Christmas wish: Distro hardware buyer’s guide

11:01 am freesoftware, General

As a long time free software user, every time I buy hardware I have the same decision paralysis. Will the graphics card be fully supported? Are the drivers stable? Will the on-board wifi, sound card, and the built-in webcam Just Work? Will they work if I spend hours hunting down drivers and installing kernel modules (and remembering to reinstall them every time my distro upgrades the kernel)? Or will they stay broken for at least 6 months, until the next version of the OS is released?

I’ve gone through this dance many times in the past – with an Intel 915 graphics chip, and an Nvidia chip before that, with multiple webcams, USB headsets, a scanner, a graphics tablet, digital cameras and sound chips.

Thankfully, problems with digital cameras and sound chips seems to be more or less a thing of the past, except for those USB headsets, but there are still issues with webcams, scanners,tablets and wifi chips. And I keep hearing that support for graphics chips sucks for both ATI and Nvidia, making me wary of both (and thus about 80% of computers on the market).

So when I go shopping for hardware, it sucks to be me. I haven’t tested all this stuff, and I don’t know how much of it works perfectly out of the box. What I need is to decide what software I’m going to put on it, and have hardware recommendations per price point from the software distributor, so that I can just go to my local Surcouf, FNAC or whatever, and just look at one label & say “That’s only 90% supported, no custom from me!”

Does one exist already? I really liked the Samsung NC20 page I found on the Ubuntu wiki, but I would have preferred to see it before buying. The laptop testing team page on Ubuntu is along the lines of what I want, but it doesn’t take a position on any of the hardware, which is what I need. I want Canonical to say “buy this one, it’s great” or “don’t buy that one, unless you’re prepared to spend 2 days messing with drivers”. I know this might piss off some partners, but it’d be really helpful to me. And isn’t that more important?

What I’d like to see is laptops ordered by level of support out-of-box & after fiddling, on the latest version of Ubuntu. So the NC20, for example, would get a 60% “Out of the box” rating (because the video card just doesn’t work at all), and a 90% “after fiddling” rating (because of the CPU frequency issue, lack of support for 3d in graphics driver, and graphics driver instability).

Anyone able to point me to a Linux hardware buyer’s guide that dates from 2009 that gives what I’m looking for?

23 Responses

  1. Mark Wielaard Says:

    If you don’t mind going with an “enterprise” distro then https://hardware.redhat.com/ is pretty nice. It has lots of servers of course, but it also lists desktop/workstations and laptops.

    If you get a machine with hardware virtualization then sticking an enterprise distro on it isn’t so bad. You know the hardware will be supported for years to come, but can still play with other distros “underneath” it to play with all the wizzbang stuff.

  2. sil Says:

    Go and buy a laptop with Ubuntu already on it. You know everything works; you support vendors who support Linux; you’re not paying for a copy of Windows that you’re not going to use. That’s what I did (with my Dell M1330) and I’ve never, ever had a hardware problem with it; everything’s supported.

    (I know there are issues around finding a vendor if you’re not in the US — the UK only has a couple, and France…blimey, dunno.)

  3. Dave Neary Says:

    @sil: I was digging around Dell’s site for Ubuntu hardware (and I’m looking for a desktop machine as well as a laptop) – and I noticed that all the Dell hardware comes with a Broadcom wifi chip – doesn’t that bring in some proprietary firmware and lots of hardware issues? Looking through the Ubuntu forums, at least, many people complain of issues with the hardware. So that experience makes me wary of hardware producers putting Ubuntu on saying it works. What happens when I upgrade? Am I out of warranty if it breaks?

    Dave.

  4. Chris Lord Says:

    Hold up, a laptop with no 3d support, CPU frequency scaling issues (thus, I assume, battery-life issues) and an unstable graphics driver would get 90%? I’m sure we can aspire to something a bit better than that :)

  5. lefty.crupps Says:

    Current 2.6.32 kernel and XOrg have native kernels for ATi hardware now, so my ATi 3450 card has 3D and all the graphical bling as with the closed driver.

    It is very nice. In general, I rarely come across hardware that isn’t supported.

  6. Dave Neary Says:

    @Chris: No 3d support I think – in any casse, Moblin was a non-started and UNR crawled along at low integer frames a second whenever any graphical effects were in action. “unstable graphics driver” should have been “unstable wifi driver”, and is a report I’ve seen on the wifi chip in the NC20 – so far, fingers crossed, no complaints.

