Laptop shopping: the next level of hell

(or "Why I'm this close to saying 'screw it' getting a damn Apple")

I really, really hate laptop shopping. It's not that I don't like laptops (far from it); it's just that laptops aren't a computing device that you have much control over the construction of the device. I've built my own desktop machines for quite some time, and have enjoyed the process, so handing off that level of control to someone else can be a bit maddening, especially when no matter how hard you try, you never find "the perfect laptop".

JoDee has a laptop that is going on 6 years old now. It's a sturdy HP machine, but there's been problems with it lately. So, I've been looking around for replacement laptop machines. The laptops I've found can roughly be broken down into the following categories:

  1. Apple
  2. Thinkpad
  3. A muddled mess of shit thrown together by monkeys

OK, perhaps that's a bit harsh, but I'm totally getting frustrated by the whole process. One thing that has exacerbated this hatred for laptops is Linux compatibility. See, there's an ever-growing list of hardware out there that is supported by Linux, and most of it is supported quite well. But, there's a continual list of vendors that don't quite support Linux, and worse, have a stranglehold on certain markets of laptop hardware. The biggest offender of perpetuating shit hardware is Broadcom and their crappy network cards. No, it's not the cards themselves that are crappy, but the drivers for Linux are essentially cobbled together by dedicated volunteers who are more committed to making stuff work than the vendor themselves. The results vary, but essentially I'd rather be treated like a fist-class citizen by manufacturers like Intel than treated like a refugee. So, anything that ships with Broadcom is essentially banned.

Unfortunately this ban leaves me with half of the laptop market shut-off from me.

Below is a list of the manufacturers and where they stand in my laptop purchases:

Dell: Whenever someone compares the computer industry with the car industry, they're most assuredly talking about Dell. Dell has certain models that are able to have their network card upgraded (for a nominal fee, but whatever) but most models (notably the models that are sold at places like Best Buy and Microcenter) have a Dell 1397 card installed. That's Dell code-speak for "Broadcom card". So purchasing a laptop from Dell is like a crap-shoot or a research project, requiring more time than it's worth to find the select few models of computer that won't make me want to tear my hair out later. Thanks, Dell! Also of note, Dell is one of the few mass-market laptop manufacturers to ship a machine with Ubuntu Linux on it. Ironically, that computer ships with the same Linux-hostile Dell 1397. Thanks again, Dell.

HP: HP apparently married Broadcom at some point, because there's only one model of HP computer (A Compaq POS) that doesn't ship with a Broadcom card. So that's essentially out.

Lenovo Thinkpad: When Lenovo bought the IBM fabs for the Thinkpad, they must've gotten a requirement from IBM stating that they'd have a billion models with varying degrees of stuff in them, and they'd all be slightly overpriced. Oh, and they'd all look like the Thinkpad from the early 2000's. The Thinkpad, however, is one of the most Linux friendly machines out there, and their reputation for quality is still there. Plus, if I don't mention Thinkpad, I'll get a wedgie from my Thinkpad-loving friends.

Toshiba: I want a laptop, not a 50/50 chance of purchasing either the bes tthing in the world, or the biggest piece of crap known to man. There appear to be no models in-between.

Sony: Moving on.

Asus: Asus appears to have taken a page from IBM / Lenovo for having a billion model numbers, but they do appear to have Linux friendly machines that don't look like they were put together by a drunken MBA committee. Seriously considering this line of laptops.

Apple: Decidedly non-Linux Friendly, but their hardware and OS "just works". Most of the software that JoDee uses is available on a Macintosh. Expensive, but definitely on the short-list.

System 76: Ubuntu Linux pre-loaded. Unfortunately they only do mail-order, so I wouldn't be able to play with the machine beforehand.

So, to summarize, most of the laptops that we've seen are complete junk when it comes to Linux, save for Asus, Lenovo, and System 76. It's great to know that there's so many choices out there, and that saying "screw it, I'm buying an Apple" is becoming more of a palatable decision for me.

I want to be clear here: Laptop manufacturers are losing customers because of their hardware choices. Unfortunately, that sounds like an angry statement that could have been leveled back in the OS/2 days, but for those folks who care about their hardware, and would like a choice, those choices are few and far between. I'd like to ask laptop manufacturers to please give customers a choice for the hardware on their machines, and I'd like to ask Broadcom to please open up their drivers so the manufacturers don't have to make these decisions to solely support one set of customers.


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