Tech recommendations request: looking for a Linux-friendly 13" laptop
Final update: See here.
Update: Thank you ALL for your valuable feedback. I'm definitely looking into refurbished models now and I have a lot better grasp on what what I should be considering. I'm going to do some digging and a ridiculous amount of overshopping over the next couple of days, and then I'll let you all know what my final pick is!
Hey techy Tildes! I'm back with another support request from you knowledgeable and helpful folks.
I need a laptop that does exactly three things: gets me online, displays PDFs, and runs office software. I have a large number of online courses that I have to take in the coming years, and I need something that I can just grab while on my couch or in bed to work on papers and assignments, hence the 13" size preference. Long battery life would be highly preferable.
I looked for options that come with Linux preinstalled, but there's really nothing available that hits what I'm looking for -- there isn't much of a market for 13". As such, my plan is to just buy a standard Windows laptop and then put Linux on it, but I have no idea which particular hardware will play nice with a Linux installation. Budget would be sub-$500 (if possible). I don't need the laptop to do anything other than stay on for a long time and let me type, so I have no need for a powerhouse.
Can anyone point me in the right direction with some recommendations?
Update: I purchased a $300 refurbished Dell Latitude 7370. I needed the 13" size, and I also realized I wanted something that allowed for USB-C charging which eliminated a lot of older models I'd been looking at.
It just arrived today. I put openSUSE Tumbleweed on it and am now posting this message from it, which means it's working! I haven't used it enough to know if there are any significant issues yet but, at present, everything is going swimmingly.
Big thanks to all who gave me feedback and especially those who pointed me towards refurbished options!
One final question: Does USB-C charging mean I can use any USB-C charger and not just a USB-C laptop cord? Can I use a phone charger, or, say, a cord off the low-power USB port on my alarm clock?
Yes-ish; if the power source can't provide enough power, it will charge very slowly or perhaps just slow the discharge of the battery.
One amusing consequence of this is that it is possible to persuade your phone to attempt to charge your laptop when you plug them into each other.
Nice! Thanks. I just wanted to make sure I wasn't going to damage anything by using other sources. Not having to have a specific charger on hand for this is going to make it even more ultra-portable. Sounds like my phone just got downgraded to a battery pack! 😆
I usually just recommend people buy whichever Lenovo which best meets their tech and budget requirements. If it says "Thinkpad" on it, all the better but I don't think they do a 13" TP. I think they do some Yoga models in that size.
I would also suggest not touching anything made by HP with a very long pole. But as with all these things there's always someone who has the exact opposite experience to me. Lenovo have never let me down, might not work out for you. HP have never made a machine I've liked, you might.
A friend just got a Framework and is very happy with it. That's 13.6" though so a little bigger, but I like their philosophy, even if their hardware does look a little Mac-lite for my tastes.
I might have to adjust my price expectations. I love the idea of a Framework, but when I see that $1000 pricetag it feels like complete overkill for what I need. Then I checked Lenovo's 13" offerings and the cheapest non-Chromebook laptop is nearly $700. I think I might be considering this with a pre-inflation, pre-shortage price perspective...
You could go used/refurb? I've had good luck with refurbs in the past. Unless you particularly need a lot of compute power (and if you did I doubt you'd be looking at 13"), a few-years-old machine might do fine. Especially with a fairly light linux on it. A ram and ssd upgrade can make older hardware feel a lot snappier too, and for relatively little money.
Manufacturer-sold refurbs or specialist refurb shops are much safer than buying used from a random person, although you do pay a little more.
 I haven't bought hardware since pre-shortage times, I may be completely wrong about this.
Yeah, I'm getting a bit of sticker shock looking at newer models, so I'm starting to look into older models on account of @Whom's and @knocklessmonster's recommendations of the x220. I like the size, I like the dot mouse (believe it or not I used to have an old Thinkpad WAY back in the day!), and if it works well with Linux then it'll definitely meet my very minimal needs.
Are there reputable refurb shops I should be looking at? Should I simply look at seller ratings on eBay? Not sure what's the best way of getting something reliable.
