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The State of Laptop Linux In 2005 422

jg21 writes "LinuxWorld's senior editor James Turner reports this month on what he calls The State of Laptop Linux in 2005 and says it's a lot better than it was in 2004, but adds - after conducting his own new test to see if any Linux distro is yet really laptop-ready: "What's needed to make things better? Well, the Linux community needs to address the device driver crisis." Turner acknowledges that binary-only drivers are a sore spot with free software purists, but says he'd "rather have a fully functional, if closed, Nvidia driver than a reverse-engineered one that limps along." Overall though he concludes that widespread laptop Linux is much closer now."
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The State of Laptop Linux In 2005

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:18AM (#12175685)
    The vendors currently see enough profit in binary-only drivers; thus, when you buy for that manufacture then you are supporting that plan.

    How would you like to participate in a kind of wiki open architecture development where you can tweak the plans for hardware? When the plans are in a good enough state you could then send it to a vendor to manufacture one for you - don't think it is crazy because this is similar to how apple started. When enough people start buying into this than the scales of economy would be realized. I say that the EE community has to step up and support an open architecture just as the SE community.

    Until that time, vendors will see no reason to give you more details about *their* hardware.
  • by badfish99 ( 826052 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:19AM (#12175688)
    Until laptop Linux becomes more popular, the manufacturers will continue to save money by only supplying drivers for Windows.
    And until the manufacturers start making the investment in Linux driver development, the Linux market will remain small.
  • by 2nd Post! ( 213333 ) <gundbear@ p a c b e> on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:19AM (#12175701) Homepage
    I think the whole point of Linux/Fedora Core 3 not being 'laptop ready' is that he did nothing wrong :)

    If it's laptop ready, it should work. If it doesn't work, then it isn't ready.
  • by OECD ( 639690 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:20AM (#12175703) Journal

    Also from TFA: Finally, I downloaded SuSE Linux 9.1, both the Live Boot and the full install. What a pleasant surprise. Everything in both versions worked right out-of-the-box, sound and WiFi included. As a bonus, the 9.1 distro is a 2.6 kernel, so I wasn't sacrificing the latest kernel features to get hardware compatibility. SuSE also had the smoothest, slickest install procedure.

    So, use that one. What's the problem?

  • Driver Crisis... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by eviltypeguy ( 521224 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:20AM (#12175710)
    The Linux community would address the driver crisis...if it were legal to do so or the hardware specs were available! Blame your freakin' manufacturer. Not developers that would gladly write drivers if they had the information to do so!

    Binary drivers aren't a solution no matter how badly he thinks they are. They're of questionable legality considering the nature of the GPL, and no developer will help you with them given that they're a black box at best.

    I may not agree with the prohibition of binary drivers but I understand why the Linux team won't deal with them...
  • Closed drivers. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by FreeLinux ( 555387 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:22AM (#12175736)
    More than anything else, even more than Microsoft, closed drivers will be the downfall of Linux and open source. First they lock you in and then they rip the rug from under you.

    Drivers are too low level and critical to the entire OS. Drivers aren't like some accounting app that you can get by without. When the ATI and nVidia say, we can't be bothered with writing Linux drivers anymore, but we still won't open the source, what are you going to do?

    See Bitkeeper...
  • by sczimme ( 603413 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:24AM (#12175749)

    Turner acknowledges that binary-only drivers are a sore spot with free software purists, but says he'd "rather have a fully functional, if closed, Nvidia driver than a reverse-engineered one that limps along."

    I would have to agree with this - at least as far as my own systems are concerned. I appreciate the idea (and ideals) of F/OSS but do not pursue that single idea doggedly enough to ignore functionality. No single ideology can encompass all possible situations; open source can - and must, in many cases - co-exist peacefully next to closed source and commercial software.
  • by rovingeyes ( 575063 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:24AM (#12175755)
    Until laptop Linux becomes more popular

    To an extent, I agree with that statement. But I'd rather put it as "Until Linux becomes more popular". I don't see why manufacturers will even bother with a mass produced and heavily marketed laptop with Linux. Besides why would a common person go ahead and buy a laptop linux? They cost pretty much that same as a decent windows or even apple laptops.