    The CPU scaling issue seems to be going in the other direction – it’s stuck at 800MHz instead of 1.6GHz (top speed) – so no battery life issues so far. And, meh, 90% seems fair, given that 90% of stuff works :) I was pleasantly surprised to see the built-in webcam and the wifi both worked out of the box, for example.

    Dave.

  7. nejode Says:

    I’m 100% with you in this issue. I’ve been pushing for something like this in our community (Ubuntu-ve, Venezuela) for some time now, and have been making reviews in our mailing list of every piece of hardware that has come into my hands and has proven compatible… laptops, mobile broadband USB dongles, printers, wireless chips, tv tuner cards, webcams, etc., so people can get a first hand info on what hardware to buy. We are trying to gather all this info so we can put it into our local wiki (https://wiki.ubuntu.com/VenezuelaTeam/), and hope to have it ready for February, but it would be great to see something like this worldwide. As soon as people begin buying only compatible hardware, manufacturers will begin to feel the “Pain_in_their_wallets” syndrome and will be forced to make compatible hardware, or drivers for their products.
    Buying machines with Ubuntu pre-installed is a great measure, but many people like to build their own desktops or want to add a pci card, bluetooth peripheral or printer, and it would be a lot of help.

  8. Joe Tennies Says:

    The Broadcom Wifi DOES require firmware (Ubuntu requires b43-fwcutter package), but it is quite stable if you install the backports kernel modules (or choose a distro with 2.6.32).

    Personal suggestion is a System76 notebook, though they are quite expensive. A cheaper alternative, though it provides less support to the community, is to go to powernotebooks.com. That site has the same laptop for less, but no Linux support.

  9. Cody Russell Says:

    I was just thinking the other day how everyone keeps saying the RadeonHD driver is getting so great now, but it’s not really documented anywhere what hardware to buy if you want to use it with that driver. There is documentation saying like “it works well with chipsets X, Y, and Z”.. but then you try to find out which actual Radeon boards use those chipsets and there isn’t any really clear documentation for that and the product names/numbers don’t match up at all with the chip names/numbers.

    I don’t work in the video game industry anymore, and I don’t want to follow which boards use which 3d chips now. I want to know what to buy on Amazon. :)

  10. sil Says:

    Dave: never, ever had a problem with my M1330, including upgrades. I admit that the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”, though :) I don’t know what their newer laptops are like, though.

  11. stormy Says:

    I’ve decided next time I buy a desktop I’m going to buy it from one of the companies that work really closely with Linux like System76 and ZaReason. That way hopefully everything will just work without taking days of my time …

  12. Kosta Says:

    I never buy hardware that is not supported – so I make a list of hardware I like. Then I check if there is any support, I check for the best price and here we go.
    Last week I bought a subnetbook that is already with Ubuntu at a price that knocked me of my socks, looks like EU only – sorry. That is the way sooner or later the market will be. As a supplier you offer what the customers like to see or you will not sell. And Linux support /hardware will me a big part in the business cake

    my2cents

    Kosta

  13. ay Says:

    I am exactly myself in the same position (and in france too), and considering http://www.emperorlinux.com/why/, as they maintain their own kernel + you choose your distribution & partition scheme, and based on brand-name laptops to keep full manufacturers’ hardware warranty
    …now I am investigating if they ship to france, and if my time saved is worth the price, but as I am changing my laptop every 4 years, and my friends quite generous for my 40′, I might go for it, but still hesitating; because besides some frustrations at configuring my everyday tool, I gathered a lot of info on the inner…but now I might be too old for this

  14. jorge Says:

    I usually ensure it has an intel wireless card and intel video. Other than the unfortunate driver problems that have mostly been resolved this has worked well for me as a general rule.

    Also I generally start shopping for a laptop early so when I go to conferences I see who is using what, which is why I usually end up with either a thinkpad or hp.

    Also, buying whatever model laptop Matthew Garrett is using tends to be a good idea, heh.

