A Linux laptop makes all kinds of sense for a small business. Not only is Linux the most secure computing platform, it’s highly efficient, which means that computing power goes toward doing actual work instead of powering a bloated operating system.
It's also very customizable without requiring a computer science degree. You can install and remove software with the click of a button, and Linux vendors don't lard down their systems with junkware which, as we learned last month in Lenovo's SuperFish Security Gaffe, delivers little value and big troubles. You just get good software that lets you go about your business.
You can always download Linux for free and install it yourself. However, buying a laptop preloaded with Linux ensures that you can have it customized to your specifications; it works out of the box, comes with support and a hardware warranty, and it has extended support options.
You get better quality hardware with Linux vendors; the typical discounted low-end Windows laptop is built as cheaply as possible, and depends on software hacks to do the work of hardware. It's better to spend more for better hardware; cheap hardware doesn't last, and it causes mysterious errors that are difficult to diagnose.
Finding commercial Linux vendors is still harder than it needs to be, because of Microsoft and Apple's lock on the retail chain. Dell and HP occasionally offer Linux workstations and laptops, but you have to jump through a lot of hoops to find them, and you can't count on their availability.
The three top independent Linux vendors are ZaReason, System76, and Emperor Linux. These first-rate shops offer great products and service, and they're the most likely to be around for the foreseeable future. Here's a sampling of five excellent Linux laptops.
Small Business Linus Laptops
1. Desktop Replacement: Bonobo Extreme
Laptop computers make viable desktop computer replacements with their large bright screens, abundant power and storage, and well-made keyboards. The downsides include their short battery life and hefty weight—they're not something you'll want to tote around a lot, and you won't be able to use them on airplanes because they're too big. But for occasional toting, occupying less space than a desktop system, and ease of connecting peripherals (no crawling under desks) big laptop computers are a sound choice.
Figure 1: The Bonobo Extreme Laptop.
My pick for top-of-the-line ultimate rugged powerhouse Linux laptop is System76's Bonobo Extreme. This is a serious beast for extreme audio/video production, database and number-crunching, computer-aided design (CAD), 3D rendering, scientific computing, and gaming. The serious $1,649 base price includes:
- Ubuntu Linux
- 17.3-inch 1920x1080 backlit display
- Gigabit Ethernet and high-speed Wi-Fi
- Multi-color backlit keyboard
- 1080p HD webcam
- 2.50 GHz Intel i7 quad-core processor (the most powerful mobile processor)
- 8GB high-speed memory
- nVidia GeForce GTX 970M video processor (the most powerful mobile GPU)
- 500GB hard drive
It also comes equipped with Bluetooth, 4 USB ports, SD card reader, DVD/CD drive, mic and headphone ports, a solid keyboard with number pad, multi-click trackpad, and a pretty decent sound system, which is always difficult on a laptop because tiny speakers deliver tiny sound. But the Bonobo sounds surprisingly good.
The base system is plenty powerful, and you can upgrade all the components. The 2.50 GHz Intel i7 quad-core processor is more than enough for all but the most demanding CPU-intensive tasks such as 3D rendering. The 500Gb hard drive isn't that big, but there are two drive bays and you can choose from a range of SATA and solid-state storage drives for up to 5 terabytes of total storage. You can add a second GPU, though this mainly benefits hardcore gaming.
2. All-Around Value: UltraLap 440
ZaReason's UltraLap 440 is a sleek, lightweight, fully-featured laptop with the muscle to do real work, striking a good balance between power, portability, and price, which starts at $799.
Figure 2: ZaReason UltraLap 440
The UltraLap comes with a bright 14.1-inch backlit display, Intel Core Duo i5 processor, 4GB memory, a 500GB hard drive, CD/DVD drive, card reader, and an HD Webcam. The UltraLap also comes with multi-monitor support so you can connect up to three external displays (LCD, VGA, HDMI) at the same time.
ZaReason stuffs all of this into a slim 3.6-pound package. You can expect around 4 hours of battery life with normal use. There are numerous customization options, and if you want something that's not listed, just drop the nice people at ZaReason an email and they will help you. The company does its own custom engineering, and it supports multiple Linux distributions.
