Originally Published: Thursday, 7 October 1999 Author: Scott Nipp
Published to: featured_articles/Featured Articles Page: 1/1 - [Printable]

Linux Laptops Part 2 - Hardware

Linux is an excellent platform on which to run servers and desktop computer systems. The laptop scene for Linux is not quite as mature, but there are some areas where Linux is no more difficult on a laptop than it is on a desktop or server. Laptop hardware is mostly proprietary, and thus can be difficult to find support for under Linux; however, this area has received vast improvements recently....

   Page 1 of 1  

Linux is an excellent platform on which to run servers and desktop computer systems. The laptop scene for Linux is not quite as mature, but there are some areas where Linux is no more difficult on a laptop than it is on a desktop or server. Laptop hardware is mostly proprietary, and thus can be difficult to find support for under Linux; however, this area has received vast improvements recently.

Hardware support seems to be the key with Linux. Laptops unfortunately have an entirely different breed of proprietary hardware concerns. Some of these will indeed make you hate the day you bought your laptop, or heard of Linux, or both. Some hardware for laptops however is extremely easy to get up and running properly. Processor support on laptops thankfully is a breeze, and I have never seen or heard of there being any issues with this. Memory likewise, although proprietary and specific to individual product lines, is just memory as far as Linux is concerned. Many other standard PC components are supported no differently on a laptop than on a desktop system, and are therefore simple to get up and working.

Video chipsets, for the most part, seem to be very well supported under Linux also, but the display configuration can be a nightmare. Most of the common video chipsets for laptops are readily supported under the newer versions of XFree86, the default X server for Linux. This support for these chips is a big step in the right direction for making Linux a possibility on laptops. The difficulty of configuring video on laptops comes into play with the actual display on the laptop. Laptop displays generally have much tighter specifications than monitors do. These display specifications are typically what lead to difficulties in getting X working properly on laptops.

PCMCIA support is similar to video in that the support is there, only it can be a real pain to setup and configure. PCMCIA support is provided through a separate package, rather than through the kernel itself. This requires the installer to be familiar with how to install and configure this additional software. At least some distributions install this support automatically, and relieve some of this burden. The big problem comes when upgrading the kernel. When you upgrade the kernel you will sometimes have to reconfigure this software package, and sometimes you will need to get a new version of this package. Thankfully, once the PCMCIA package is installed and configured you can pretty much forget about it except when you want to pull down a new kernel version.

The greatest weakness that I have found with Linux hardware support on laptops is PCMCIA devices. There is a significant lack of driver development for these types of devices under Linux. This can lead to a variety of problems in getting network cards, modems, and other common peripherals functioning properly under Linux. The best recommendation would be to check various newsgroups and such for information regarding these devices prior to purchasing one.

The last real heartache for people wanting to run Linux on their laptop is Winmodems. Winmodems are a problem for all Linux users, not just laptop owners. Laptops however seem to use this type of modem extremely often for the one built in to the unit. This forces the owner to go out and purchase a PCMCIA modem in order to circumvent this problem. Thankfully, several projects and organizations are underway to develop support for Winmodems under Linux.

Linux has always been viewed as an operating system for the technically savvy. This argument has been becoming less and less true as device support, GUI installers, and GUI configuration utilities have matured. Linux is rapidly approaching the day in which the typical computer novice can install and configure -- for basic functionality -- a Linux system without spending days. Laptops at this point in time lag far behind in ease of installation and configuration, and still remains a task more suited to the technically savvy. This however is rapidly changing.

Scott Nipp is a Technical Solutions Consultant at Sprint Paranet. He spends his time there fighting the good fight, advocating Linux to his managers and customers.





   Page 1 of 1