  15. Links 30/12/2009: ‘Google Phone’ Imminent | Boycott Novell Says:

    […] Christmas wish: Distro hardware buyer’s guide So when I go shopping for hardware, it sucks to be me. I haven’t tested all this stuff, and I don’t know how much of it works perfectly out of the box. What I need is to decide what software I’m going to put on it,n and have hardware recommendations per price point from the software distributor, so that I can just go to my local Surcouf, FNAC or whatever, and just look at one label & say “That’s only 90% supported, no custom from me!” […]

  16. Kelly Clowers Says:

    @Cody Russell
    The RadeonHD driver is rather irrelevant now, see http://www.x.org/wiki/radeon#line-32

    also:
    http://www.x.org/wiki/RadeonFeature

  17. reinouts Says:

    For what it’s worth: I have found that the hardware in my Asus notebook (Ati graphics, Atheros wifi, intel audio, built-in webcam) is well supported out of the box. The only trouble I’m having is 3D support with the Free Xorg drivers which should be working with KMS right now but isn’t.

  18. Adam Williamson Says:

    Both Mandriva’s community HCL:

    http://hcl.mandriva.com/

    and Smolt (more distro-independent, but mostly Fedora and SUSE):

    http://www.smolts.org/

    try to do much what you suggest.

    sil’s suggestion is not a safe one, as Canonical are perfectly happy to ship special-sauce versions of Ubuntu with wonky proprietary drivers that make dodgy hardware work – but only with _that exact_ Ubuntu. The definitive example being the notorious Intel GMA 500 / Poulsbo graphics chipset (Google it, you’ll probably hit my blog first…). Dell ships systems with GMA 500 chipsets with Ubuntu preloaded; it uses a very dodgy proprietary driver which is not at all guaranteed to work on anything else, well, see the Google results (and hnece my blog) for the gory details. Big picture: “Ubuntu preloaded” does not equal “unproblematic hardware”.

    jorge’s suggestion to just go with Intel hardware is usually a solid bet with the above exception – do not, whatever you do, buy something with a GMA 500 graphics chipset. Any other Intel graphics chipset (as I write this) is fine.

    The rule of thumb for ATI / NVIDIA is that NVIDIA cards will almost always be fine as long as you don’t mind using the proprietary driver. If you _do_ mind, they’ll likely work okay for 2D with nv or nouveau, but not for 3D. ATI is more of a crap shoot with _both_ the free and proprietary drivers; you can get better functionality out of the free drivers if you’re lucky with the adapter you pick, or you can get a card that works worse than _anything_ NVIDIA or Intel no matter _which_ driver you use.

    Broadcom wireless is another ‘fine if you don’t mind proprietary’ story. Broadcom’s own ‘wl’ driver is available for most distros and supports most of its adapters very well. If you want open source, you need the b43 driver, and if you’re very picky you’ll want the openfwwf firmware for it, which is very experimental and doesn’t work on any but a couple of adapters so far.

    USB audio devices really ought to just work on any vaguely modern distro that includes PulseAudio – just run pavucontrol and tell it you want the audio to go through the USB audio adapter and you’re away. I’ve only heard of a couple of very odd, non-USB-audio-standard-compliant devices which don’t achieve this (made by Creative, I think). All the yum-cha no-name ones you can buy off eBay work fine, in my experience.

    My overall rule of thumb for Linux-related hardware purchases is, simply, buy it somewhere with a good returns policy. That way if it doesn’t work you can just take it back and get something else. Saves all kinds of hassle.

  19. Thomas Jones Says:

    Lenovos with intel graphics pretty much just work.

  20. tuxy Says:

    A Good idea is to become a Phoronix reader at http://www.phoronix.com, they have good reviews of GPUs and other hardware with regards to their compatibility with Linux and other Unix like Operating Systems, their benchmarking reports can be revealing, I found them indispensable when i am hunting Linux compatible hardware.

  21. oliver Says:

    Unfortunately the whole Ubuntu HWDB projects never really reached a usable state, which is very sad.
    But Smolt looks really interesting from the sheer number of existing devices (though the interface is a bit confusing).

    Does anyone know how to get Smolt running on Debian and Ubuntu? I have about five different machines and lots of additional “gadgets” for which I’d like to document Linux compatibility in a central place.

  22. Andre Wyrwa Says:

    Not quite what you’re asking for, but are you aware of thinkwiki.org? A bunch of guys including myself brought it to life in 2004 and i think it’s fair enough to say it has since been the one-stop Linux on a ThinkPad knowledge base.

    I’m not sure about current maintenance status, though, since i didn’t have my hands on it since the beginning of 2006.

    Andre.

  23. Fazil Says:

    Please don’t buy a laptop and install ubuntu on it. Power management is a big issue when it comes to laptop. And ubuntu or any linux distro is least supported. Unless the hardware dealer wants the power management to work u can’t install linux on it. At times it can kill the reputation of ubuntu. Because it may damage the hardware.