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I've never actually used Linux, but I've heard a lot of good things about it. In particular, I want to learn more about computers so I've decided to buy a laptop and install Linux.
What is the best laptop to buy, or doesn't it matter? I don't have a lot of money, so before buying I want to do my research.
You should watch out for two things, network cards (wifi or ethernet) and video card drivers. Most other things would be supported under Linux. Most people here will suggest that going with Nvidia is the best choice since their drivers are much easier to install than ATI's driver.
For wifi cards, please search the HCL section of the site and else where on the internet and then buy a laptop with those cards.
Alternatively you can forget the in-built wifi card and go for pcmcia based network cards. There's info on that too on this site and else on the net.
Some of the bleeding edge laptops may have hardware that could be a little more challenging to get working on Linux unless buy one made for Linux like a System76, LinuxCertified or something. I have also heard good things about running Linux on Lenovo/IBM laptops. If you don't have a lot of money you may want to try a use or refurbished IBM or DELL laptop. I have an old DELL C600 with 850Mhz processor, and 256 meg of RAM. I have run several different flavors of Linux on it. I have found that the Debian based distros, such as Ubuntu/Kubunto or Mepis work well on it. They seem to run quite a bit faster than SUSE or Fedora.
Processor: you don't seem to want something bleeding-edge and expensive, so there should be no problem. Changing frequency (to save power) on my Pentium M works all right - that's what I can say for sure.
Memory: I do not see any method of finding problem there. Well, it theoretically can be corrupted, but it is not OS problem - it's warranty problem.
Note that memory amount is often more important for performance you get than processor..
HDD: you will take IDE drive, right? I think it is safe, unless drive is faulty..
Video card: middle-tricky part. You will get nearly any up and running (in native LCD resolution). But: better if resolution is 1024x768 or 1280x1024 (something standard) - it makes things simpler. You may also want 3D acceleration. Intel (usually integrated): open-source vendor driver. Do not use it... But it made easier to make open-source independent driver. Do not take new model - or just wait a couple of months - and you get 3D. I have 915GM - now it is OK, I also know 945GM is run by Ubuntu with absolutely no problem. ATI: open-source third-party driver; or sometimes hanging binary vendor driver. It is thought to work normally with open-source drivers. NVidia: mostly binary vendor drivers, I last dealt with it on desktop years ago, and they simply worked. I heard there were some problems after that, not sure about current state.
Ethernet card: I guess most just work without problems. I have Intel.
Audio card: I don't know exactly, I think it is not main concern, I have some Intel.
Wireless: I have Broadcom-based and there is no stable open-source driver. I failed to make ndiswrapper work also, but maybe it's my fault. Intel is known to ship Linux drivers. But it is thing you should look at.
Also, what about Hardware Compatibility List here, or www.linux-on-laptops.com or tuxmobil.org ? On the last two sites you can just pick a new model that already has positive experience (but when buying, check that wireless card is the same - if you need it - and maybe everything else also should be checked)
I suggest nVidia graphics. For wireless NIC, I suggest from Atheros, but I read that it has best support in Linux and I do not have a notebook that has this brand. I suggest Intel Due Core 2 2GHz with 4 MB of cache. I recommend staying away from Intel and ATI graphics. Do not worry about serial and parallel ports because those should work in Linux through USB. Stay away from SIS chipsets.
The Apple Macbook works too. You can have two best OS on one notebook computer. What I read, do not upgrade the hard drive from Apple, upgrade it your self to save money. Also upgrade the memory your self.
With a used notebook, the warranty is not there and you are on your own of any hardware repair costs. I suggest a notebook to have at least two year warranty. A three year or more of warranty is best, but read what the warranty will cover.
Lithium-ion batteries does have a memory effect, so be cautious how you charge them.
The best notebook to buy is up to you and what your needs are.
Why do you think Intel is a bad choice of graphics? It is usually built-in and places Video RAM inside usual memory, but that also makes laptop cheaper. Yes, it doesn't run Xgl for now. But AIGLX works.
Intel only provides preset resolutions that are only 4/3 ratios. Most notebooks today are close to 16/9 ratios, so the video BIOS have to be reprogrammed every time during boot up before using a desire resolution. For 3D to work, you may have to use 16-bit color. Also Intel graphics shares bandwidth with the memory, so the performance will be bad. Buying notebooks with nVidia graphics fixes all the problems and provides better performances at any resolution and at any color depth. nVidia also provides software to check the temperature of the GPU, change color preferences, adjust for either performance or quality, and set antialiasing.
Well, 4/3 ratios is more often encountered in cheaper models. Reprogramming ratios at every boot is called init script, though I agree it can be a challenge for a inexperienced user to get it right from first try. About 16-colour - I guess it depends on driver no less than on video card, as I have default depth 24 with i810 basic driver and i915 3D driver. About sharing bandwidth - well, built-in card will have worse performance, it is correct. But it depends on what you intend to run. It is no wonder that separate graphics card will give more performance and take more power.