Linux laptops: should you avoid buying Windows?

Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530C

t’s generally more expensive to make Linux laptops than to make Windows laptops, and if you’re not fussy about brand or the precise specification, you can always find cheap Windows machines at good discounts on Amazon and sites like Laptopsdirect and SaveOnLaptops.

Laptop manufacturing is a high-volume business driven by economies of scale, and apart from Apple Macintoshes, Windows has almost all of it. The big manufacturers can buy parts and manufacture machines cheaper than the small ones, and the cost of Windows licences is ameliorated by other factors. These include payments for including pups (potentially unwanted programs, or “crapware”), rebates on advertising, and participation in various promotions sponsored by Intel and Microsoft.

All of the mass market OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) are in the business of making Windows machines. They don’t create laptops and then decide which operating system to install. You can see this process working when, for example, hundreds of PC manufacturers start to produce Ultrabooks (to an Intel specification) or switch to UEFI instead of BIOS chips (as specified by Microsoft for Windows 8).

If an OEM wants to ship laptops running Linux then it has to find all the drivers and test all the parts for one or more distros. This costs money. Linux laptops also add an extra burden in terms of stock keeping, tracking, accounting, advertising, end-user support etc. These overheads are relatively expensive because of the small number of machines involved. Finally, there’s the problem of which Linux distro to ship. There are more than a hundred, but the choice usually boils down to either Ubuntu or Red Hat. This prompts complaints from people who would prefer Mint or SuSE or, like you, Debian.

So, my general advice is to buy a Windows laptop — because you will usually get a better quality product for less money — and then dual-boot your distro of choice. While you might not like Windows, that’s beside the point. Windows runs millions of useful programs (including the vast majority of open source programs) and games, and it supports most printers and other peripherals. Some day you may need Windows, so why not keep it around?

Novatech or not?

Novatech is a small British supplier, and it offers various laptops with Windows 7 or 8 or with no operating system at all. Its price for Windows 8 is £79.99, which is more than it costs on (£74.77). It’s also more than the Taiwanese OEMs are reportedly paying for Windows 8 and Microsoft Office combined.

Novatech’s base laptop is the nSpire N1556 with a 15.6in screen, 2.3GHz Intel Pentium 3550M processor, 4GB of memory and 500GB hard drive. This costs £384.98 with no operating system or £464.97 with Windows 8. Upgrading the memory to 8GB adds £66, raising the price to £450.98 with no OS or £530.97 with Windows 8. This isn’t cheap but the 3550M, while only branded Pentium, is a reasonably quick processor.

The more professional nPro N1512 with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i5-3230 costs £513.60 with no OS or £593.59 with Windows 8, and might be worth a look.

I’ve not tested a Novatech laptop, and I can’t see any reviews of the nSpire N1556. However, there are a few of the Novatech nFinity 2367 Plus, a cheap Ultrabook. I assume Novatech loaned out a few to get some publicity, though not with particularly good results. It was criticised for its “very poor screen” (PC Pro) and for being plasticy: ComputerActive said the “build quality was eccentric at best”. Expert Reviews concluded: “Looks great value, but it’s a false economy; big-brand names are better for the money.”

Other Novatech laptops may be better, but these reviews don’t fill me with confidence about buying one sight unseen.

A name-brand alternative that also avoids Windows is umiPC’s 15.6in Acer Ubuntu E1-204 with a 2.5GHz Core i5-3210M, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and 64-bit Ubuntu 12.04 LTS for £562.04 at Amazon (reduced from £699.99).

The E stands for Essentials: this is Acer’s “value” line, which has the standard Windows screen resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. This is enough for your 720p requirement, though more upmarket laptops often have higher resolution screens.

Windows alternatives

The Acer Ubuntu E1 gives us the chance to compare prices with the Acer Aspire E1 laptops that ship with Windows. For example, for slightly less money, you could get an Acer Aspire E1-571 with a 2.6GHz Core i5- 3230M, 8GB of memory, 750GB hard drive and Windows 8 for £539. That’s a newer version with a slightly faster processor, twice the RAM and a bigger hard drive for £17.33 less (including delivery), despite the extra cost of Windows 8.

If you want something cheaper, there’s the Acer Aspire E1-572 with a 1.6GHz fourth-generation (Haswell) Core i5-4200U, 6GB of memory, 750GB hard drive and Windows 8 for £399.99. If you don’t mind a slow processor, you can get this machine with an Intel Celeron 2955U for £279.99 (E1-532), a Pentium 2117U for £299.99 (E1-530), or a Core i3-3217U for £349.99 (E1-570).

Note that the E1-572’s Core i5-4200U is fast but not quite as fast as the Core i5-3230M. The 4200U is a 15W processor designed to run at lower temperatures and to provide long battery life, while the 3230M is a 35W chip designed for mainstream laptops rather than ultraportables. However, the Core i5-4200U is a lot faster than the Pentium 2117U, which is faster than the Celeron 2955U.

At the time of writing, the Acer Ubuntu E1-204 was in 61,733rd place on Amazon’s best-seller list for Computers & Accessories with no user reviews, while the Acer Aspire E1-572 was 173rd with 13 reviews and a rating of 4.4 out of 5 stars. Indeed, the Acer E-1 had three of the top five places in the Laptops list, with the E1-570 second, the E1-572 third and the E1-530 fifth.

Think ThinkPad?

Other things being equal, I generally recommend Linux users to go for a ThinkPad, as historically these have usually had the best Linux support. IBM ThinkPads were the corporate standard for a couple of decades, and tend to be expensive, but Lenovo (the Chinese company that bought IBM’s PC division) has an affordable ThinkPad Edge range.

You could, for example, get a 15.6in Lenovo ThinkPad Edge E530C with a 2.5GHz Intel Core i3-3120M, 4GB of memory, 500GB hard drive and a 64-bit Windows 7 Pro/Windows 8 Pro DVD for £398.83. This would enable you to wipe the hard drive and install Debian while retaining the option to load either Windows 7 Pro (which includes an XP mode) or Windows 8 Pro if you need them. The drawback is its 4GB of memory, but it does have two memory slots and is very easy to upgrade. (You can also change the hard drive and the battery.)

There’s also the new Haswell-based ThinkPad E540 range which is replacing the E530.

Technically you might be happy with a Novatech, but the ThinkPad brand still carries a lot of cachet, and if you are marketing yourself to other people — which, essentially, you are — then I think it’s worth having. Or you could buy an Acer for less, thanks to the economies of scale generated by Microsoft Windows.

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