You Can Take it With You

If installing Linux on a desktop system is getting to be old hat, perhaps you're ready for the next challenge: Running Linux on your laptop.

Opener art

Well, it was only a matter of time.
You’ve installed Linux on everything from your
old 386 clunker to your great-aunt’s PC, and now you’re bored and need a new challenge.
Or you’re sick of being tethered to a desk when
you use Linux. You yearn for penguin portability.
The time has come for Linux on your laptop.

The good news is that a lot of people agree with you. Despite the unique challenges of laptop architecture, Linux runs, and runs well, on many popular portables. Thanks to a concerted effort on a number of fronts, Linux can also take advantage of many of their unique hardware features, such as PCMCIA (PC Card) slots, infrared transfers, and power management.

The bad news is that most laptop vendors are about as enthusiastic about Linux as the folks at Microsoft tech support. None of the major laptop vendors contacted by Linux Magazine would participate in this story, including IBM, which claims to sell a “Red Hat Linux Certified” laptop. Go figure. Of the eight laptop vendors we contacted, the only one to provide us with a review machine was Milpitas, CA-based ASL Workstations, Inc. The Linux laptop market clearly has room to grow. Still, LM was able to put its hands on a few laptops, which were put through their paces by the very competent folks at Linuxcare labs.

The Easy Way: Preinstalled

There are some people out there who get a visceral thrill from installing Linux. But if you’re not one of those, or if your last Linux installation took seven hours and a lot of cursing, or if you just don’t want to screw around with the uncertainty of a laptop installation, you should look into buying a laptop preloaded with Linux.

As we noted above, the Linux laptop market is off to a slower start than the desktop market, and with good reason. When a company develops a knack for Linux desktop systems, they can apply that knowledge across a range of machines, from sub-$500 personal machines to monster servers. The laptop market has a much narrower focus, and of course not many people run corporate servers off of portable computers.

Still, there are some Linux laptop options out there. ASL sells its AS-LT300 laptop (reviewed on pg. 45). And a few general-interest computer dealers, such as Affordable Computers of Ann Arbor, MI, will custom-build their OEM laptop line to your specifications.

Affordable will save you $99 by leaving Windows 98 on the shelf rather than foisting it on you. In its place, you get a very basic Red Hat 6 installation. (See The “Microsoft Tax” and Laptops sidebar on pg. 88 for more information on why you might want to try to find an OEM that won’t make you buy Windows). And IBM will sell you a Red Hat-certified ThinkPad 700, though its Winmodem doesn’t work with Linux.

Though they don’t sell one now, VA Linux Systems is working on a laptop computer that promises to be the standard by which Linux laptops are based.

Rolling Your Own

So, you want to do it yourself. We commend your spirit. The good news is that plenty of people before you have tried and succeeded in this endeavor. It can be tricky, but it’s by no means impossible to get Linux running on a laptop all by yourself. The main challenge laptops pose to the operating system is that hardware changes fast — at a much faster pace than desktop products. Vendors are constantly looking to integrate more functions on a chip, cut power consumption and heat dissipation with each new iteration of a particular motherboard/BIOS combination or revamped display chip, Linux developers need time to work out the quirks and adapt the OS to the new environment.

A Checklist of What You’ll Need

> Experience

> A recent Linux distribution and boot floppy

> The Linux Laptop HOWTO and the PCMCIA HOWTO

> Any additional information about Linux and your specific laptop from the Linux on Laptops page

> Internet access

We managed to get a very respectable installation of Red Hat 6 running on a Fujitsu Lifebook L470 armed only with that machine’s spec sheet, which supplied the needed chip names when it came time to configure the X Windows settings and OSS audio driver. It all worked right the first time, and we were immediately able to play with GNOME and drop the machine into power-saving suspend mode (and bring it back again!) without any trouble or advice from experts.

Your mileage will, as ever, vary. But here’s what you need to know to make sure that things go as well as they can the first time.

