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I'm looking for a small laptop with a 10.1 to 11.6 inch screen and an x86 or x86-64 CPU that runs GNU/Linux without hardware incompatibility. Are there any good ones? Or how should I go about finding one?

What I use now

My current laptop is a Dell Inspiron mini 1012, which I purchased in March 2010. It has a single core Intel Atom N450 CPU, 1 GB of RAM, and a 10.1" display, and runs Xubuntu 14.04 LTS. I use it for hobby programming projects while riding the city bus to and from my day job.

Applications I use regularly include Firefox, GIMP, LibreOffice, XChat, Skype, gedit (a text editor), ca65 (6502 assembler), GCC, GNU Make, IDLE (Python IDE), FFmpeg, FCEUX (NES emulator) SDL version, FCEUX debugging version (in Wine), NO$SNS (Super NES emulator in Wine), and FamiTracker (in Wine).

Because the buses in my city do not offer Wi-Fi, I often open several pages in tabs in Firefox, board the bus, and read them. Using suspend this way is a lot cheaper than subscribing to mobile broadband.

Why I must replace it

I've decided that eventually I'll need to replace my laptop for several reasons.

  • The keyboard is wearing out: Ctrl, x, and f need a bit more pressure to register.
  • JavaScript-heavy sites make Firefox freeze for seconds at a time. A laptop with more than one core would be ready for Electrolysis come Firefox 49 or for Google Chrome.
  • Like other Intel IGPs prior to HD Graphics, its GMA 3150 IGP is compatible with OpenGL 1.4 only. Firefox blacklists it for WebGL because WebGL requires at least OpenGL 2.0.
  • It's five and a half years old. I worry that its chipset or hard drive or display could give out.
  • Wireless on 2.4 GHz runs fine, but it can't see 5 GHz access points. (5 GHz would be nice to have but is not critical because 2.4 GHz works.)

Trouble finding a replacement

But at the end of 2012, manufacturers discontinued their netbook lines. The closest thing to a netbook nowadays is a 2-in-1 tablet with a clip-on keyboard, such as an ASUS Transformer Book (T100TA), or a 11.6" laptop such as the ASUS EeeBook (X205TA). But I've read that 2-in-1s have severe hardware compatibility problems problems with Linux. The DebianOn reports for T100TA and X205TA mention problems getting basic things such as Wi-Fi, audio, and suspend to work.

I've been XY'd up and down

When I have explained this problem to others, many have assumed an XY problem on my part and recommended other devices. Each has drawbacks:

  • A laptop sold by System76 is guaranteed to run Linux, but it's just too big. The smallest one they advertise is 14 inches. If I bought a significantly larger laptop, I would need to carry it in a larger bag, and I fear that traditional laptop bags are magnets for thieves. Even if I were to carry it in a backpack, I'm still unsure of how I would test-drive the ability to use a larger laptop in the somewhat cramped quarters of a bus seat.
  • A MacBook Air is expensive. I would consider it if I were developing apps for iOS, but I am not. I have a budget of $500 plus shipping and tax to replace this. Five years ago, netbooks used to run in the range of $300.
  • A Dell XPS 13 is both big and expensive, though admittedly not as big as other 13" laptops.
  • A device with an ARM CPU does not run Wine. I occasionally use a few Windows-only applications that are are light enough to run well in Wine on a Pentium 4 or Atom CPU, namely FCEUX debugging edition, FamiTracker, and No$sns.
  • A 10 inch laptop (or tablet with clip-on keyboard) running Android would impose a window management policy of all maximized all the time, which is inconvenient because opening a calculator app will make my source code disappear and vice versa. (Android Nougat might change this.) I've used a GNU toolchain on Windows (MinGW + MSYS) and on GNU/Linux but lack experience with a GNU toolchain on Android.
  • A Chromebook with Chrome OS cannot run most of these applications. As far as I can tell, they would need to be rewritten from scratch in JavaScript as Chrome apps. A Chromebook with Crouton begs the user to press space to reenable OS verification (which wipes the drive) every time it turns on. I'm told tools by John Lewis can remove this verification warning from the bootloader, but I assume they void the manufacturer's warranty, and I've had to use my current laptop's warranty before on a loose power jack.
  • I could buy a laptop whose suspend is known not to work and then just shut it all the way down every time. People tell me that SSDs make this practical nowadays. But this would break opening pages in Firefox tabs to read them later. Once I "Restore Previous Session", Firefox restores the URLs, but the content of each page is replaced with "Problem loading page" because I am offline when I board the bus. This means I would have to subscribe to mobile broadband. The price difference between my current flip phone plan and a smartphone data plan allowing tethering would likely exceed my budget.
  • The Transformer Book and EeeBook run Windows well. All the applications I use would work equally well in Windows. But I've read that Windows 10 will continue to spy on me even if I turn off Cortana and live tiles. Nor do I want to lose my Linux skills.
  • I could buy a desktop PC and access it through remote desktop from a Chromebook, Android device, etc. But then I would again have to subscribe to mobile broadband.
  • 1
    It's very hard to find hardware incompatibility issues with popular Linux flavours. – AStopher Oct 28 '15 at 17:12
  • 5ghz is the tricky thing here . Not widely supported on low end gear. Also, any specific distro? I know fedora works mostly out of the box on my stream 11 (and since its a pretty stock bay trail platform, any similar system should work) but fedora didn't need me to turn off secure boot. – Journeyman Geek Oct 29 '15 at 8:02
  • @JourneymanGeek I've clarified that 5 GHz is not a requirement. Currently I use Xubuntu (Ubuntu with Xfce desktop). Unlike Ubuntu, Fedora refuses to package FCEUX or other console emulators, even if free software that runs in those emulators exists. A user on Fedora's legal list told me this is because Red Hat doesn't want to incur the trial costs of a substantial noninfringing use defense citing Sony v. Connectix. – Damian Yerrick Oct 29 '15 at 14:41
  • Does the version of ubuntu you use play well with secureboot based systems? – Journeyman Geek Oct 29 '15 at 14:44
  • @JourneymanGeek Ubuntu uses Shim to load GRUB, and there's a linux-signed-image-generic package, whatever that means. Are you planning to recommend a device whose manufacturer has locked out the owner from configuring Secure Boot? – Damian Yerrick Oct 29 '15 at 14:52
6

There are a variety of notebooks that are capable of running Linux, and some even have it pre-installed by the manufacturer:


Dell XPS 13- Developer edition

A lightweight notebook, but its 13.3" screen size may be too large for you. It does however come with Ubuntu 14.04 pre-installed, so hardware support for Linux is 100%. It's a bit on the pricey side though, but probably the laptop with the highest compatibility for Linux in this answer.

It also uses the previous (but no less worthy- Intel 5th Generation Core i5 CPU) generation hardware, but however it is the smallest XPS 13


Asus 1015E

This netbook has a 10.1" screen, so it's within your specification. It is Windows-centred, but however an Ubuntu edition is available; this suggests that one pre-installed with Windows can be wiped & installed with Ubuntu instead without hardware incompatibility.

However it does use outdated hardware (the Celeron 847 it uses was first released in 2011), so you might find issues running NO$SNS & multitasking.


Mobile Broadband

If you have a smartphone with a data plan (and it's an extensive data plan with a significant data allowance/unlimited data), you can tether it to your netbook via a cable or WiFi. PAYG (Pay as You Go [prepay]) plans sometimes offer great deals for mobile data (my own for example, offers a week's worth of free unlimited data when I top-up), so it might be worth having a brief look at PAYG plans too.


Anti-Theft

Why not purchase a larger laptop & get a bag-pack? Most reasonably-sized bags will fit a 15.6" laptop, and is not a 'traditional laptop bag' so it is less likely to be a target for thieves (as its contents are far less obvious). Doing so would dramatically open up your options for your new laptop, plus it will last far longer.

  • Let's say I get an XPS 13 and put it in a backpack. How easy is it to use a 13" on a somewhat cramped bus? And how easily would adding a data plan fit in my budget? – Damian Yerrick Oct 28 '15 at 18:13
  • @tepples Depends how large the buses are. Here in Guernsey, I have to sit near the front where there are no seats in front of me to use my 15.6" laptop comfortably, but I've never had a 13" laptop so unfortunately I can't tell you exactly. – AStopher Oct 28 '15 at 18:18
  • bob Wow. You get seats. \o/ I never get a seat whenever I take the bus to school. Lucky duck. Anyways, @tepples, if you've got a seat, and your seat pitch is the same as the one I've got, you should be able to have a 13" (maybe even 14") quite comfortably. – Zizouz212 Oct 31 '15 at 1:17
  • @DamianYerrick The XPS 13 is in fact an 11inch chassis, but the screen somehow has virtually no border. I wouldn't worry about it. – Rubyjunk Aug 20 '16 at 22:26
3

T100TA and X205TA are both of Bay Trail-T architecture, that is not properly supported by Linux yet. Actually they are not laptops, they are tablets. You'd better to look at Asus VivoBook X202E, HP Pavilion TouchSmart 11z or Asus Q200 which are traditional laptops. Also you can dual-boot almost any chrome-book with your Linux.

