The new Linux user's hardware buying guide

What hardware to pick for your Linux system

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Credit: Daniel Dionne/Flickr

In a previous post I discussed how to introduce users to Linux, where the focus was on the software side of the conversation. This post is all about the hardware.

The reason I put hardware second is because if we can’t provide the user with the software they need there is no point in swapping out their hardware. Hardware is always a compromise, whereas software is not.

Once you are fully convinced that Linux and its app ecosystem will take care of all of the computing needs of the user, then it's time to pay the same kind of careful attention to the hardware.

There are two possibilities with hardware:

1) The user want to use the current set of hardware.
2) The user wants to upgrade the hardware

The current state of affairs

If you are going to install Linux on existing hardware, the components that can give you a hard time are the GPU, wireless chips, printers and webcams. The good news is thanks to the work done by the leading kernel developer Greg KH, a majority of new and old hardware should work out of the box on Linux.

Before you wipe a user’s hard drive with Linux, use a live USB or CD to boot that system into Linux and then vigorously test all of their hardware, leave no stone unturned. Plug in every single piece of hardware and see if they all work fine out of the box. In some cases you may have to install additional drivers, and that could be an easy or difficult task depending on the OS you choose.

Once the hardware passes all the tests, you are free to wipe the hard drive and install a distro suited for the user.

A new beginning

If the user is planning to buy new hardware, then also you have to keep compatibility in mind. Your choices are limited with laptops: you have to buy a branded laptop. Today there are companies like System76 that offer laptops with Ubuntu pre-installed. I would personally recommend buying from such companies as it supports the Linux ecosystem and sends out a message that there is a demand for Linux hardware.

However, that doesn’t mean your choices are limited to these companies; a vast majority of mainstream laptops will work under Linux without any trouble. If you love the sleek look of the Macbook Air, you might have to do some extra work, but running Linux on them is doable.

Once you have chosen the one (laptop) do extensive research to ensure that the selected model doesn’t have any serious problems with Linux.

Build it yourself

Everything changes if you are planning a desktop that can do some heavy lifting. While you can buy a branded PC, my advice would be to build your own PC with hand picked parts. This will give you the flexibility to choose the best hardware, while ensuring Linux compatibility.

Ever since Microsoft started pushing for UEFI Secure boot, motherboards have also become critical components. When buying the mobo, do extensive research about the chosen model number and ensure that the company allows disabling secure boot. Invest as much time as you can to find any problems with that model running Linux.

The second troubling hardware could be the GPU -- if you are planning to get one. In most cases, unless you are playing high-end games or dual boot to do video editing you won’t need a dedicated GPU. Modern CPUs come with decent graphics capabilities and if you are getting an Intel processor you are in good hands: Intel has very good Linux support and all of your graphics will work without any extra work.

If you do want a GPU, then Nvidia is a good choice. Historically Nvidia cards are known for better support under Linux than AMD.

The third area of concern would be wireless or bluetooth chips. You can get motherboards that have built in support for wireless and bluetooth. Just ensure that those work with Linux. If your desired mobo doesn’t have these chips, you can buy a Linux supported PCIe card for WiFi and a Bluetooth dongle for BT connectivity.

Latest and greatest

I have a piece of advice for new buyers. PC hardware is inexpensive. It’s a one time investment. Build a PC that will last at least 5 years. Software will continue to become powerful. The services you run on your computer will continue to become resource hungry. A slow processor and insufficient RAM can create bottlenecks, so get the most powerful CPU you can afford; get the maximum amount of RAM you can buy. Don't settle for anything below a quad core CPU and 16GB of RAM.

That’s pretty much all you need to care about regarding hardware. In the next post in this series we will talk about which OS to choose for your hardware.

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