If I recall correctly you're quite a few timezones from me so I'm not sure I can name any specific retailers which would be of use to you. In the UK I'd 100% recommend Backmarket, from whom I've purchased several times, as have friends of mine.
I have bought a couple of refurb devices from Amazon Marketplace where the seller had a good rating. I'm not sure I'd do the same on eBay but I guess someone with a good seller score is of similar risk to doing the same on Amazon.
My first ever laptop I used in person was a Thinkpad. That wasn't this century...
Yeah, I'm across the pond in the US.
I'm not that far behind you! In the early 2000s I placed second in a writing competition. First place prize was $1000, but second place was a Thinkpad. It was old enough that it didn't even have built-in wireless internet capabilities (which was far from standard at the time anyway).
To this day I like to think that I ended up with the better prize. :)
If you're looking for a fun project, the x220 has a good mod scene (better panel, etc)
I took a chance on Newegg and came out alright, there's a hotspot on the screen but the pixels work four years later.
Just look for a positive reputation based in the US (assuming you're US?), and check their shop reviews.
I have two Frameworks (one for me and one for my wife) and I love the laptop. I've been running Linux on it without issue and most new distros support everything out of the box.
Size-wise, keep in mind that it's a 3:2 display, so it's about the same width as a regular 13-inch 16:9 display, just taller. I love the extra vertical space, especially when using productivity type apps. Obviously it's less ideal for media consumption.
You can get a barebones model for $750 and bring your own RAM, SSD, etc to save money. I know that's a lot higher than your budget, but the upside is that it's easily upgraded in the future if you get further into your studies and suddenly need more RAM or storage space.
Being able to swap out ports as needed without stuff sticking out of the side of the laptop is extremely handy too. I hated having to constantly use adapters with my MacBook Pro.
I'd also suggest looking into older MacBook Pros. Some of the pre-unibody ones can be had for cheap and with an SSD upgrade and new battery, it would be a good way to get a cheap, high quality laptop. And the older models are relatively Linux friendly.
Check eBay and Newegg for x220s or any similarly aged 13-inch business laptops (The x220 is like the Camry of these, small, light, reliable). I bought a refurb, dropped an extra stick of RAM in it, a new battery (I think), and an SSD and still came out under $500. I bought it three years ago and it's still perfect, an aftermarket battery will run you less than $50. In fact, I found one on NewEgg for $250 right now. The RAM and HDD bays are easily accessible, as well.
In my experience, the rough guideline with this is just to stick with better-known, more popular component brands/manufacturers. Another way to say it: You get what you pay for, and cheaper, lower-quality internal hardware will likely have poorer or non-existent Linux compability. The primary concern is the WIFI component(s). You 100% want that to be working, obviously. With cheaper hardware, this is not necessarily the case. Also check the graphics stuff, whether it's a separate card, or on-(mother)board. Check what hardware brands or model numbers are in the laptop you're considering getting, then do a quick search on the internet for Linux compatibility. Wifi, graphics, webcam, audio.
Just to give you an idea of what I mean: When I went shopping for a Lenovo laptop 5ish years ago, when I did this kind of research, I found that the lower 1/4 or 1/3 of Lenovo's lineup (sorting by price) did not inspire confidence that they'd be Linux compatible, based on my searches. I had to step up to the mid-level price range before I saw with more certainty that the internals would be Linux compatible.
I know you wanted to stick with Linux, but you can get a refurbished MacBook Air that meets your needs in other respects very cheaply: https://computers.woot.com/offers/apple-13-3-macbook-air-2017-model-2
Dell Latitude-series laptops have been Ubuntu-compatible for at least the past five years - this is a nice deal for something that's close (14") to what you're looking for: https://computers.woot.com/offers/dell-latitude-e5450-intel-i7-8gb-256gb-ssd-w10p
This model has high enough specs that you won't tax it with any office software, and a 12.5" screen: https://computers.woot.com/offers/dell-latitude-7280-intel-i7-touch-16gb-256gb-w10p
The 7280 reportedly works well with Ubuntu.
I've had good luck with Woot's Dell refurbs, but YMMV.
