New Laptop

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I picked up a new laptop recently, and I think there’s both a hardware and a software tale to tell.

My big fat MSI GX620 laptop — P8400, GF9800, full HD 17" screen — had given up the ghost somewhere between my desk and the train I got into 5 minutes later. It was a nice laptop, but rather heavy and wide. My requirements have changed over the past two years as well. Last time I wanted a luggable desktop replacement that would be a fine development box at conferences. Now I have a twice-a-day train commute of an hour to my place of work-work (doing wxPython stuff). The big fat box with poor battery life isn’t good for that. It’s also a little too wide to fit comfortably on the tables in the train.

So time for something that meets my current needs. I had settled on 11" — the 10" netbooks are too cramped for my fat fingers while typing while 13" is starting to push into too-big-for-the-train size. Needs good battery life, though not a whole day. Must run Linux well. Must have enough oomph to run Netbeans with a big Python project (this too disqualifies nearly all 10" machines). Less than 500 EUR.

I ended up buying at Hettes, which is a Dutch webshop specialised in Linux-preinstalled machines. That seemed like a good ideological choice. I hadn’t heard of a store like that in the Netherlands before. They advertise shipping with Ubuntu pre-installed, but when I mentioned I was a KDE guy they offered to put OpenSUSE on it instead. Ordered machine, got a personal message a few days later saying there would be a delay along with a good explanation why and what the consequences were. Great customer service, I thought.

Only two days later than originally planned I got my machine, complete with OpenSUSE 11.4, complete with a custom kernel (3.0.3-2-default) to support all of the hardware. The usual stuff works (sound, wifi), slightly exotic stuff too (webcam, repeated suspend and resume with just the lid) and the edge cases too (mobile 3G broadband). I’ve passed Lamarque’s comments about OpenSUSE Networkmanager packages on to them and they’ll update the image for another time.

For me, this is a great experience: purchase laptop and it arrives with the software you want (and only that) and it just works. Good support from the vendor.

What hardware, you might ask? I had picked the AMD E350 platform early on. It’s a nice balance. I believe that an Intel i3 based laptop will get me an hour more battery and possibly a little more processing power, but those models are EUR 200 more expensive than the AMD E350 laptops I looked at. At 40% of my budget, I figured I’d hold on to that cash and spend it two to three years down the road on whatever makes sense for me then.

With this platform and form factor, in the Netherlands there’s the Asus Eee 1215B, an HP model (DM1 something), and the Lenovo X121e. There’s a very lengthy purchasing discussion on Tweakers.net — in .nl a pretty good resource for reviews and also Linux compatibility information.

Anyway, I settled on the Lenovo. I’ve called it "Tomato", for the red lid and in keeping with my tradition of naming machines for parts of an english breakfast. I have approximately this model. Everything works, the keyboard is the nice ThinkPad kind, and there’s a TrackPoint (that red knobby thing; I prefer that over a trackpad). I can use this all day as a programming machine, although it would be nice to have move vertical space than 1366×768 @ 96dpi. For display oomph I hooked it up to a 23" full HD LED monitor and ran dual displays. Now that’s cooking with gas! The Radeon 6310 onboard will give me all the wobbly windows I want. It also gets five and a half hours of battery under normal use (e.g. coding in vi and kate, running MySQL queries and using ogg123 as a music player).

This particular machine came with a 3G modem on-board, which is something extra useful for train commutes (or when I’m visiting customers in remote corners of the country like Amsterdam). Like I mentioned elsewhere, the OpenSUSE packages need a little work, but then it seems to work just fine. It did take me ages to find out where the SIM slot was. Well-hidden on page 94 of the user guide. Well, actually it was behind the battery, one of two nondescript slots in there, and it’s just about possible to insert and remove the SIM card without tweezers.

To sum up: enthusiasm! You can get a Linux laptop in the Netherlands with good hardware that also just works.