I’ve run Linux-based operating systems on a number of different computers over the years. Linux is widely praised for its flexibility with respect to hardware. It can run on everything from small, single-board computers to massive, enterprise-level servers. And even within the narrower subset of desktop Linux distributions, you can generally find something that will run on an older computer that has outlived its usefulness in the Windows or macOS world.
That said, if you are looking to incorporate Linux into your home office or small business, you should not assume that you can just throw Ubuntu onto some 15-year-old machine that still has a Windows XP sticker on it. Or as Dr. Ian Malcolm might say, “Just because you can run Linux on a machine doesn’t mean you should.”
New vs. Refurbished Hardware
So what type of machine is ideal for running Linux as a freelance worker? There’s obviously no one-size-fits-all answer. In my case, I work as a writer who deals almost exclusively in text. This means I don’t require enormous processing power or storage space to deal with images or video files. But I also require enough power to keep several different applications (and browser tabs) open at the same time without experiencing any noticeable slowdown in overall performance.
As I mentioned in the introductory post to cvilleFOSS, I run Ubuntu MATE as my Linux distribution of choice. Ubuntu MATE is often described as a “lightweight” distribution suitable for older machines based on its stated minimum hardware requirements, which are as follows:
- Pentium M 1.0 GHz processor
- 1.0 GB memory
- 9.0 GB available hard disk space
Now, a Pentium M processor refers to a line of Intel-produced CPUs manufactured between roughly 2003 and 2005. I’m not even sure where you would find working computers with such processors these days outside of the odd eBay or Craigslist ad. And again, just because it is technically possible to use Ubuntu MATE on a 15-year-old computer does not make it a savvy business move.
On the other hand, you do not need to go out and buy a brand new computer from Amazon or Best Buy just to run Linux. In fact, I would advise against such a purchase. In the past, I have bought cheap laptops at retail and installed Linux on them. These machines worked fine for awhile but didn’t have much staying power for a couple of reasons.
First, when you get a newer machine, there is always a risk the Linux kernel–the core of the operating system that contains the hardware drivers–will not have adequate support for graphics and wi-fi. I’ve run into problems with both when using retail laptops. Usually this is only a temporary problem, as newer versions of the kernel eventually catch up with the hardware, but it can still detract from the overall user experience in the interim.
(As an aside, I would personally avoid any PC with a Nvidia graphics card unless it is somehow necessary for your situation. In the past, I’ve seen kernel and distribution updates temporarily render a laptop unable to boot with Nvidia graphics. So to play it safe, I’d stick to computers with either integrated graphics processors from Intel, or AMD Radeon graphics chips.)
Second, most retail laptops are designed to prevent the user from upgrading any of the components. For example, I purchased a sub-$400 Samsung laptop from a retailer some years ago. It performed adequately on Linux but there was no way to upgrade the memory or hard drive without completely disassembling the unit.
My Current Linux/Lenovo Setup
My current approach to Linux hardware is to purchase refurbished systems originally designed for office use, such as Dell’s Optiplex or Lenovo’s ThinkPad lines. These machines are inexpensive and it is easy for the user to add memory or a new hard drive without the use of special tools or advanced technical knowledge.
The machine I use for work everyday is a Lenovo ThinkPad T420, which was first produced in 2011. The machine itself may be nearly eight years old, but I’ve swapped out the hard drive and memory for newer, better-performing components. And while the T420 is designed as a 14-inch laptop, I converted it into a desktop PC for my home office by attaching an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.
Altogether, I spent less than $550 on my total setup, including paying just $230 for the refurbished T420 itself from a reputable refurbished laptop dealer on eBay. Here is a brief rundown of the components:
- The CPU is an Intel i5 with 4 cores. When it comes to CPUs, I find the speed matters less than the number of cores. The Samsung laptop I mentioned earlier only had 2 cores, and it performed significantly slower than the older Lenovo running similar versions of Ubuntu. When you’re shopping for PCs, you’ll see a lot of different types of i3, i5, and i7 Intel processors listed. Frankly, as long as you get one with four cores I don’t think the specific line matters in most Linux use cases.
- There’s 10 GB of memory in my T420. The laptop came with 4GB of memory in the form of two 2GB sticks. I swapped out one of the sticks for an 8GB unit. This is definitely more memory than I need for everyday work. But I would advise getting a machine with at least 8GB of RAM–and in no case less than 4GB. Now, you’ll note the minimum specifications for Ubuntu MATE listed above say the operating system can run on just 1GB of RAM. And that’s true. When I boot into Ubuntu MATE, the system only uses about 585 MB of memory. But once you start running applications–especially web browsers–things escalate quickly. Right now as I’m typing this post, my system is using 3.3GB of RAM.
- Perhaps the most important upgrade I made to the T420 was replacing the existing hard drive with a solid-state drive (SSD). The SSD is significantly faster, to the point where there is virtually no delay when I open a program. I actually have 2 identical SSDs installed in the T420; the second SSD replaced the DVD drive and serves as one of my backup drives.
- The external components–the monitor, mouse, and keyboard–are all off-the-shelf parts you can get from any major retailer. Linux is not finicky when it comes to this stuff.
Will My Computer Work Well with Linux?
If you have any questions about whether a particular make and model of a computer will work well with Linux, Canonical, the parent company of the Ubuntu distribution, maintains a regularly updated list of certified hardware. This includes all Dell, Lenovo, and other machines that support Ubuntu “out of the box.”
Categories: Welcome to Linux