3. Rugged Build: The Scorpion
Emperor Linux's Scorpion ultra-tough ultra-portable is a Panasonic ToughBook with Linux installed. ToughBooks are super-rugged little laptops that meet the MIL-spec certification for drop, moisture, and vibration-resistance. They're meant for use in challenging, out-in-the-field conditions.
The Scorpion has a 12.5-inch convertible touchscreen, Intel Core Duo i5 CPU, 4GB memory, and a 500GB hard drive. It comes with Gigabit Ethernet, high-speed wireless, Bluetooth, a webcam, and a full-size keyboard. The usual customizations are available, plus the choice between a touchscreen and a digitizer screen that recognizes your handwriting.
Figure 3: The Scorpion ultra-tough convertible laptop.
These little notebooks are not cheap, starting at $2,550, but they're designed to withstand environments that would wreak havoc on a standard laptop. They have a three-year warranty, and Emperor Linux is one of the few Linux vendors that build dual-boot systems with Windows and Linux.
4. Budget Desktop Replacement: Kudu and Strata
The Bonobo Extreme is a super-duper hotrod with a price tag to match, so what if you like the large screen but don't need all that power? The Kudu Professional from System76 starts at $849 and delivers plenty of bang for the buck. In its base configuration you get:
- Intel dual-core i5 CPU
- 4GB memory
- 500GB hard drive
- 17.3-inch 1920x1080 LED backlit display
- Backlit keyboard with number pad
- Multi-touch clickpad
- 1080p HD webcam
- Good sound system
And you also get the usual complement of USB ports, high-speed Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, SD card reader, and CD/DVD. The Kudu weighs a couple of pounds less than the Bonobo and has fewer expansion options. The base configuration is plenty capable for word processing, spreadsheets, software development, photo editing, and lighter-weight audio and video processing.
ZaReason's Strata has a 15.6-inch screen, Intel i3 dual-core CPU, 500MB hard drive, CD/DVD, 4GB RAM, multi-monitor support, and a good sturdy keyboard with a number pad. If you don't need a giant 17.6-inch screen, then the Strata is a great buy at $699. Like all ZaReason computers, the company can customized the Strata to your specs.
Android Devices and Chromebooks
What about Android devices and Chromebooks? Both are Linux-based, and both are owned and rigidly controlled by Google. One of the reasons to embrace Linux is to have control of your own computers and do what you want with them. Android and Chrome OS don't want that.
The ASUS Memopad with Fintie keyboard.
Both introduce two more computing platforms that do not support Linux or Windows applications, and are only partly-compatible with each other. They're really designed as "consumption" devices, that is, they let people consume online media content, like little portable televisions. They work hard to steer you to cloud storage instead of local storage, which is convenient as long as you have an Internet connection.
You must also beware of installing apps that are little more than spyware; read the fine print carefully and avoid apps that want access to parts of your system that are none of their business, such as your contacts, email, text messages, and your location.
However, you can use Android devices and Chromebooks as productivity and creative devices, and do email, serious writing, and simple multimedia production and management. If you need a lightweight travel computer, consider pairing an Android tablet with a Bluetooth keyboard. Then you only need to carry the keyboard when you really need it.
It's difficult to make any Chromebook recommendations because the market changes so quickly, but the Senkatel Education Chromebook caught my eye. It's targeted at students, so it is built tougher than your average Chromebook. It is water-resistant, drop-resistant, and has channels around the touchpad to divert liquids away from the electronics. It provides a good ergonomic keyboard and an integrated carry handle, and you should find one for around $250.
I have an ASUS Memopad 8 (Android) and a Fintie Bluetooth keyboard, which is a good sturdy metal keyboard. The whole outfit weighs less than 3 pounds and easily fits in my shoulder bag.
Carla Schroder is the author of The Book of Audacity, Linux Cookbook, Linux Networking Cookbook,and hundreds of Linux how-to articles. She's the former managing editor of Linux Planet and Linux Today.
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