Linux on your laptop: look before you leap

Users who do their computing on the go should do some research before installing Linux on their laptop computers. Desktop PC users these days can set up Linux on their machines with no more than a few mouse clicks, and rightfully expect the software to run without problem. But the partnership between the cost-free operating system Linux and laptop computers is marked by a variety of niggling problems.

Missing drivers are the main culprits.
Driver incompatibilities are less catastrophic for a PC than for a laptop computer. Whereas swapping out a non-compatible graphics card is a fairly easy operation for desktop PC users, it can be a difficult and costly

procedure for laptop users—if it is possible at all.

So users should fully investigate all compatibilities before purchasing Linux. One way to do this is by using the information resources available online. Among the many sites that focus on installation of Linux on mobile end user devices are www.mobilix.org and www.linux-laptop.net.

Most distributors—the term for companies that produce versions of the Linux operation system—provide all necessary information as well. “Our coworkers in support have access to user information

about whether a specific hardware component is or is not supported,” says Boris Nalbach, Technical Director for the distributor SuSE, based in Nuremberg, Germany.

“Problems in the use of Linux on laptops tend to emerge from things like sound cards,” says Mirko Doelle, Editor at Linux Magazine. To get sound from a stricken computer, the user should try downloading general-use drivers that have been created by Linux

developers, he indicates. But this doesn’t always help, either.

While a user might be able to do without sound on a laptop, a non-functioning modem can quickly become a problem. “Built-in modems often won’t work with Linux,” says Thomas Uhl, a board member of the Linux association Live. According to Doelle, the information that Linux developers would need to program appropriate drivers are usually considered to be “strictly confidential” by hardware manufacturers and as such non-shareable.

Even display drivers can sometimes be a problem for Linux fans who use laptops, says Thomas Uhl from Live. If the computer and the operating system are unable to communicate properly, the images on screen may appear distorted. When it comes to graphics, laptop users running Linux should abstain from particularly exotic devices, Doelle recommends. Common graphics chips from Nvidia, Radeon, and ATI generally run fine, however. “3D is only possible with the chips from Radeon and Nvidia, however,” says Doelle.

In terms of port functionality, Doelle sees few bumps in the road: FireWire and USB work without problem. The infrared IrDA port only works with limited functionality, however. “IrDA will usually work only in its slow mode on a laptop running Linux,” Doelle says.

PCMCIA controllers, however, should have no difficulty performing their function on mobile Linux machines. - Sapa-DPA

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