Buying a New Linux Laptop

01/22 9 min read

Buying a new Linux laptop is not as straightforward as buying a Windows laptop. You probably can’t walk into your local computer store, and guarantee the device you buy can run Linux without any issues (not in the UK at least). So you have to do some research beforehand to give yourself a chance of making a good choice.

I’ve been on the lookout for a new laptop after my 2-year-old son, (who is developing a real love of taking things apart) decided to force the hinges on my laptop further than they could go. He succeeded in snapping the laptop in two - you live and learn! I very much want to encourage that curiosity in him, but maybe with things that are already broken going forward…

Thankfully, and perhaps the reason I was a little lax about leaving it in his reach in the first place, was that it wasn’t a particularly valuable laptop. My wife bought it a few years ago and hardly ever used it. It certainly wasn’t old, but it was a woefully under-specced device.

It was a 14" HP Pavilion (14-CE0507SA) running a Pentium 4415U processor, a 128 GB SSD, 4GB RAM, and a 720p TN panel. I still don’t know why a Windows 10 laptop kitted out with those horrendously low specs ever graced Curry’s PC World in 2017. Yet alone why HP even made it?!

Despite that, I had the “pleasure” of making it my main device after my beloved ThinkPad T480 passed away. Well, I say it died, but I suspect that I may have had a hand in its untimely death… I’m a tinkerer (and always have been - which must be where my son gets it from) and I was attempting to replace its dim 250-nit display panel with a 400-nit one. I must have done something wrong because the motherboard never did start up again, even with the old panel. I still don’t know what I did, but much to my dismay, out of a dusty cupboard came the Pavilion.

I was happy enough to use it. At the time I couldn’t get myself excited about spending money on a new laptop, and I wanted to see how the Pentium held up. I couldn’t imagine why anyone would put it in a modern laptop.

All that said, as mentioned, it needed some serious upgrades. I replaced the terrible 1366x720 TN panel with a 1920x1080 400 nit panel I got from AliExpress (and this time I managed to avoid blowing the motherboard… But I did crack the original panel - so there was no going back!). Then I took the RAM from my T480 (totaling 32 GB) replaced the SSD with a 500 GB one and had what seemed like a very unbalanced system!

After these upgrades, the laptop was completely fine for my workload. It ran cool and was snappy enough. It also seemed pretty power efficient (based simply on the fact that I got a fairly consistent 8 hours or so of battery - good for Linux in my experience). I ran Fedora well (although sometimes struggled to wake up), and I have to say, I didn’t notice that I was using a lowe-powered Pentium - it was pretty decent.

What was woeful though and became a deal-breaker was the trackpad, which was seriously lacking in sensitivity, and was just terrible to use. Furthermore, the keyboard, though more than good enough to type on had keys in strange positions, which took some getting used to, and I just couldn’t understand why HP did it.

Regardless of all that, after my son got hold of it, I needed to find a new laptop, and it needed to run Linux well, have a sensible keyboard layout, and a trackpad that worked well.

Used And Refurbs

Initially, I liked the idea of getting a used or refurbished ex-business laptop. I like business laptops, as they are generally pretty decent with port selection, and can usually stand up to some rough usage.

I looked at Bargain Hardware, and Tier 1 as well as Dell’s Outlet store and eBay. There were some decent deals, but I found that they were not as cheap as I’d want for a second-hand device. For the generation of device I’d be getting if I went refurbished, I didn’t want to pay that much, and would just be better to buy a brand new laptop.

Dell XPS 13 9310

The next obvious choice (if you have followed Linux laptops for a while) was to look at the Developer Edition of the XPS 13. I’ve had a non-Dev Edition XPS before (7th Gen) that I ran Ubuntu Gnome on with a lot of success, but I wasn’t all that impressed by the device itself. Not to mention that as an all-year-round shorts wearer the XPS hinge can pinch your legs in the hinge if you open it on your lap quickly! Apart from that I generally hated the carbon fibre palm rests (they get greasy and oily very easily) and the keyboard isn’t great. The one I had originally had a sticky space bar as well, and an awful coil whine. So on the XPS line at least I’ve never been that impressed by the build quality.

The XPS I had back then was a touchscreen 4K model (which I immediately disabled) but it was the only version I could get in a reasonable timeframe, with 16 GB of RAM. The scaling on Gnome was too big, so I bought a 1080p panel (actually the whole screen component) and replaced it on my lunch break. That screen then ended up having a dead pixel or two, but that’s another story.

