Linux on Laptops: FAIL

In Ubuntu 10.10 on the Lenovo Thinkpad T401s, I wrote about my new work laptop and how happy I was to have it. Oh, how times have changed!

TL;DR

There seem to be some funky kernel/driver issues in recent kernels that have caused me performance degradation at times, loss of wireless now and then, and a general frustration. I no longer believe that Linux is a good idea on laptops (for me) unless I want to spend A LOT of time messing around with tweaks and updates to make things that should Just Work actually work.

Longer Story

I’ve owned many Thinkpads in my day. In order, I’ve had a 380D, 600E, T21, T23, T43P, T61, and now the T410s (wanted the X301 but opted for the T410s instead). I’ve long believed that from a hardware point of view, IBM/Lenovo had consistently made some of the best machines out there. And I’ve run Linux on all of them.

It used to be that a Thinkpad was a fantastic laptop for running Linux. But sometime in the last few years, all that changed. There are a lot more variations in little components that REALLY MATTER when it comes to good Linux drivers and support. Notably I see issues with wireless cards and video drivers.

I believe that this laptop is simply “too new” for Linux. There are a lot of issues that still need to be worked out before things just work out of the box. But I’ve already invested a few days worth of effort into that (trying new kernels, reproducing the problems, etc) and am finding it hard to justify any more. For the same price my employer paid for this machine, I can get something that’s probably almost as good that will run Linux well. Or I can reinstall the Windows 7 that I removed and run a Linux virtual machine on it.

It’s all maddening, really. It seems like I’m faced with choosing two of these three options:

  1. modern hardware
  2. great hardware
  3. the operating system I want

The hard part is deciding which I’m willing to omit. For the last week, I’ve mostly been computing on my personal Asus UL30A-X5 running Windows 7. And while it has one of the worst trackpads I’ve ever used and a glossy screen that I’m not fond of, it’ll run forever on battery and the keyboard is pretty comfortable. It’s nowhere near as fast as my T410s (much slower CPU and no SSD) but that’s okay for a lot of what I do. And, honestly, Windows 7 isn’t hard to get along with at all. I mostly use Google Chrome, Firefox, and PuTTY anyway.

Part of me thinks I should just put the T410s in a drawer and bring it back out when Ubuntu 11.04 comes out and magically fixes everything. But that part of me needs to deal with the part that says, “this is f’ing nuts! It’s almost 2011 and I can’t believe I’m still dealing with this crap! I don’t want to support vendors that make stuff that doesn’t work 100% right with Linux!”

Sigh.

Ultimately, I’m sick of wasting my time. I’m no longer puzzling over why so many of my coworkers have Mac notebooks these days. I guess there’s something to be said for having tight control over the hardware and the operating system. But I already know Windows pretty well too.

Decisions, decisions.  Ugh.

I guess I should remind myself of something I said back in 2002:

Linux may be headed to the desktop someday, but it’s not there yet. Maybe in a few years. Linux is great on the server. So is FreeBSD. I can only see limited reasons for ever running a Windows server. The same has become true of a Linux desktop.

Some things haven’t changed as much as I thought…  Maybe I should give a System76 machine a shot.

About Jeremy Zawodny

I'm a software engineer and pilot. I work at craigslist by day, hacking on various bits of back-end software and data systems. As a pilot, I fly a Flight Design CTSW and high performance gliders in the northern California and Nevada area. I'm also the original author of "High Performance MySQL" published by O'Reilly Media. I still speak at conferences and user groups on occasion.
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16 Responses to Linux on Laptops: FAIL

  1. Pingback: Linux on Laptops: Yeap… | joshkim.org

  2. Joe Zawodny says:

    Linux is a hobby OS. The contributors to linux have neither the resources nor industry support needed to make it robust over a wide range of hardware. The linux hacker only really care if it works the way they need it to on their hardware – everything else is an after thought.

  3. CJ says:

    This is probably why a lot of engineers (Linux/Unix) that I’m seeing now are using MacBookPro’s for laptops. It’s Unix, and it “just works”. Apple hardware (especially the latest gen MBP’s) is great, although expensive.

