Intel are the two wireless chip brands best known for their Linux compatibility. The Intel Pro series 3945 card is one compatible one; others can be found in this database.

Fully supported low-end video cards for Linux include the Intel GMA 4500MHD, 945GM, 950 GMA, and X3100 GMA as well as Nvidia's Quadro NVS 160M. On the higher end -targeting video editing and 3D games - there's the Nvidia Quadro FX 880M, FX 2800M, NVS 3100M, GeForce 9300M GS and GeForce 9300M, as well as the Intel GMA X4500 HD, ATI FirePro M7740, ATI Radeon HD 3650 and ATI Mobility Radeon HD4650, to name a few.

For high-end purposes, it's important to make sure dedicated 3D acceleration is supported under Linux so as to avoid taking up valuable CPU resources drawing 3D images. Nvidia offers a proprietary driver that can deliver full 3D acceleration with 24bit colour, while ATI's drivers are open source. Bottom line: It's definitely worth visiting the driver pages for Nvidia, ATI/AMD, and Intel to make sure you get the right thing.

Keep in mind, too, that if you're into gaming, there's still limited support for Linux among most game makers. You may want to dual-boot and get the best graphics support you can. You'll also probably have to get a bigger laptop, incidentally, since heat-prone dedicated GPUs tend to require more space for cooling.

NEXT PAGE: Sound and optical drives

  1. Key features you need to consider
  2. Processors
  3. Sound and optical drives
  4. More Linux laptop specs explained
  5. Ideal specifications

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