The Laptop

It’s best not to be a trailblazer where your Linux laptop is concerned. We recommend buying a laptop that’s been on the shelves for at least a few months. That way, developers will have had a chance to catch up with the latest technology, and the other, sturdier Linux kamikazes will have already struggled through the troublesome early stages and reported their successes.

Not surprisingly, the most important chip changes between models tend to happen with the graphics controllers. They’re getting more and more powerful — some even incorporate audio functionality these days — and that means that you need to give the GUI guys time to cope. Some latest-and-greatest video chips just don’t cope well with the current set of X drivers. If all else fails, try using a VESA 2.0 default driver, which should at least get you a display, if not tremendous speed.

David Sifry, CTO of Linuxcare, suggests that if you find the XFree86 graphical system that comes with Linux doesn’t offer the performance you want, it may be time to look at a commercial X server, such as Xaccess or MetroX. Because these companies are commercial developers, they can afford to license designs for the newest and best chips, and often have support available when their open source counterparts do not. Their X servers can run a few hundred dollars, though.

“You pay for it, but you get the performance you want. There’s a price to being on the bleeding edge,” says Sifry.

It is in your best interest to research the graphics chip and XFree86 support issues before purchasing your laptop. Sifry also recommends that if you do pass over buying a particular laptop because X drivers are not readily available, that you send a letter to the maker letting them know why you didn’t buy their product. There’s nothing like lost business to moti-vate hardware vendors to open up their specs.

Are You Experienced?

If you’ve never installed Linux before, your first Linux-installation experience probably should not be on a laptop. Truth be told, your second or third shouldn’t be either. Because the odds of running into a glitch are somewhat higher than with your average desktop install, it’s important to have some basic troubleshooting ability before you get started.

If you’re a Linux novice but you really need your laptop to be Penguinized, Sifry suggests you head for a Linux installfest — these are events organized by local Linux user groups where people basically get together and make Linux work. Even if you can’t find a laptop whiz, you’re bound to find people with enough experience and intuition to power through many of the roadblocks.

The OS

In general, you should try to install the latest edition of your distribution and also be prepared to apply any available patches and updates on top of that. The more recent your distribution, the more likely it is to contain support for your particular laptop hardware.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to install in one of two ways. Either you’ll have a bootable CD-ROM, or you’ll have a PCMCIA Ethernet card that is supported by your distribution’s boot floppy so that you can successfully install from a CD-ROM somewhere on your LAN.

If your CD-ROM drive attaches through the PCMCIA port rather than a laptop bay or dock station, you may need some help. For example, Sony Vaio laptops require that you enter the following command at the initial LILO prompt of your boot disk if you want to use the Sony CD-ROM drive in your install:

linux ide2=0×180,0×386

Although there really isn’t one best distribution for laptops, many people think recommend starting with the Debian distribution, particularly if you find yourself in the midst of a troublesome install. The main reason for this is that the basic Debian install can be as little as 10 floppy disks. If you can’t get your CD-ROM or network card to work, you can still install Debian on your floppy drive and at least get Linux up and running. You can use this very simple install as a springboard to make your device drivers work and upgrade to a full installation. You can find out how to do a Debian base install from floppies in the Debian installation guide (at the nontrivial URL of: ftp://ftp.debian.org/debian/dists/stable/main/disks-i386/current/ch-install-methods.html#s-file-descs).

Reading Up

You’ll want to know the exact video controller in your laptop so you can make the proper choice when configuring your X Window System. Knowing the specs of your LCD screen is also important. If you can’t get the details, keep in mind that LCD screens tend to have substantially lower refresh rates than monitors, so don’t go overboard when experimenting.

We highly recommend that you have the Linux Laptop HOWTO and the PCMCIA HOWTO on hand, either in print or on a nearby computer. These and other documents can be pulled from the Linux on Laptops homepage. (See the Web Guide sidebar on pg. 88 for a list of URLs.)

