Liam Proven (liam_on_linux) wrote,
Liam Proven
liam_on_linux

Just because a vendor sells laptops with a Linux on, caveat emptor still applies

Some companies sell laptops with Linux pre-installed. However in some cases I have read about, there may be significant caveats.

Some examples:

  • Dell pre-installed their own drivers for Ubuntu on their laptops, and if you format the machine and reinstall, or reinstall a different distro, you can't get the source of the drivers and build your own.

  • In other instances I've heard of, the machines work fine but some features are not supported on Linux. Or perhaps only works on the vendor's supported distro & not other distros. Or perhaps on Linux but not on -- say -- FreeBSD.

  • Or all features work, but you require Windows to update the firmware, or to update peripherals' firmware, such as docking stations.

  • Or the Linux models have slightly different specs, such as a specific WLAN card, and the generic Windows version of the same model is not 100% compatible.


The fact that someone offers one or two specific models with one particular Linux distro as an option is good, sure, but it doesn't automatically mean that that particular machine may be a good choice if you run a different distro, or don't want their pre-installed OS, or you didn't buy it with Linux and put it on later.

Long long ago, in the mid-1990s, I ran the testing labs for a major UK computer magazine, called PC Pro. In about 1996 I proposed and ran and edited a feature which the editors were very dubious about, but it proved to be a big hit.

The idea was very simple: at that time, all PCs shipped with Windows 95. As 95 was DOS-based at heart and had no concept of user space vs kernel space, drivers were quite easy. You could in a push use DOS drivers, or port Win32 drivers from Windows for Workgroups which did terrible hacky direct-hardware access stuff.

So my feature was: we want machines designed, built and supplied with Windows NT. At the time, that meant NT 4.

NT 4 was not at all like Win95; it just looked superficially like it. It needed its own, new, specially-written drivers for everything. It had built-in drivers for some things, for example EIDE (i.e. PATA) hard disks, but these did not use DMA, only programmed IO. (Not slow, but caused very high CPU usage; no problem on Win9x, but a performance-killer on NT.)

The PC vendors loved and hated us for it.

Some vendors...

  • promised machines then withdrew at the last minute;

  • promised machines, then changed the spec or price;

  • delivered machines with features not working;

  • delivered machines with expensive replacement hardware for built-in parts that didn't work with NT.


And so on. There was a huge delta in performance (while all Win9x machines performed pretty much alike: we could look at the parts list and predict the benchmark scores with an accuracy of about 5%.)

Many vendors didn't know about DMA hard disk drivers.

Some did but didn't know how to fix it. Some fitted SCSI hard disks as a way round this, not knowing that with the motherboard came a floppy disk with a free driver that would enable DMA on EIDE.

Some shipped CD burners that couldn't burn because the burner software didn't work on NT. Some shipped DVD drives which couldn't play movies on NT because the graphics adaptor's video playback acceleration didn't work on NT.

And so on.

Readers *loved* that feature because it separated the wheat from the chaff: it showed the cheap vendors whose PCs mostly worked but they didn't know how to tune them, from the solid vendors who knew what they were doing and how to make stuff work, from the solid vendors who could build a great PC for the task but it doubled the price.

I got a lot of praise for that article, and it was well worth the work.

Some vendors thanked me because it was so educational for them!

Well, Linux on laptops is still a bit like that today. There is a whole pile of stuff that's easy and a given on Windows that is difficult or problematic on Linux and just plain impossible on any other FOSS OS.

  • Switchable GPUs are a problem

  • Proprietary binary graphics drivers are sometimes a problem

  • Displays on docking stations can be tricky


Interactions between these things is even worse; e.g. multiple displays on USB docking stations can be extra-tricky

For example, with openSUSE Leap I found that with Intel graphics, two screens on a USB-C docking station was easy, but with nVidia Optimus, almost impossible.

With my own Latitude E7270, under KDE I can only drive 1 external screen; if I add 2 as well as the built-in one, then window borders disappear on the laptop screen and so windows can't be moved or resized. But under the lighter-weight Xfce, this is fine & all 3 screens can be used. And that's with an Intel GPU and a proper, PCIe-bus-attached dock.

But every time I un-dock or re-dock, it forgets the screen arrangement and the Display preferences have to be redone every single time.

Most apps can't remember what screen they were on and reopen on a random monitor every time. Possibly entirely offscreen if I have a different screen arrangement.

Even the same screens attached directly to the machine and via the dock confuse it. And I have both a full-size and mini dock. All the ports appear different.

Linux on laptops is still complicated.

Just because things work for 1 person doesn't mean they'll work for everyone. Just because a vendor ships a model with Linux doesn't mean all models work. Just because a vendor ships 1 distro doesn't mean all distros work.

And when the machine is new, you can probably be sure that there will be serious firmware issues with Linux because the firmware was only tested against Windows and sketchily even then. This is the era of Agile and minimum viable products, after all.

So do not take it as read that because Dell ship 2 or 3 models with Ubuntu, all models will Just Work™ with any disto.

I absolutely categorically promise you they don't and they won't.
Tags: dell, dock, laptop, lenovo, linux, nvidia, optimus, thinkpad, usb-c
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