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What's the best way to find a laptop with hardware that is amenable to installing and running GNU/Linux? I'm looking for something that will ideally work with GPL'd drivers and/or firmware.

I took a quick look at linux-on-laptops.com, but they don't list some of the newer models for Lenovo, for example. Most of the test cases seem to be quite dated. Also, It's not clear where to start looking given so much information.

Unfortunately, the FSF website doesn't list many laptop possibilities. LAC, referenced from the FSF website, doesn't mention wireless connectivity as being a feature of their laptops, probably because of firmware issues.

I've been looking for a laptop that will accept the ath9k driver because those cards don't require firmware, but getting model type from generic specs pages is not always possible. Searching for lspci dumps online can be can be a roll of the dice.

And then there's the issue of what kind of graphics card is ideal from a FSF perspective. From the FSF website:

This page is not an exhaustive list. Also, some video cards may work with free software, but without 3D acceleration.

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If you want to push the freedom exigence as far as possible, you would also want a coreboot, U-Boot or PMON BIOS. The best (only?) option, in this case, is RMS's laptop: a Lemote YeeLoong, using PMON. It is however rather small (either 8.9'' or 10'') and underpowered, but very cheap. Check out "Lemote linux PC and Linux laptops"

When it comes to choosing a video card, go Intel. A Free (as in Freedom) driver AND firmware and you will have 3D acceleration.

  • unfortunately, i've heard that intel integrated graphics do use proprietary firmware, which is generally stored along with the bios. ati/amd graphics cards apparently store firmware on the graphics card itself. – sudoman Dec 2 '13 at 22:47
  • That link is broken. Can you find a new one with similar information? – iamnotmaynard May 20 '15 at 14:06
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    This answer is no longer strictly true. There are a few laptops supported by Coreboot/Libreboot and rms now uses a Thinkpad x60, not a Lemote. – sudoman Dec 25 '16 at 21:22
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Gluglug and other RYF vendors sell laptops running LibreBoot, a free software, microcode-free bios replacement. LibreBoot supports hardware on which it is possible to remove the Intel Management Engine, a small proprietary operating system on modern Intel machines that has been the attack vector of major security exploits.

There is some initial work toward creating a free software replacement for embedded controller firmware, but is apparently not ready for use. SSDs, hard drives and other components unfortunately contain non-free software as well. Systems with the most modern AMD and Intel processors currently cannot be made as freedom respecting as LibreBoot-supported hardware.

It is currently necessary to depend upon non-free software if you want to use a laptop. Libreboot does greatly reduce the amount of critical non-free software required to use laptops, desktops and servers.

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You can predict a laptop's degree of amenability by identifying the chip or chip set used to perform each of the important functions. Knowing this, you can research the level of Linux support on the net. As a final test, before disfiguring the laptop's hard drive beyond the point of no return (or refund), you may be able to verify hardware support by booting into Linux from an external drive.

This sounds like a lot of work, and it is. Last December, I went through all of that when I was looking for a small, but relatively powerful laptop, on which to run Linux. I settled on a Toshiba Satellite m645, and have been really happy with the results. See http://www.gletscher.name/linux_on_toshiba_m645 for more.

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interesting CPUs to look at are the Allwinner A10 and A20. The entire boot process (outside of true ROM on the CPU itself) can be performed with a maintained and developing fork of u-boot, which is fully-free.

Make Play Live's Improv is a modular enclosed pluggable motherboard designed to someday fit into various hardware, such as tablets, laptops, and entertainment systems. The project borrows from the PCMCIA standard, but uses different pin configurations. They currently offer an A20 model. A laptop may be in the works if the project as a whole is successful.

Note: The "FEL" recovery mode for these chips is generally accessible through proprietary software, but it seems as if using usb-boot from sunxi-tools may take care of any need for that. There are important hardware functions being reverse-engineered, such as the popular Mali 400 GPU by the lima driver people, and the CedarX A/V decoder.

Even if Make Play Live doesn't create a netbook/laptop, the A20 should be a good choice in one, as the Lemote Yeeloong approaches extinction. :-)

  • Systems which rely on the Mali GPU will likely never have free software userspace 3D hardware acceleration drivers because ARM threatened to sue the lima developer for working on the lima driver. (video) – sudoman Jul 14 '15 at 2:11
  • On the other hand, systems with the i.MX6 SoC are promising candidates as there is a free software driver named "etnaviv" for the Vivante GPU. Some work still needs to be done; however the Novena creators promised to develop a more complete version of the driver. – sudoman Jul 14 '15 at 2:24

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