  • by Mr_Silver ( 213637 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:28AM (#12175792)
    So, use that one. What's the problem?

    Not sure about you, but I don't really have the time to try every single distribution available in the hope that one of them will work with everything on my laptop.

    He also makes a good point about closed source drivers. As much as it pains people here to hear it, I (as a user) don't really care how the driver was developed if it turns into a simple difference between having a laptop with something working or not working.

    I'll pick the latter any day.

  • by Aeron65432 ( 805385 ) <> on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:28AM (#12175800) Homepage
    What's the point of having a kickass Linux/NVidia comp/laptop if you can't play games? Sure there's Wesnoth, Tux Racer, and thank god Doom3 came out for Linux, but Linux is still missing Counter-Strike, WoW, etc.

    Linux computers can have the most incredible overclocking system but if there's nothing to use that NVidia card for, it'd be better to get a basic graphics card for your coding.
  • Live distros (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:32AM (#12175844)
    This advice has been given before but it is good advice. Try a bootable cd distro like Knoppix on a laptop before you buy it.

    The Mandrake 9.1 on my ancient Thinkpad died and I used a Knoppix disk to recover. The Knoppix worked so well that I just installed it. In the case of the article Suse was the one that worked. This has to be WAY easier than trying to install Slackware. I almost wonder why the author tried that. Well, I guess he's just way more l337 than I am.
  • by stratjakt ( 596332 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:33AM (#12175856) Journal
    The exact same article will be written. And again in 2007, and again in 2008..

    Unless something dramatic happens, I don't see linux ever having anything close to universal wireless support, or support for the umpteen million other specialty hardwares in a laptop.

    I tried linux on this gateway laptop about six months ago. I couldn't get the touchpad working, it wouldn't recognize the lid switch to put it into hibernate mode (or even force a shutdown), I couldn't get the RCA-out to work (I like to use it as a portable DVD player on the road). I had trouble getting sound to work, but that's about par for the course with ALSA. It can be a real PITA to get something as common as an SBLive to work. The Radeon Mobility wouldnt work right with ATI's drivers, so I was stuck with the SVGA driver.

    It's a problem the manufacturers have to solve, the stuff is all proprietary, and they aren't about to open all the hardware to let kernel hackers at it - especially not WRT to the wireless chipsets. There's just not enough benefit (ie; customers) to warrant the cost of a dedicated linux support staff.

    Sad but true...
  • by Some Dumbass... ( 192298 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:38AM (#12175890)
    Talking about video drivers shows how much Linus is not ready for the Laptop. If this is a problem, how much are audio, USB, FireWire, and WLAN are going to be a problem?

    Extrapolation is bad. There's a known problem with video support for the latest 3d accelerated video cards (2d support is there), but that does not imply that other hardware is not supported.

    Having just bought a new laptop and installed Linux on it (to replace an old laptop with Linux on it) I can tell you that audio, USB, and FireWire aren't a problem. There are only so many mobile chipsets and only so many integrated audio/USB/FireWire solutions which go with those. WLAN is a problem, most likely due to the lack of availability of hardware specs (as with video).
  • by jhdevos ( 56359 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:38AM (#12175900) Homepage
    By delivering binary-only drivers, manufacturers can only support a very small fraction of the amount of different possible configurations. Now, since a huge percentage of users only use a very small set of possible configurations, that is ok for most people -- but it makes it much more difficult for someone to investigate other options.

    Practical examples abound: off course most manufacturers only deliver drivers for windows, but also vendors that support linux with binary-only drivers usually support only a few kernels / distributions. Running linux on something other than x86 (such as an ibook) is completely unsupported.

