A few weeks ago, I seriously thought about buying either Apple's latest MacBook or a Windows laptop where I could dual boot between the laptops native operating systems and Linux. In the end, I chose to install Linux on a three year old laptop. This old laptop isn't just any laptop but one of the first sub-$1000 laptops that hit the United States market. The laptop is the Averatec 3220 and over time I've found it just too sluggish for running Windows XP.
This old Averatec 3220 had a lot of negatives going its way for installing Linux. The laptop is from a company that almost no one knows so support was limited. Even Google had a tough time helping me find "best practices" for installing Linux on this particular laptop model. This particular laptop includes an AMD Athlon XP-M 2000+ processor, 512 MB RAM (upgraded from the original 256 MB), a 12.1 inch screen, and both Ethernet and wireless networking capabilities. The laptop could barely be considered "up to date" with regards to hardware, although its exterior is designed well and doesn't look dated like other laptops of the same age.
Before I discuss my troubles with installing Linux on this laptop, let me first talk about the positives. During the past two weeks, using Linux on this laptop has been pure joy.
While the purpose of this home laptop is just to do a little surfing with the Internet browser, reading e-mail, some light word processing, and secure shelling into my personal servers...Linux has brought new life into the Averatec. Boot up time that was once counted in minutes using Windows XP Home has now literally dropped to seconds with Linux. Where Windows XP needed a lot more memory and used the hard drive often for its virtual memory, Linux barely produces a bead of sweat and rarely needs to access the drive. Once Linux was installed and configured, I found that everything just works.
My experience with not only this Linux laptop, but the number of Linux desktops and Linux servers under me at work, convinces me Linux is ready rumble with Apple and Microsoft. I'm convinced that once Linux is properly installed on a laptop or PC, the operating system can easily compete with Windows and the Mac. Those days of asking what can't you do with Linux are simply over and have little place in discussions of today.
The problem, as I already alluded, installing Linux on a laptop or PC can be a hassle. I tried four or five distributions (including Ubuntu 7.10, Kubuntu, openSuSE, Fedora Core 8) and each one failed to load on the laptop in the install process and it was a very miserable time for me. The distribution that I had the best luck for the Averatec 3220 was Ubuntu (and in some respects Kubuntu). However, even with Ubuntu 7.1, I found once the operating system installed I still had problems. I didn't have network access regardless if I was using either the network card or the wireless card. Not having any network capability on the laptop proved to be an agonizing uphill battle for troubleshooting and made it difficult for installing the "drivers" and patches needed to "fix" the problems I was having.
In the end, I found adding pci=noacpi noapic to the kernel call up in grub fixed my wired network problems. Once that problem was solved (only took me three days to figure that one out) I was able to get the necessary kernel patches/drivers/updates needed to bring Ubuntu Linux fully alive on the laptop. Eventually, wireless capability was returned to the laptop and I finally began to enjoy my Linux experience.
Two weeks later, I can't be happier with my new Linux laptop than I already am. As a bonus, I can still dual boot into Windows when I need it (though I found I haven't really needed Windows). The problem though is that I pulled a lot of hair out trying to get to where I am now with the Linux laptop. I may forgive, but it's hard to forget about my experience. It will still be quite some time before I recommend the less computer literate to try to install Linux at home.
Having the difficulties that I did has convinced me that the biggest benefit to an Apple Mac over Linux isn't really the Mac's desktop or operating system. Let's be honest here, the Mac is basically just Unix and the Gnome/KDE Linux desktops are quickly catching up to the whole Mac experience. No the biggest benefit to a Mac over Linux is that Apple has installed the Unix operating system for you. Until more PC and laptop manufactures get behind Linux, Mac will continue to reign in the arena of the Unix/Linux desktop installed on the home PC and laptop. That would make me sad, except I'm too happy using my Linux laptop to do anything but smile.