You can also brush up on testimonials and instructions for installing Linux on your particular laptop. The Linux on Laptops Web page catalogs a number of these. You might also want to run searches on Deja.com and your favorite search engine for “Linux” and your laptop model number. That way, you can see what folks who’ve been in your particular situation have to say. Also look for HOWTOs for the other laptop features you might want to use (like IrDA — Infrared Data Association — ports, which work quite well under Linux, by the way).

Keep the Network Near

It’s possible that you will want to pull down a new kernel revision or an enhanced X driver for your particular video chip, once you get your initial install running. Or maybe you’ll simply want to look for some documentation or post a question to a discussion group. It’s a good idea to have an Internet connection available during your installation.

Detailed Laptop Buying Tips

If you want to install Linux on your own, you might simply spend a few hours browsing Web resources like the Linux on Laptops testimonials page, and put together a list of two or three laptops that you know have seamless (or well-documented) Linux installs. The Dell Inspiron 7000 and Fujitsu Lifebook L470 we looked at for this story easily fit into this category. Once you’ve short-listed the laptops you want, buy the one with the best price/feature balance for your needs.

If you have a laptop with swappable storage devices, laptop guru Nathan Myers recommends that you suspend your laptop before you swap. Generally, that’s as easy as issuing an apm suspend command from any command prompt. Getting access to the BIOS (Basic Input Output System) is essential since BIOS is where you do crucial things like change the boot routines of your computer and disable USB support. However, some laptops are better than others about advertising the way you actually get into BIOS.

Usually you get into BIOS by pressing one of either the ESC, F1, F2, or DEL keys during the computer’s start-up. You can try whaling away at those on power-up in the hopes of lucking into the BIOS or give a call to technical support. An even better idea is to scope out this important issue before you buy, either in a store or with a call to the manufacturer. If they don’t know the answer, they probably don’t deserve your business.

Look for laptops with real hardware volume knobs and brightness sliders. They’re a dying breed, but they are superior to key-press controls — especially because the controls are not always at the BIOS level, but in Windows, and thus unavailable to Linux.

You probably want a laptop that allows both an external keyboard and mouse to be attached simultaneously, either through a cable splitter or two independent PS/2 ports. Because USB support is, at best, in the development stage, (see The Age of 2.4, pg. 30) you shouldn’t rely on USB input devices to solve this problem.

Make Windows work for you. VA Linux Systems’ Ben Woodard recommends that you boot into Windows before you wipe the drive in favor of Linux. Write down all of the detailed IRQ (Interrupt ReQuest) and memory- address information for the system components you find in the “System” Control Panel. That way, if you do run into a particularly tricky device, you can feed the precise parameters directly into the driver.

This strategy requires that you boot Windows and therefore acknowledge the Windows End User License Agreement, which means you pay for Windows. See our Microsoft Tax sidebar on pg. 88 for an explanation of why you probably shouldn’t bother trying to avoid this.

Web Guide Documentation

The “Microsoft Tax” and Laptops

The vast majority of personal computers ship with Windows preinstalled, which contributes a significant license fee to the total price of your machine. As more and more people look to buy computers with the sole purpose of running Linux, they have attempted, with limited success, to recoup this license fee, dubbed the “Microsoft Tax,” by applying for refunds from the big PC manufacturers who forced them to buy Windows in the first place. Or, they’ve taken the foolproof approach and built their computers from the motherboard up, cutting the Windows-loving OEM out of the picture entirely.

Unfortunately, choices for laptop owners are limited. Because of their tightly integrated nature, it is not feasible for even veteran PC users to build a new laptop from various parts. And Microsoft’s efforts to secure guaranteed license fees from laptop vendors have been even more rigorous than its desktop efforts. Various notebook manufacturers now clearly state that by purchasing and opening their laptop, you agree to the software licenses, and that the software contained in the purchase is not subject to refund. They’ve gone so far as to put sticker-seals on the box and even the anti-static bag, just so you don’t miss the message. Most desktop manufacturers aren’t pleased when they get Windows refund requests, but they have occasionally been known to oblige. But the laptop firms are saying, in no uncertain terms, that they have absolutely no interest in cooperating with Linux users seeking to dodge the “Microsoft Tax.”