    If you want to have choice in what you buy and run, don't support binary only drivers. Don't buy WLAN devices that can only be gotten to work with ndiswrapper. Support manufacurers that do give code or documentations to the community. And be vocal: make sure that unwilling vendors know that this is important for us.

  • by Rinikusu ( 28164 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:39AM (#12175909)
    Uh, maybe I like Fedora more? Or Ubunto? Or generic Debian? Or even slackware? Maybe I like to keep my machines consistent from my desktop to my laptop, from administration to application concurrency. I've run multiple distros and found it a hassle. I'd rather pick ONE distro and use it exclusively.

    Or, I could just use OS X or FreeBSD.

  • by rdc_uk ( 792215 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:39AM (#12175910)
    The thing with closed-source drivers for cards is; who else _really_ has any business using taht code? Its whole job is to be the interface between proprietary (closed, even secret) hardware, and (possibly open, certainly someon-else's) software.

    It is, bluntly, the card manufacturer's bailiwick to go around writing that interfac layer; and if the workings of the HW are secrets, to be guarded because that's where their business gets its competetive edge, then the source code that buts up directly to those secrets is legitimately secret too.

    The PROBLEM is the retarded method required to get a video driver INTO linux - since when did installing the WinXP detonator drivers involve a recompiled windows kernel?!?

    make the device driver interface to linux one that properly supports binary-delivered (installer wrapped?) device driver downloads, and you'd possibly make the job of writing the damn things easier enough (and certainly the job of installing the fuckers!), that it would not be the onerous (and hence very low priority) job that it is for NVidia and ATI.

    Then you'd likely see better / more frequent drivers, and the closed source nature would not be an issue.

    But no; the zealots would rather bitch and whine about "they're not open source, boo hoo!" and create a straw-man argument for not fixing the Linux-side mess of issue, either...

    Begin troll-mod of sensible but not oss-zealot
  • Good GOD! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by ALecs ( 118703 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:43AM (#12175930) Homepage
    Those prices almost made me choke on my coffee. If I could afford to pay 2x as much for a laptop, I guess I'd love getting a fully supported machine.

    As it is though, my $1000 Averatec works for everything but sleeep; and I know it didn't take me $1k of time to get it that way, either.
  • by Christianfreak ( 100697 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:47AM (#12175975) Homepage Journal
    Until Linux is a simple grandmother-friendly install, desktop Linux is going to stay in the ghetto

    No its going to stay in the ghetto until OEMs bundle it. Could your grandmother install Windows?

    I'm sick of this "No one uses desktop Linux because its hard to install". Patently untrue, Linux installs are generally easier IMHO, one reboot as opposed to 3 with Windows (and that's not counting updates!).

    Software producers don't make business apps or games for Linux because people aren't using Linux.
    People aren't using it because it doesn't come bundled and the OEMs don't sell it because the games and the business apps just aren't there. Until someone solves the chicken and the egg problem there won't be a lot of Linux desktop growth.

    Honeslty that's fine with me. Linux works on my desktop and does what I need it to do. I've also gotten it to work fine on several laptops I don't know what this author's problem is!
  • edge of the wedge (Score:5, Insightful)

    by xixax ( 44677 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:48AM (#12175994)
    If binary drivers are OK, why would a company bother releasing source? If one company can release binary only, why not the other? Under the current attitude, companies stand to gain a lot more than they would with binary only.

  • by pshuke ( 845050 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:51AM (#12176021)
    The story, although concluding that the state of linux laptops in 2005 'is a lot better' than in 2004, says an awful lot of nice things about SuSE 9.1, in spite of it being an April 2004 distribution. And Linspire 4.5 is, according to distrowatch, from December 2003.
    It would be nice if a 2005 test actually used the 2005 versions of the distros (eg. Linspire 5.0 and SuSE 9.3)
    On another note, I do find it somewhat disappointing that Ubuntu was omitted from the test. I recently tried the LiveCD and it seemed very much laptop ready.
  • by Tassach ( 137772 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:52AM (#12176037)
    He also makes a good point about closed source drivers. As much as it pains people here to hear it, I (as a user) don't really care how the driver was developed if it turns into a simple difference between having a laptop with something working or not working.
    Exactly. I have no problem at all with binary-only drivers, on the conditions that the vendor doesn't charge extra for them and updates them as frequently as they update the Windows drivers. IMHO, working drivers are part of what I paid for when I bought the hardware.