Wow, I've never seen an Apple laptop get anywhere near this cheap before they became too slow to bother with. This is a pretty fantastic recommendation!
The release of the M1 MacBooks, especially the M1 air, obliterated the resale value of intel MacBooks.
I have the 2014 version of this macbook air, and it's a solid choice.
I wasn't familiar with Woot -- thanks for putting that on my radar! I'm definitely considering going the refurbished route at this point.
Woot is basically a warehouse-sale outlet for Amazon. But Amazon owns NewEgg as well. There's not really any non-Amazon big name direct retail source for cheap computers and parts in the U.S. anymore.
Huh? AFAIK, Amazon has absolutely no stake in Newegg, who is still majority owned by Liaison Interactive, a Chinese conglomerate... and ever since Liaison acquired Newegg it has gone to shit, IMO. I used to buy PC parts from Newegg almost exclusively in order to avoid Amazon, but now I would actually be happy if Amazon did acquire them. At least Amazon makes returns and getting replacements relatively hassle free, unlike Newegg these days, which uses the flimsiest excuses to deny as many of them as possible. Not to mention Newegg's absolutely god awful customer service, and insane shipping delays.
I'm speaking from recent personal experience, BTW. It took them over a week to ship my newest PC Case from their warehouse, despite me paying $35 extra for Purolator Express shipping. The delay wasn't Purolator's fault either, since once they finally received it from Newegg, it was delivered promptly. And I'm not alone in experiencing similar headaches with Newegg either, my best friend refuses to buy from them anymore after they denied the RMA on an incredibly expensive videocard (which was DOA) a few years ago. And GamersNexus had similar happen to them just a few months ago but worse, since Newegg denied their refund but also kept the returned item, effectively stealing $500 from them.
Sorry, this is what had me confused. Like GamersNexus, I had a horrible experience with the wrong memory shipped (ordered 64 GB of ECC memory to refurbish a salvaged Dell server, not cheap, got non-ECC of a completely incorrect type instead) and never exchanged or refunded, and haven't bought anything from Newegg in years.
Ah. Yeah that's not some Amazon-Newegg partnership or anything, that's just the Newegg Marketplace, which is full of shady sellers and questionably sourced products. If you look at the "Meet your sellers" section on all those listed "Amazon brand" products you will see that they are not actually being sold by Amazon. It's all third party resellers just listing Amazon branded products there.
p.s. Newegg Marketplace isn't all bad though, TBH. I occasionally use it to buy Alibaba style electronics and hardware components that you can't typically find at any standard retailers in NA. You pay a bit of a premium on the items, since the resellers are typically just middle-men who imported them from China before listing them on Newegg, but as a result the items generally arrive much faster than those ordered from Alibaba directly.
E.g. The 7" LCD screen I use as an in-case AIDA64 display was purchased from Newegg Marketplace.
Ah, it’s disappointing that Amazon owns them.
I had no idea they bought Newegg either!(Turns out that’s not accurate). I usually try to avoid Amazon but won’t hardline if it’s the only game in town for what I need.
At that price point and with those needs, you may want to look into the used Thinkpad market. I don't have many specific recs, but I have an X230 (which is 12.5") that I popped 8 gigs of RAM and a SSD into and is perfect for those kinds of tasks, along with being one of the most well-supported Linux machines you'll find. The X230 and X220 are both well-loved among Thinkpad fans, so you're likely to find pre-upgraded ones on eBay for well under your budget.
I'd be more comfortable with a new device simply because I don't really know enough to not get scammed on eBay. My (possibly wrong) understanding is also that battery life tends to degrade over the life of the device, so pre-owned ones might not hit the longer plug-free times I'm hoping for?
eBay has pretty damn good buyer protection nowadays, but I understand the anxiety there when you're buying out of your element. Also battery degradation is definitely a factor, but new batteries are still sold and easily popped into place.
Somewhat above your price range, but System76 has a couple of nice 14" Linux laptops starting at $1,000 and $1,150. The baseline models would be more than enough for your needs, so no need for any upgrades.
The Lemur has been my mobile daily driver for almost 4 years now, routinely take it everywhere with me ... still 100%, rock-solid.