Since then I’ve come to conclude that 14" laptops are the best size for me. Compact, but big enough panels for my less than great eyesight. I find 1080p on a 13.3" screen like the XPS too small - in fact, I find the whole device too small!

I refuse to buy a laptop with soldered RAM and just two ports, because it makes me pay extra for RAM I don’t need. I have plenty of decent RAM modules at home I can use. So I don’t want to pay for soldered RAM, I want to buy the version with the least amount of memory and upgrade it.

All these reasons ruled out another XPS for me. I wasn’t sure of the build quality, or the size, and I wanted a laptop without having to wait 6 weeks or longer. The Developer Edition would have taken at least that long to ship!

Lenovo T14 Gen 2

Next, I looked at an almost-like-for-like replacement for my T480. It turns out Lenovo changed the naming scheme on the T series, and it turned out to not really be a like-for-like replacement either.

The T14 now has soldered RAM! The T480 was such a great device because of how simple it was to upgrade. What’s the point of a 14" T Series ThinkPad if Lenovo is going to solder the RAM? They’re not going for XPS 13 levels of thinness, so I don’t understand.

Based on that, this ruled out the T14. Although, the bezels may have played a part too… So big for a laptop in 2022.

Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9

Sticking with ThinkPads, I moved on to assess the X1 Carbon, which does look like a great device. I’d read somewhere that the X1 Carbon is a device that Red Hat offers employees - so it should run Linux well.

The issue was the only ones Lenovo had in stock were 8GB models, and the Carbon has always had soldered RAM. I’ve already mentioned I’m not spending this much money on a non-upgradeable ThinkPad. Especially when, when fully configured it came in at nearly £2,000.

Dell XPS 15 9510

After watching an LTT review on the Dell XPS 15, followed by a MobileTechTips, much to my surprise, I realised it had upgradeable RAM.

Reports of Linux running well were patchy however and it wasn’t an Ubuntu Certified device like the XPS 13. It’s also just a bigger XPS 13 in my opinion, and that means many of the same things I don’t like about the XPS 13. I was tempted to give it a try mainly because of the bright 500 nits 1920 x 1200 screen, but I didn’t want to get stuck with it.

HP EliteBook 840 G8

The final stop in my laptop research mission was a business laptop. The HP EliteBook.

It ticked all my boxes:

I watched some reviews on YouTube and read some on NoteBook Check and also looked at the service manual and some videos HP makes available on how to replace certain parts.

I managed to find an 11th Gen Intel i5 version on Amazon for £300 cheaper than HP’s store, so purchased it. I bought it knowing it had the lower brightness (250 nits) screen, but as I’ve done before I thought I’d just buy a brighter replacement panel and put that in. It took me a few days to track down a list of 400 nit panels that HP put in their EliteBooks, but unfortunately, I failed to find anyone, anywhere who could supply the exact 400 nit panel I needed.

What I’ve found is that most panel merchants don’t like to guarantee the model, and might send you a compatible (but lower nit) version instead. I didn’t want to risk it, so returned the device to Amazon, and got the Intel i7 version with a 400 nit panel from eBuyer.

I’ve been using it ever since, and it is an excellent device for Linux. Fedora runs like a dream on it, the touchpad is superb, the keyboard is great, and I’m very happy with it.

There was one hiccup though when a few months in, the screen developed some burn-in issues! I could see the contents of previous windows still on the screen faintly. I eventually had to send it off, and I was without it for 3 months due to parts getting delayed.

Whilst I waited I didn’t have a spare laptop so ended up buying a Dell XPS 15 to return it once I received my EliteBook back. Everything I thought would be a problem with the XPS 15 was… and so I did indeed return it to Amazon!

Here’s the full specification for the Elitebook I ended up buying and to confirm it’s running Fedora 35 as of writing.

Hardware Model
Processor Intel 11th Gen i7-1165G7
Graphics Intel XE Graphics
Memory 8 GB upgraded to 32 GB
Disk 512 GB

So, if you’re on the market for a new laptop to run Linux on (well Fedora), then I highly recommend an EliteBook.

Thanks for reading.

About

I'm a technology professional who's been passionate about computers since my Grandad introduced me to an Intel 386 back in the 90s when I was a kid. Those moments inspired a passion within for technology, and I've been playing around with anything with a circuit board ever since. Whenever I have a moment you can probably find me working on something computer-related, and this is where I like to write about those moments.