    If a hardware vendor officially supports Linux, they'll likely get my business over a competitor who doesn't, regardless of whether their drivers are GPL or not. If Firaxis ported CivIII to Linux, you wouldn't be whining that it wasn't open source, would you?

  • by jbellis ( 142590 ) <`moc.rednelbeganrac' `ta' `nahtanoj'> on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:54AM (#12176057) Homepage
    "The state of Linux on my Toshiba, 2005"

    Come on, even for slashdot generalizing from a single datapoint is a little underwhelming.
  • by clickster ( 669168 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @10:57AM (#12176090)
    Unless something dramatic happens, I don't see linux ever having anything close to universal wireless support, or support for the umpteen million other specialty hardwares in a laptop.

    First, Windows doesn't support wireless. The wireless manufacturer supports Windows. If they treated MS users like they treat Linux users, Windows would have the exact same issues

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:04AM (#12176179)
    The D600 is the old centrino platform. It doesn't have smart cards.

    The D610,D410,D810,M40 and M70 have smart cards. Currently those machines are sketchy getting Linux installed and functioning. Especially the Intel 2915 wireless nic.
  • If only... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by pulse2600 ( 625694 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:07AM (#12176196)
    If laptop manufacturers would make more laptops with LESS built into it, I think people would have a much better time with Linux. Build me a laptop without an integrated modem, ethernet, and wireless network and just give me a bunch of usb and PCMCIA slots so I can choose my own accessories, much like I do with my desktop. That way I can spend less on a laptop because it doesn't "come with everything" and I can expand it with exactly the hardware I want.

    I have an old Digital HiNote VP 700 with no built in modem or ethernet card. I poked around online to see what PCMCIA devices are supported by my favorite flavor of Linux, and I bought those items. Machine runs slow as shit with a 133 mhz processor and Red Hat 9, but at least all my hardware works because I found the modem, ethernet, and wireless cards that work well with what I want to run. I am also happy using generic video drivers as long as I get the resolution I want.

    To compare, I have a Toshiba Tecra with built in Ethernet, Modem, and Wireless. First off, Fedora Core 3 locks up on bootup, so I put RH9 on this one too. Wouldn't ya know it, the modem doesn't work, the 10/100 ethernet adaptor is detected but doesn't work, and I haven't even attempted the built in wireless. But I still have these cards I know work cause I researched them and picked them out myself, so I just shove em in and I'm good to go. Although RH9 was able to correctly determine my video and audio chipsets, I would be just as happy using generic video/audio drivers if I had to.

    Sell me a laptop without everything built in so I can expand it myself...that's the way to make a Linux compatiable laptop.
  • NVidia (Score:3, Insightful)

    by phorm ( 591458 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:22AM (#12176364) Journal
    How about drivers like NVidia wherein the driver is partly prebuilt, and partly compiled to allow working with your current kernel, etc.

    Doesn't that way of doing things tend to lend better compatability?
  • by MoralHazard ( 447833 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:30AM (#12176445)
    Linux frowns on binary-only, closed-source drivers for a reason: they decrease the overall kernel quality if nobody else can help debug them. Nvidia's closed-source driver is fine, until its doesn't fucking work. Then what?

    And this is kernel space we're talking about, so this means that your machine keeps crashing, hard, when it fucks up. And nobody can fix it, except the vendor, who "updates them as frequently as they update the Windows drivers", which means about twice a year, no more than four times total over the life of the product.