The legality of these sorts of implicit software licenses has been questioned for some time now. But since it’s unlikely that we’ll wake up tomorrow in a world without them, for now the lesson is clear: If you do buy a Windows laptop, consider Windows a sunken cost that you won’t be able to recover. You’ll either have to make do with the necessarily limited range of laptops that Linux-minded firms are able to provide, or bite the bullet.

Dell Inspiron 7000

Laptop Dell

This laptop is the definition of “desktop replacement.” The Inspiron is built like a tank and has weight to match — nearly nine pounds, not counting an AC adapter, which adds another pound-and-a-half. The unit contains a built-in floppy and CD-ROM drive and a full 15-inch LCD screen. The ESS Maestro sound chip requires commercial OSS drivers to function. The ATI Rage Pro video chip works, but you’ll need to upgrade to XFree86 or better to drive it properly… meaning it’s best to install a very up-to-date distribution. It has a full set of I/O ports, including two PCMCIA ports and a spare battery bay.

The Inspiron has neither a built-in modem nor Ethernet port, solving that particular compatibility challenge. It’s feature-filled, but you’ll probably want to invest in a nice laptop-carrying bag, unless you’re starting a workout program.

The HDBench benchmark used in these reviews measures CPU, video, and disk performance.

PROS: Great screen

Reasonable price

CONS: It ain’t light

Penguins: three and one half penguins

HDBench Performance: 15,742

Screen Size: 15″

Weight: 9 pounds

Maximum Battery Life: 3.75 hours

Price: $2,400

Handheld Linux?

Laptop Palm

Now that laptop Linux is becoming more mainstream, some have chosen to blaze even deeper trails. The palmtop and handheld world offers a wide variety of attractive, supremely portable machines that some think are just dying for a Linux port. One option is the Toshiba Libretto, a Pentium-based palmtop computer.

Because the Libretto is actually a super-mini laptop, the same advances that have helped other laptop owners apply, although the Libretto is a rather challenging install. The Linux kernel can be compiled and run on a number of PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants), but so far none is far enough along to make them a truly viable mainstream alternative to the default PDA operating systems.

Projects to port Linux to the sub-mini notebook-style “Jupiter” Windows CE machines are well underway, with a fairly mature port for the Vadem Clio and built-alike portables. The Jupiter machines have nearly full-size laptop keyboards, large (640×480) color screens, fairly powerful CPUs, and a relatively large amount of memory (16-32 megs of flash RAM.) One such project is the LinuxCE port. Scaling down a bit, you find devices like the Psion 5, a more compact organizer design but still with a full-function keyboard and touch screen. Based on the Linux efforts for the ARM CPU, the Calcaria Linux project can boot a stable command-line kernel.

Finally, you get down to the small stuff: the palm-sized Windows CE computers and the 3Com PalmPilot itself. A number of CE palmtops can boot Linux, but input is a problem because they don’t have keyboards. And the uCLinux project has a functioning Linux implementation for modified Palm machines. None of these ports has solid user programs to offer or anything near an X implementation. Because of resource constraints, many of these projects are working on custom GUIs, but it will probably be some time before we see the results.

As these handheld implementations mature, it will be interesting to see if software developers begin to move their character-recognition software (such as Graffiti and Jot) to a handheld Linux platform. Such technology is absolutely indispensable to the keyboardless PDAs such as the Palm and the smaller Windows CE devices.

ASL AS-LT300 (Chembook 7400) Laptop

Laptop AS-LT300

The fastest laptop in our review with a full 400 MHz Mobile Pentium II, the Chembook 7400 is another desktop-replacement beast, sold by ASL, Inc. under the name AS-LT-300. Of the three machines tested, we were most pleased with its durability and overall construction quality. It weighs in at about eight pounds, with a 14-inch LCD screen.