ETA: Oops, just double-checked ... I actually have a Darter for my mobile. Still, great machines, Linux-focused, nice distro, nice customer support.
My daily driver is an Oryx Pro that I'm very happy with! If they had a 13" model, I would have bought that immediately (even at a higher price), but 14" is just slightly too big for the drawer I'm wanting this to fit in.
Maybe try a Chromebook? Modern Chromebooks are cheap and support Linux software, as long as you are OK with a Google-based OS.
A Chromebook is essentially exactly what I'm looking for, except with Linux instead of Chrome OS.
I did look into installing Linux on Chromebooks myself but it looks like it's a decently complicated process -- one that's probably above my comfort level. The main Chromebook-centric distro has also stopped development.
If I'm wrong on this though, definitely let me know! The pricepoint and battery life for Chromebooks is exactly what I'm looking for. I just don't want to use a Google-based OS (nor Windows).
You don't need to install Linux anymore to run Linux software, ChromeOS now supports Linux software natively, similar to WSL.
There's not actually any Linux-specific software I need to run -- I just don't want to be running ChromeOS (or Windows).
I’ve done this, the ASUS C301 I did it with is still going strong. This might be useful.
You forgot the https:// in your markdown link so it broke.
If your ok with something ARM based, you might be interested in in a pinebook pro? Its definitly a bit underpowered (like most ARM laptops), but they have good linux support, are a good price, and should fit your needs. Only problem is im not sure how set you are on the 13" formfactor, as these are only available in 14". Its also currently out of stock, but should be back in june.
I did come across the Pinebook offerings when I was looking, but it seems like they're aimed at the type of user that isn't me in the slightest. They give a specific warning at the bottom of the page:
I can't even define "ARM architecture" or tell you why that matters, so it seems like I'm well outside of their target audience. Given the limited supply, it seems better that their computers would go to someone who specifically knows what they're doing with one. I also looked up a few reviews and it seems like they're better suited for tinkerers, and I'm very much someone who wants something that just runs effortlessly.
Linux hardware support is fantastic these days, so you should theoretically be able to pick up any given laptop and it should be easy enough to get working. That being said, some companies have absolutely terrible firmware that reports the wrong information to Linux and those tend to require you to put some very specific workarounds. The last time I had to deal with those problems was with a Dell machine (which is somewhat ironic considering they sell machines with Linux preinstalled).
I'll be honest; ever since I switched to Apple, I can't imagine switching back to the cheap machines I used to use. So I think @Whom's used lenovo machines are probably the best options. I see you already told them you'd prefer a new model and they do have one on sale that meets your budget, but I'm not sure if the 15" is going to be a dealbreaker for you. I'd personally prefer it if it means that you keep the 10key pad, which this does. And in any case I'd suggest going over budget to get the AMD version with better specs since it should also offer better battery life.
15" is a dealbreaker, unfortunately. My bedside drawer, which this will probably live in most of the time, can only fit a 13". Also losing the 10-key is fine, as I have big hands and that'll (theoretically?) give some extra room to the rest of the keyboard.
Ah, thank you for this! This looks like a good vendor option should I decide to go with the x230.
I actually just made a similar purchase. I got a used HP Elitebook 745 G5 on eBay for about $320 all in, and I got some of that refunded because the included charger didn't work. Everything works pretty well out of the box on Manjaro, except that sometimes the Bluetooth adapter gets cranky after a suspend-wake cycle, but it's always back after a reboot. I did get a good deal because it's got a sizeable corner dent and it still has the original battery, but I also paid more than strictly necessary because I wanted to try Ryzen mobile. I observed that because of their sterling reputation, used ThinkPads generally cost more than equivalent business laptops from HP and Dell. I would recommend expanding your search to include Dell Latitudes and HP Elitebook and Probook models if you decide to go the used or refurbished route. There may be other models too, but I know those are all business product lines, so repair manuals are available online and parts are usually easy to find if you want to replace the battery or repair some damage.
You want to run Office on Linux? You mean LibreOffice? Or Microsoft Office?
I should have specified! LibreOffice all the way.