    This is NOT good enough. The Linux kernel changes much more frequently and drastically than Windows, and driver maintainers are expected to keep up with the kernel or have their code cut out.

    Torvalds and the kernel maintainers are driving a very particular type of bus, here. People who want to release binary-only drivers are just unwilling to get on the bus.
  • Re:Good GOD! (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Luddite ( 808273 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:30AM (#12176452)
    >> it didn't take me $1k of time to get it that way, either.

    I wish more people considered the cost of time... not trying to sound like a "windows TCO" ad, but how many times have you needed to get [pick anything here] to work and blown a whole Saturday afternoon?

    I love slackware. I use it every day ..but after RTFA, I might just give SUSE a spin.
  • by timeOday ( 582209 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:31AM (#12176459)
    The Linux community would address the driver crisis...if it were legal to do so or the hardware specs were available! Blame your freakin' manufacturer.
    OK, I blame the manufacturer.

    Now what?

  • Power Management (Score:4, Insightful)

    by QuietLagoon ( 813062 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:46AM (#12176628)
    It's a laptop. Power management must work completely and fully, up to and including suspend to disk.

    The only Linux that I've seen that comes close in the power management area is SuSE 9.2 (haven't tried 9.3 yet), but even there the suspend to disk is unreliable.

  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @11:56AM (#12176751) Homepage Journal
    Binary drivers aren't a solution no matter how badly he thinks they are. They're of questionable legality considering the nature of the GPL...

    IIRC there is no GPL issue with the kernel loading non-GPL'd modules, at least as far as Linus is concerned. From his point of view the drivers are simply using a published kernel interface, so they aren't qualitatively different from userland modules from the point of view of creating a derivative work: it falls under the category of simple aggregation.

    The point of view of the equipment manufacturers don't GPL their drivers is the same reason they don't publish information needed for others to create drivers: they're competitive advantages is based on trade secrets. If they couldn't have trade secrets, then of course a GPL'd driver would be feasible, except that they'd never have invested money in developing their whiz-bang technology in the first place, so nobody would care and we'd all be using plain old SVGA cards.
  • by uujjj ( 752925 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @12:08PM (#12176905)
    Remember, it took a loooooooong time for sleep to work in Windows. It was a feature in early releases of Windows 95, yet it wasn't stable until Windows XP more than 6 years later, and even there it crashes from time to time.
  • by Narchie Troll ( 581273 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @12:13PM (#12176979)
    Find a manufacturer that supports Linux. Buy from them. Tell other manufacturers that you are not buying from them because they do not support Linux.
  • by tedric ( 8215 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @12:17PM (#12177040)
    Ever tried to install a "pure" Windows XP on a laptop lately? You probably run into the same problems as with a one-size-fits-all Linux distribution.

    As I mentioned some time ago, my Thinkpad T40p came with a customized version of SuSE 9.1 pro. This is what I would say is a ready for the laptop linux distribution. You simply put the the disk in your DVD drive, answer 2-3 short questions at the beginning regarding the partitions and amount of space you want to use (or simply go with the defaults), click ok and off you go.

    Just like using a recovery Windows XP CD, all hardware modules are installed and configured, plus a whole bunch of usefull applications for e-mail, WWW, office applications.

    I had a lot of trouble installing XP from a "normal" installation CD on my old T21, which came with a Windows 98 recovery CD, and which I wanted to upgrade.

    Of course, the FC3 installer shouldn't just have displayed a black screen. But this whole question if Linux is ready for the laptop isn't fair if you compare an unmodified Linux distribution with Windows recovery CDs explicitly made for your computer model.
  • by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @12:33PM (#12177272)
    That's probably because key kernel developers make a sport out of breaking the nVidia drivers (really, any binary only drivers) because they are "evil". Greg KH is particularly nasty about this. He doesn't seem to care about the underlying reasons they aren't open sourced, he just doesn't want people to use them. Go choice!