Like the Inspiron, the Chembook uses an ESS Maestro sound chip and a similar ATI Rage LT Pro video processor, so as with the Inspiron, you’ll need commercial OSS for audio and a XFree86 installation. Of course, the main advantage of the LT-300 is that it comes with Linux preinstalled, which makes it the most worry-free of the Laptops we tested.

Because it is slightly smaller than the Inspiron, but with greater horsepower and a more attractive design, we’d probably end up recommending it in a dogfight. It’s worth remembering that some of its more appealing expansion options (built-in USB and available DVD) still aren’t thoroughly supported under Linux, however.

PROS: Blistering performance

Linux preinstalled

CONS: Linux doesn’t yet support all of the machine’s features (e.g. USB)

Penguins: three and one half penguins

HDBench Performance: 19,181

Screen Size: 14″

Weight: 8 pounds

Maximum Battery Life: 7 hours

Price: $2,800

Fujitsu Lifebook L470

Laptop Fujitsu

Because the L470 is a slim design, there’s no built-in floppy or CD-ROM, although these options are available in a snap-on dock. The L470 does come with an external floppy as standard and only one PCMCIA port that you’ll probably wind up using for an Ethernet or combo Ethernet/modem card, since the built-in Winmodem is a total loss.

We were pleased with the fact that both the ESS ES1879 Audiodrive sound chip and the Neomagic NM2160 video chip worked with the standard OSS and XFree86 drivers included in 2.2 distributions like Red Hat 6.0. This made installing Red Hat Linux on the L470 a snap. Using the HDBench Clone benchmarking battery, we found that the built-in Mobile Pentium II 366 MHz generally underperformed the Dell Inspiron laptop, although disk access was nearly a dead heat.

Being a slim book, the L470 is under five pounds when not attached to any dock. The AC adapter is light and comfortably portable.

It’s worth noting that Fujitsu has been taking a more open attitude toward non-Microsoft operating systems on its notebooks lately. It recently made a deal to equip Sun employees with several thousand Solaris-powered laptops.

PROS: Audio and video cards work with most Linux distros

Highly portable design

CONS: Has a Winmodem

Short battery life

Penguins: three and one half penguins

HDBench Performance: 14,948

Screen Size: 13.1″

Weight: 5 pounds

Maximum Battery Life: 2 hours

Price: $2,800

Beware the Winmodem

It used to be that a modem was a modem was a modem, and even internal modems would work under virtually any operating system. Not anymore.

On paper, the concept of the “Winmodem” is reasonable enough. Because main CPU speeds have easily exceeded anything rational for the average user, perhaps some tasks conventionally given over to dedicated hardware (like modem data pumps) should be offloaded to the primary processor — it’s got nothing better to do. And since modems would need less hardware onboard, they could be made much more cheaply.

The result, unfortunately, is a breed of silicon boards that look like modems but are utterly useless under anything but Windows 95 and its close relatives. The modem companies and chipset manufacturers conveniently neglected to write drivers for other operating systems like Linux or give away enough details to make it possible to concoct new drivers for them.

Winmodems have become very popular inclusions in new laptops: They’re cheap components to include and eliminate the need for an external luggable modem or a PCMCIA card. Unfortunately, you’ll have absolutely no joy trying to run them on Linux, and if you want to use a modem, you’ll have to bite the bullet and buy that external or PCMCIA-card modem. Fortunately, PCMCIA modems are very well supported under Linux. There’s still some hope, if the modem chipset manufacturers open enough of their specifications to allow Linux folk to step up and write support drivers.

And then there’s the “WinBIOS.” A small number of computers use a custom BIOS GUI loaded from a small preloaded hard-drive partition or through a tool that runs only under Windows. You’ll want to avoid these critters should you ever encounter them. The term “Winmodem tax” hasn’t been added to common parlance yet, but the sentiment is still there: Like an obligatory Windows purchase, it’s an extra expense on your laptop that does you no good.

Jason Compton is a freelance technology writer from Evanston, IL. He can be reached at jcompton@xnet.com.

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