  4. eRadical says:

    My history with Apple:
    – I was given an Mac Book Air at a company when I entered;
    – After 2 weeks of struggling with OS X I installed Fedora on it… finally the OS I was accustomed with;
    – After 1 month the hinge broke;
    – After 2 weeks I got it back… all fixed;
    – After 2 month I switched to a desktop…
    … finally the desired productivity back…

    By the way Jeremy… why don’t you give Fedora a try?
    For me it works great for Laptop, Desktop, Server, you name it… for about 3 years it’s the only OS from which I do my work on.

    Even I was astonished that my mobile broadband connection worked with a setup like “next -> Voda… -> Postpaid -> next -> Finish”… yeeeeey!

  5. David Legg says:

    The only thing you haev to be careful about with Fedora is that the very latest Fedora is often a bit flaky, leading, bleeding edge etc. So, right now the ink is still wet on Fedora 14. Fedora 13, however is stabilising nicely (and would be a good recommendation). Fedora 12 is completely stable now, but will soon be out of support.

  6. Wayne says:

    I completely agree about the love of Linux on Thinkpads. I have been
    there for years and finally agreed to let them buy me a pimped out
    MacBook Pro.

    The mac is very tempting, but after running Linux for years you will
    find the dog slow filesystem on OSX beyond frustrating. Even putting
    excessive amounts of memory in the machine won’t make it feel as
    fast as Linux.

    If you have money, but a second T410 and give it as a gift to a kernel
    hacker that runs Ubuntu. (do those sets overlap? :-) )

    If not then go back to a T61 for a while and be happy.

  7. There’s more to Linux than Ubuntu (as much as Canonical would like people to believe otherwise). Red Hat engineers who often work on the Fedora distribution of Linux put a lot of work into hardware support, including the ThinkPad laptops that many people in the company use. You should give Fedora 14 a try. The “ink still drying” comment, although reasonable given the leading-edge stance that Fedora takes, isn’t fully accurate when measured against the increase in quality efforts that has gone into recent Fedora releases. Don’t miss out on the latest innovations — I run Fedora 14 everywhere at home now and have never been happier.

  8. Richard says:

    I develop on a MacBook pro…. I have to say, the fit and finish is nice, a little intangible touch that leaves me feeling slightly more satisfied every time I interact with the machine – which is a lot. Same with the OS as a whole – yes, you have to be willing to give up a certain amount of customization in a (very) few areas, but if you’re up to trying things “the Mac way,” for a while, what you gain is the ability to just Stop Noticing Them. And by Them I mean those things and everything else – the OS just plain does its thing and gets out of your way.

    Are there things I would tweak? Oh, absolutely. Can they be tweaked? Mostly, but not completely. Do I care? It turns out that, for me at least, the value of not having to notice my OS outweighs the inconvenience of having to put up with the bits that aren’t exactly how I would have written them. When I was 20 that’s not a deal I’d have made. Now, however, I’ll take that trade-off every day of the week.

    • Tony Bourke says:

      Yeah, I like when an operating system “gets out of the way”. That’s why I like my Mac. I’m with Jeremy. I’m done with Linux on the Desktop. I use it in my server work, and for virtualization (although I recently gave up on Ubuntu+VMWare Server in favor of much easier to manage Linux-based ESXi).

      I’m an instructor, so I’m moving from one screen to two several times a day. That would likely be a nightmare in Linux. And even if I got it working, all it would take is an update to screw it all up. And “try X distro” is not a workable solution.

      I need a platform to get work done on, not a hobby.

  9. Sérgio Carvalho says:

    It’s sad that Thinkpads fail regarding hardware support on Linux. Usually, they’re the safest bet for a Linux laptop, and I’m not used to checking component by component for support.

    I assume you’ve gone through ThinkWiki for instructions: http://www.thinkwiki.org/wiki/Category:T410s

    On an unrelated note: Joe, I’d gladly pay for a windows hardware database as professional as ThinkWiki.

