Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Linux Laptops

So, I'm looking for a Linux laptop - nothing serious, but something which I can use as a simple enough desktop and a basic development box. For the most part, I'll be doing the usual thing - writing and compiling code, doing some server/admin stuff, using office applications, surfing the web, listening to music, watching movies and the like. I might occasionally code a serious graphics or math app, or maybe run a MySQL test DB, but nothing enterprise scale (if I do run a MySQL app, it would be to do test a proof-of-concept thing or two, not an enterprise scale application). So, I've a couple of questions to all you geeky folks - one is about the hardware and the brand, and the other is about the software and the flavor to use. Now, first the hardware - I refuse to buy Dells or HPs - I've heard and experienced enough bad things about them. However, the problem is again the price - I'm not looking to pay $1,200 for such a system because I've enough systems at my disposal that have 1 TB of HDD, a few gigs of RAM and tonnes of processing power. I'm looking for a simple regular laptop for the tasks that I mentioned and so far, I've taken a liking to the Gateway M320S Series.

It's not a workhorse by any stretch, but here are the specs -
  • Intel® Celeron® M Processor 360 (1.40GHz, 400MHz FSB, 1MB L2 cache)
  • 1024MB 333MHz DDR SDRAM
  • 60GB 4200rpm Ultra ATA hard drive
  • Integrated Intel® 10/100 Ethernet Adapter
  • Integrated 802.11b/g wireless networking card
  • Integrated Intel® Extreme 2 graphics with 32MB UMA memory technology
  • Integrated 4-in-1 card reader
  • Integrated 24x/10x/24x CD-RW / 8x DVD combo
And it does not cost much - the above configuration is just about $850 including shipping, which is quite cheap for such a configuration, especially given that I'm getting about 1 Gig of RAM, which makes me very, very happy. All the other notebooks that I've seen kinda seem to cost a whole lot more. I really wish that I did not have to pay for the OS, since I'll be wiping Windows off anyway and installing Linux on it, but other than Walmart, this largely does not seem to be an option with any other manufacturers. The most important problem ofcourse, is device drivers. My device driver writing days are long over - there was a time when I had written one of the first graphics drivers for the SiS 6215c graphics card simply because I could not find one. Or when I was asked by Wipro to conduct a series of workshops on how to write Network Device Drivers for Linux. These days, I simply cannot afford to spend half my life trying to get sound, video and wireless working. That is simply not an option. If it works, great. If it does not, I'll simply find one that works - I really, really do not have the time nor the patience to write device drivers and run Xfree86 (or whatever it is these days) a million times to get my basic resolution working. Or to sit with ALSA and GtkPod to for a good two weeks just to get my iPod working on Linux. I remember a quote by JWZ, not too long ago - "Linux is free only if you do not value your time". While I do not wholeheartedly agree with that, let me just say that I value my time much more than I value what social/ethical/moral principles drive my Operating System (or my editor). But I'm a developer and someone who is in love with the command prompt, and I feel at home with Unix and hence Linux serves my need best - but that does not mean I will go out of my way to use Linux. Which brings us to my next question. For the said laptop (or any other laptop), what is the best flavor of Linux that one would recommend? Personally, I started off with Slackware in the days when Linux was distributed on floppies, and moved on to Red Hat 5.2 and eventually matured to Debian. Then, I used FreeBSD and Solaris for a while and then kinda moved away from the Linux scene. So, I'm a little clueless on that front. At school, I primarily use FreeBSD or RedHat, but I've been out of circulation on what's the "in-thing" (or the best thing) in Linux now. I've been strongly advised to go in for either Fedora or Ubuntu, or maybe Mandrake - but I think I'll stick with the former two.
Both Ubuntu and Fedora look good enough, but I'm not sure which is -
  • More useful
  • More secure
  • Easier to setup
  • Has better device drivers
  • Is better in the long run
Deep down, despite the suits that I wear, I'm a hacker. I grew up hacking together tiny applications in operating systems long forgotten and harnessing unknown graphical abilities at assembly level in MS-DOS. And I used Linux before most people knew there was a Linux and I like a certain degree of control over my Operating System. More importantly, I like the freedom that Open Source gives me over my computer. And if I need a task to be done, I'm much more comfortable writing a script to do it rather than have a person do it (yes, I know). Then again, there is the case of security - I wear a tinfoil hat (sometimes) and I want a good, secure system that I know can trust. And while I do not GPG every piece of text before it hits my drive, I do use encryption occasionally, as and when I see fit. But I'm also an engineer and a practical man - I'd like to be pragmatic when it comes to my tasks - the right tool for the right job, and the tool that helps me rather than get in the way. I know that a lot of extremely geeky Linux using folks read my Blog (Cray3, PD, Beck, Dosai to name a few). So, now that you know what the hell I'm looking for, I'd appreciate any inputs and suggestions to this end. Thanks, folks!