    The fact that Linus lets high level kernel developers get away with saying that they think binary modules are completely illegal increasingly convinces me that no matter how great an engineer he is, he knows shit all about managing his people.

  • by harrkev ( 623093 ) <[gro.ylimafnoslerrah] [ta] [dsmfk]> on Friday April 08, 2005 @01:22PM (#12177833) Homepage
    Funny thing is, Fedora Core 3 worked fine the first time on my Dell laptop. So did FC2 in 2004. I guess Linux has been ready for the laptop for some time, just not the author's laptop.

    So, by defenition, if it works on your laptop then it is "laptop ready." Not likely! If a distro is ready for the laptop, then it should work OK on the vast majority of laptops, not just the one that you happen to have.

  • by Pecisk ( 688001 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @01:52PM (#12178156)
    Guess what - he doesn't manage those people and don't care about their political/ethical opinions as long as it doesn't interfere with him.

    About what you whinning about... It is more difficult case than trashing kernel devs who reasonably hate closed source drivers, or company who can't release card specs due of NDA. Problem here is that is dilemma - if you put everything on card and driver do only control stuff, you get very very fast, very open source friendly card, BUT price of manufacturing it rockets sky-high then.

    Is it possible to produce such card, but figuring out how to do it properly for open source? Yes, it is. BUT it is a problem - while open source and Linux isn't significant market, no coorporation will do that. Not because it won't make them money - but simply because they don't care about such small income - even if it is surplus.

    And yes, binary only drivers are evil. Why? Because if you want them to work, you must have something like Apple boxes - where everything is locked down - then they maybe will work almost flawlessly. But in PC world - forget it. Even on Windows those drivers are usually messed up and buggy and are cause infameous Blue Screen of Death [tm].

    And, in fact, industry slowly crawls forward standards and openess - as Windows-only devices (which usually means that almost half of device functionality is in driver) proves to be bigger nightmare for support services.
  • by IamTheRealMike ( 537420 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @02:08PM (#12178314)
    He may not manage them in the traditional sense of the word, but when they are making statements to driver developers that flatly contradict Linus' official policy and he does nothing, that seems to me very poor project management indeed. He should at least contradict them, if nothing else.

    I don't think you know that much about hardware design. Neither do I really, but one thing I do know is that moving things into the driver can often increase performance, for instance texture compression is one obvious example. It's not just a case of manufacturers being too cheap to do it, sorry.

    Finally as to them being "evil", well I don't really care - this is the way the system works. If instead of screwing over 3rd party driver devs constantly, these kernel people figured out an economic model that didn't need patents and didn't punish openness, I'd be more impressed. Instead they try and address the symptoms and think it'll have some real effect.

  • by Whatchamacallit ( 21721 ) on Friday April 08, 2005 @03:49PM (#12179468) Homepage
    Just buy an Apple PowerBook or iBook and freaking be done with it! Run OS X if you care more about stuff just 'WORKING'. You can run all of your Open Source software under OS X! Plus you can run all the Apple Software including MS Office! Install the developer tools, install X11 and then go install Fink. You can ssh into your Linux / BSD / Solaris / AIX boxen, run X11 apps remotely, etc. Every *nix user and sysadmin I run into drools over my PowerBook, it's getting to the point where I have to carry a towel with me!

    Or if you are a GNU/Open Source Purist, put Linux on the iBook / PowerBook. They are the most supported laptops available for Linux. Most everything works as it should even under Linux! Even Linux Torvalds is running a PowerMac G5 workstation (it was a gift and it blows away most x86 hardware), albeit running Linux and not OS X. [] 4.0.1 now supports sleep mode on the Apple laptops w/ATI video cards. Not everything works even on Apple hardware.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday April 08, 2005 @07:58PM (#12182393)
    I imagine they whine about radio shack selling transistors, diodes, inductors, and resisters?

Variables don't; constants aren't.