A new laptop for Linux

Since I keep in touch with the latest changes in computer hardware only moderately, I’ve found myself pretty much unprepared for buying a new laptop, which is supposed to serve as my desktop replacement machine. I just don’t want to purchase equipment without at least some direction, and only because i7 is a greater number than i5, or because someone says that SSD drives are faster than other storage devices. I also don’t want to spend extra money on some crappy laptop speakers included, or on a GPU designed for more intense gaming.

Therefore, this post will include a simple breakdown of few technologies and components involved in my though process in buying a new laptop for Linux.

Initial thoughts and requirements

I think it’s wise to buy a laptop that has been out on the market at least 6 months to let any Linux distribution time to get hardware properly supported.

Considering that the highest load on my new laptop would be produced by running a few virtual machines for testing purposes, I am looking for a solid processor and 6 to 8 gigabytes of RAM. On the other hand, I really don’t perform CPU-intensive tasks regularly, so I could supposedly go with low- or mid-range CPU, and compensate that with an SSD drive to support more noticeable performance boost. The laptop should be equipped with USB 3.0 to support my external drive, and an extra FireWire port for professional audio interface wouldn’t hurt either. Additionally, wireless interface should be supported by Linux.

And God, I don’t want a localized keyboard layout!

CPU

I will take a risk by discarding AMD, and will look for the latest mobile Intel Core processors based on the Sandy Bridge (2nd generation) or Ivy Bridge (3rd generation) microarchitecture. This microarchitecture integrates the memory controller, integrated graphics and processor into a single die.

From Wikipedia, Ivy Bridge provides:

  • 5% to 15% increase in CPU performance
  • 25% to 68% increase in integrated GPU performance

So roughly Ivy Bridge 2.0 GHz CPU is equivalent to Sandy Bridge 2.1 GHz CPU. Not much of a difference there. Note that a Sandy Bridge processor could perform faster than Ivy Bridge one, if it would have more cores. Furthermore, Ivy Bridge is upgraded with a few enhancements that I am not interested in, like PCIe 3.0, faster RAM speeds (up to 2400; the 1600 on Sandy Bridge will be sufficient).

Currently there are three distinct Intel Core family lines: i3, i5 and i7. For me, ideal choice is between the later two, and it seems like Core i5 has the best price/performance ratio. Both Core i5 and Core i7 processors use the built-in Turbo Boost technology for dynamic overclocking through ACPI, and this is supported in Linux. It is like automatic overclocking if the CPU is not too hot. All Core i7 CPUs use Hyper-Threading, while Core i5 uses it only in dual core version. Let’s remember that Hyper-Threading delivers two processing threads per physical core. Highly threaded applications can get more work done in parallel, completing tasks sooner. All of the latest Intel processors use their Smart Cache technology — a sharable cache which is dynamically allocated to each processor core, based on workload. This significantly reduces latency, improving performance.

Last, but not least, the chosen CPU should support VT-x extensions to support hardware-assisted virtualization.

RAM

Realistically, 4 GB of RAM will be sufficient for my needs generally, although 6 to 8 gigabytes would be more favorable.

Storage

I am not concerned with the cost difference between 5400 RPM and 7200 RPM disk drives, but in the later case I am considering the possibility of increased heating and noise. The battery life savings shouldn’t be significant, as disk drives are low power-consuming devices.

The I/O performance benefits of 7200 RPM drive would be especially noticeable if I would deal with large files a lot. It would also increase boot time of the laptop itself and virtual machines. Additionally, nowadays drives come with mSSD accelerated cache but I’m not sure how much it benefits a single user system with average I/O utilization. I suppose that existing RAM based filesystem caching is a pretty decent and acceptable alternative.

I think either speed 5400 or 7200 should be fine, but would prefer 5400 as it should theoretically have longer mean time between failure. SSD drive would be excellent, but also an overkill for my budget.

GPU

Intel’s Ivy Bridge processors are interesting to me as their integrated Intel HD graphics appears to be faster than those found in Sandy Bridge. Since I don’t play games, this is really an attractive option which means money savings and solid video performance (e.g. for watching HD movies smoothly). I would like to go with the CPU that supports Intel HD Graphics 4000, or 3000 in case of Sandy Bridge (the driver is also open sourced by Intel).

Graphics chip should be capable of dual display and VGA output. Intel Wireless Display technology would be an extra thing to try out someday.

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