  10. Tom says:

    Life is full of tradeoffs. You’re right about the options you have.

    I’m no longer a fan of Fedora (with its release cycle, the ink is never dry), but I’d try it before you give up on Linux on your laptop. They are the bleeding edge distro.

    Also you should consider buying a laptop with Linux already on it. If they sell it like that, they should be pretty confidant that it just works.

  11. Moschops says:

    Jeremy you’re the third person now I know that has reached this conclusion. I was running Linux quite happily on an old Dell Inspiron, then I started my work and got a old generation MacBook Pro (circa 2008) and ran OSX native for a while, then headed back to Linux (Ubuntu) to try and develop on the same OS as I deploy production code on. Ubuntu ran fine on the MBP but after upgrading to latest Mac hardware this year it was a big fail – slow, horrible battery life, almost useless trackpad, and lots of other issues. So I ended up reinstalling OSX and running Ubuntu inside Parallels which is mostly plain sailing (occasional problems with screen resizing) and I really like the ability to snapshot the VM at will and branch off variants of my dev environment if I want. A colleague has been using Ubuntu 10.10 on a Dell 6510 and has also had problems with network and video and has just installed Windows and is running Ubuntu inside Virtual Box. I’m back to looking for non-Apple hardware to run Ubuntu on (because I don’t like Apple), preferably without resorting to running inside a VM – although I’d probably use KVM inside it anyway for hosting production VMs.

  12. KMSelf says:

    Very similar experiences w/ the T410s under Debian (squeeze).

    There are some very significant problems with the laptop, though by steering around these, I find on balance Debian on ThinkPad beats anything else for real work.

    When switching dual-head -> single, deactivating the remote monitor hangs the system (using the free nVidia driver).

    Wireless flaked after a few weeks of use and I’ve not been able to get it back.

    Audio cuts in/out intermittently.

    I haven’t seen the kslowd issue you note.

    Suspend/hibernate both work very well.

    I’ve considered my alternatives…. I’m typing this comment on a MacBook Pro, which is OK for web browsing, but when I’m doing heavy-duty sysadminly activities (i.e.: my job), the Mac Aqua interface just gets in my face and won’t go away (ironically, my preferred desktop is based Aqua’s predecessor from Next: WindowMaker). I’m constantly switching between various apps, have several tools tied to hotkeys (new terminal, new vim session, new mutt session), moving between workspaces and apps/windows, etc., all of which are much less convenient under Aqua (I’ve worked with Macs significantly over the past 5 years, they just don’t let me work the way I need to).

    Windows is a total non-starter. I use it a bit, Cygwin’s a huge benefit, but it’s just unspeakably bad.

    Lack of transparency of the system, and the paucity / poor quality / administrative friction of MacPorts / Fink compared with Debian (or Ubuntu’s) APT package management is a real killer.

    I’ve even got a Debian VM on the Mac via VMWare, but that’s not fully satisfactory either.

    I guess shaming Lenovo, and showering love on your favorite Kernel and X.org developers is the best step going forward. I’ve got to agree though that ThinkPad is no longer the no-brainer choice for Linux laptops.

  13. Chris Schoenfeld says:

    Been developing web applications on Linux servers for 15 years, ran it as my desktop for exactly 2.

  14. t410s with intel gpu 8gb of ram and samsung ssd.

    The performance excellent.

    Using ubuntu 10.10 64bit

  15. Emil Janev says:

    I own a T400, and I had the kslowd issue where these kernel processes would eat significatn CPY time, and the mouse would not work smoothly.
    I agree that it is a frustrating after so many years of Linux to have this kind of a problem.

    The news is that after upgrading to the latest available packages ( Ubuntu 10.10 64b, actually Kubuntu ), the problem seems to be resolved.

    Linux tpad 2.6.35-27-generic #48-Ubuntu SMP Tue Feb 22 20:25:46 UTC 2011 x86_64 GNU/Linux

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