Searching for a Linux Machine (Laptops)

_This is part 2 of 3 in a series of articles detailing my effort in purchasing a machine with Linux pre-installed. Part 1 details the vendors I established as serious contenders for my purchase, and some other great vendors that are worthwhile if you have different machine requirements than I did. Part 3 will cover the final purchase and a few notes about the machine. _

Part one of this series decided that the candidate vendors were Emperor Linux, System76, and ZaReason. As it turns out, I chose an interesting time for this purchase and for these articles. I am going to start with ZaReason’s candidate machine(s), since they are the vendor that got pretty tricky.

ZaReason Verix

The Verix (not the Verix 2 - which just released, and looks like a great machine) was an i5 capable laptop in a 15 inch form factor. When spec’d the Verix ended up in 2600-2800 range, not terrible, but keep in mind that it was slightly under-powered when it came to the processor. During the course of my investigation, ZaReason launched the Chimera. The Chimera weighs-in at a staggering 17 inches with enough space for two hard drives and two graphics cards. When I inquired with ZaReason about weight, they responded with 12 lbs! ZaReason’s customer care was nice and to the point, and they responded in a timely manner to my inquiries (I made several during a few weeks). The Chimera is quite a machine, but at 17 inches and 12 lbs, is it even worth calling it a laptop? Portable desktop maybe? Definitely a powerhouse.

If I were doing the same investigation now, I think the Verix 2 would be my likely candidate for a new Linux Laptop.

Emporer Linux Toucan and Rhino

I have run Dell and Thinkpad laptops for almost 10 years, and most of these have encountered some flavor of Linux for at least a portion of their lifetime. While I like Dells for my personal machines, it is usually because they are less expensive. I do find the thinkpads to have slightly better longevity, but I do not have hard evidence for this. The W520 Toucan and the Rhino M6600 both fit my needs after customization, but both of these were well into the 3000-4000 range. I could make some sacrifices, and get into the 2500-3000 range, but did I want to make those sacrifices? (No.)

System76 Serval Professional

While the Bonobo is tempting, a 15 inch laptop is over-sized enough. After some enhancements, the Serval Professional hits a price tag between 2200-2500, the clear winner in price. I will note again that I was reasonably confident that I did not want to run Ubuntu 11.04. A quick request to System76 support let me know that they would not install any alternative OS, but that all of the drivers had been back-ported to 10.04 LTS, and if I cared to install that Ubuntu release, they were reasonably confident that I would encounter no issues.

Decisions, decisions

After chewing on my options for weeks (literally), I decided I could not wait on ZaReason’s Verix update any longer. I put together a few spreadsheets and some docs comparing the Rhino, Toucan, and Serval. I did as much research as I could on these machines, but most of the reviews are dated and only apply to ZaReason and System76. I could not find any thorough reviews of the Emperor Linux machines in particular - I did find a lot of great customer feedback though. This makes some sense to me, since they buy OEM machines and load linux for you, the machine is still the machine. As I tried to quantify (in dollars) my distate toward Unity and the direction that Ubuntu is trending, I was having a hard time justifying the extra thousand dollars to get a slightly better version of what I already have (a two year old Latitude E6500 running Fedora 14). At that point, I made the decision - I will keep my old laptop around, as underpowered and undesirable as it may be, and I am going to get a desktop.

This decision rules out Emperor Linux, and made the final debate more straight-forward.

Fortis Extreme vs Leopard Extreme

I admit it was not until I typed the preceding header that I realized both of those machines are “[blank] Extreme”. Anyway, they are both great machines. When it came down to it, the Fortis was about $150 more expensive for very similar hardware. The difference was that Fortis runs one generation old hardware (spoiler: which I now know makes it easier to find Linux distributions that will support your hardware…). If I can get the newer hardware, and for a little less, why not? Some of the things keeping the race tight were that the Fortis Extreme offers second and third hard drives. Ideally, I would run the OS off SSD, and keep a standard drive for /home and other space-consuming things. When I contacted System76 about pre-installing a second hard drive, they offered a polite, “No” (they were much more customer servicy in their wording, but it amounted to a no). Yet again, ZaReason gets me away from Ubuntu 11.04, where as the Leopard Extreme leaves me with distro decisions/work.

Wrapping up my epic computer purchasing story, Leopard Extreme it is. After a little searching, and ruling out the constant pull of ‘just build the machine yourself’ (I actually could not find comparable parts for the same price - so it was cheaper to order the machine’s core from either System76 or ZaReason). However, during my search, I did find that a few of the internals and periperals were cheaper elsewhere. I ordered my Leopard Extreme with the i7 960 processor, the default 6GB Ballistix RAM (NewEgg has Vengeance 24GB packs for around 280), the 120GB Intel 510 SSD, an optical drive, and I needed to get the wireless card, because I did not have a line to my office (I installed one a couple days after I got the machine - waste of 80 dollars). I have keyboards/mice, but I needed speakers - the same Logitech speakers were also a few dollars cheaper at NewEgg, so I added those to the NewEgg order. Having a laptop already, I am in possession of one 22 inch 1920x1080 monitor, but this was a desktop, so I needed a second. Another item for the NewEgg order, an LG E2260V. I am happy with the monitor, but the reviews complaining about the stand are accurate - it sucks. I do not feel like it is going to fail, and it does not wobble or anything, but it just feels cheap (but it is…). The screen quality is bright - like most LGs - but I am pleased with it.

All told, I ended up with a quad core i7 960 processor, 24 GB of RAM (and 3 X 2GB of RAM to sell or keep around), a 120GB SSD (SATA 3 - 6Gb/s) drive, along with a new monitor and speakers, all for under 2275. Yeah, you read that correctly. Oh, and 80 of that was for a wireless card, 180 was for the monitor (which not everyone needs), and 60 was shipping from two different companies. It is not a laptop, but I am pretty excited about it.

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