Please check your final choice against this database of Linux-supported computers: http://linux-hardware.org/index.php?view=computers&type=notebook

I've found Linux report for ASUS X202EP in the database (https://linux-hardware.org/?probe=4d608145e3) and some HP touchsmart models (tm2, tx2).

  • "Also you can dual-boot almost any chrome-book with your Linux." Is this with or without getting a prompt to "please erase all your hard work since the last backup/remote checkin" every time you turn it on? – Damian Yerrick Dec 11 '15 at 14:47
2

I'm writing this with a second hand Lenovo X230 with a 12 inch screen. Cheap, easily repairable and certified by Ubuntu.

The only thing that needed tweaking was the touchpad.

2

I would recommend a ThinkPad X240. You can buy them used from eBay for a very affordable price definitely under $500.

I have been using my ThinkPad X240 for nearly 2 years now and I am running Kubuntu. It works flawlessly out of the box, though I would recommend you install TLP and Powertop for better battery life.

The Haswell ultra-low voltage CPUs have great power management on the latest linux Kernel. Although there is only 1 DIMM slot, it takes up to an 8GB stick.

Also this is quite a small laptop, and the battery life is great, so it's easy to whip out quickly when you need to use it, even if you're in confined spaces. enter image description here

Just searching ThinkPad X240 on eBay yields many sub-$500 offerings. Don't be afraid to get a used ThinkPad, they are built really tough, even the new Lenovo ones.

1

I'm looking for a small laptop with a 10.1 to 11.6 inch screen and an x86 or x86-64 CPU that runs GNU/Linux without hardware incompatibility. Are there any good ones?

My current laptop is a Dell Inspiron mini 1012

[…] I use it for hobby programming projects while riding the city bus to and from my day job.

One of my screens got cracked in public transport, so I understand why you prefer smaller devices. Is this your Dell mini 1012?

Such small screen sizes usually only feature a 1366x768 resolution at this time. Even though you are used to 10.1 you may want to look a bit beyond 11.6 and get FHD or better screens in return.

Comparing the size of the 10" Dell mini with my 12.5" ASUS C302C, it makes up for its size by being slim and sturdy:

Dell mini:  270 x 198 x 36 mm
Asus C302C: 304 x 210 x 13.7 mm
  • A Chromebook with Chrome OS cannot run most of these applications. As far as I can tell, they would need to be rewritten from scratch in JavaScript as Chrome apps.

We might need to reevaluate this list from time to time. The move to Android apps solved some problems but I'm not saying that it solves yours. Containers on Chrome OS aka Crostini though may solve your problem, but it's not clear at the moment if it takes one update cycle (6 weeks), more than a few months or if it happens this year at all judging by how it went with Android apps on Chrome OS.

A Chromebook with Crouton begs the user to press space to reenable OS verification (which wipes the drive) every time it turns on. I'm told tools by John Lewis can remove this verification warning from the bootloader, but I assume they void the manufacturer's warranty, and I've had to use my current laptop's warranty before on a loose power jack.

  1. Yes you can remove the warning. I would recommend mrchromebox.tech's script though as it is actively maintained. To disable write-protect you'll usually find a DIP switch or a screw that shorts a circuit. If your laptop is still booting you can always recover through recovery media or through the script and revert back to the state where your device is eligible for warranty.
  2. In times of USB type-C make sure to get a device with more than one USB-C PD capable port, that should solve this problem. I've heard about loose power jacks, but it didn't happen to me.

Chrome OS Weekly Buying Advice Thread

VictoryGoth posts weekly advice on reddit, at the moment the following devices would meet your criteria, be sure to check that the processor is not an ARM one though:

As I said, I would check 12.5" models too should you go with a Chromebook, you get higher resolutions and better processors.

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