Hardware

Operating systems and laptops

Choosing the right operating system is as important as choosing the right laptop. During this Guild Meeting Ed Engelking explained how laptops make different demands on operating systems and how to choose the right one for your computer needs.


On August 1st Ed Engelking led a discussion about how important it is to choose the right operating system for a laptop. During this Guild Meeting Ed Engelking explained how laptops make different demands on operating systems and how to choose the right one for your computer needs. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

On August 1st Ed Engelking led a discussion about how important it is to choose the right operating system for a laptop. During this Guild Meeting Ed Engelking explained how laptops make different demands on operating systems and how to choose the right one for your computer needs. If you couldn’t join us then, enjoy the transcript and we hope to see you on our next live Guild Meeting. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

Note: TechProGuild edits Guild Meeting transcripts for clarity.

Welcome to the meeting
MODERATOR: Good evening and welcome to tonight's Guild Meeting! Tonight's featured speaker is TechRepublic's own Ed Engelking! Ed's here to discuss everything you want to know about how laptops make different demands on your OSs and how to choose the right one for your computer needs. Ed's now open for questions. Who has the first one?

Running Linux on a laptop
JCMCINTYRE: What do I need to know to run Linux on a laptop? What are the potential problems?

ED ENGELKING: Good question. Linux laptops, from my own personal experience, do not require much to operate. Of course, it will all depend on what you wish to have installed on the laptop, and if you plan to use the GUI interface.

JCMCINTYRE: I'm trying to decide between buying a new desktop PCU or a Thinkpad. I'm leaning toward the Thinkpad. I will definitely run Mandrake and Helix-gnome.

ED ENGELKING: A general workstation machine that doesn't run a GUI can run on a laptop that has a 486 processor. Now, if you want to have your laptop act as a server, which it can, you'll need a bit more power. The same goes if you wish to run a GUI interface.

JCMCINTYRE: I’ll be using it strictly as a workstation. I'll keep my P150 for my server.

ED ENGELKING: The GUI tends to present a problem more for laptops because they have built-in monitors, and you may find that you have to play with the Xconfigurator (or something similar) to get the GUI up and running correctly. I highly suggest using Mandrake or Red Hat, which are my personal preferences, but I've had numerous problems with other distributions. Now, something that I have found interesting, as far as running Red Hat 6.x or Mandrake 7 on my Dell laptops, is that I've always been able to get the sound to work. However, this is something that I’ve had problems with when it comes to regular desktop installations. I honestly prefer having Linux on a laptop instead of a desktop. It's the perfect portable OS in my opinion. If you wish to save on your battery, simply run Linux from the prompt. It has the same functions, basically, as the GUI does.

Configuring a Thinkpad floppy for Linux
JCMCINTYRE: Could you explain the solution for configuring a Thinkpad floppy for Linux?

ED ENGELKING: Honestly, I can't. I've never had the opportunity of using an IBM Thinkpad with Linux, although it would be something that I would love to try. Considering that IBM is leaning toward Linux these days, it's an interesting thought to see if the laptops can truly hold the OS.

JCMCINTYRE: I know I have to make an entry "floppy = thinkpad". But I can't remember where.

ED ENGELKING: I'll have to look that up. Send me an e-mail at eengelking@techrepublic.com if you wouldn't mind.

Running Windows on a laptop
NICKCM97: What should we Windows users look for when determining which laptop to purchase? There are so many on the market. How do I know which is right?

ED ENGELKING: It all depends on which version of Windows you wish to run and what you want to do with the Windows laptop. If you want to send e-mail and browse the Internet, I have a nice Dell Inspiron 3500 that does the job nicely. However, if you want to do graphics or programming or if you write a lot and use a lot of macros, you’ll want to consider using something a bit more powerful.

GBLOCKER: What about installing Windows2000 on a laptop?

ED ENGELKING: I've had no problems installing Win2K on a laptop, but I don't suggest using it on a laptop at this point in time, at least not for daily use on a workstation. Perhaps it will be different next year, when Win2K goes full time and is more widely accepted. Laptops will be more powerful by then as well. After all, Win2K requires a minimum of 64 megs of RAM. Most laptops have only 64 megs, and it can be expensive if you have to upgrade. I'd also wait until the next service pack from Microsoft if you are dead set on installing Win2K. I don’t trust the one they just released.

Do laptops travel well?
NICKCM97: I travel quite a bit. Are there any laptops that are better for being "rough and tumble" than others?

ED ENGELKING: In my personal experience, which of course is the only thing I can go off of, I have found that the IBM and Dell laptops are great for people who are constantly on the go. Considering that I take my Dells everywhere I go, they take a beating and keep on ticking. As a matter of fact, I have a friend who keeps his Dell laptop in the back of his jeep. It stays there constantly; he never takes it inside his home.

JCMCINTYRE: I see laptop torture tests results on the Net. Some tests involve dropping a laptop from about five feet in a parking lot. Some don't survive. Some do remarkably well. Are these tests reliable?

ED ENGELKING: As far as the "drop tests," I don't believe in them. It's all a matter of luck, in my opinion. Drop a machine once, and it may or may not work correctly. Odds are if you were to drop the same machine again, something might go wrong. There is always a possibility of a cord popping loose or something. So, take my advice on this one: Unless someone says "you cannot destroy this laptop," don't believe those tests, and even if they do say something like that, I'd say you should ask other people who have owned the machines. They alone can give you the real answers you're looking for. Nothing tests the ability of a laptop better than real-life use.

Recommendations for Thinkpads
JCMCINTYRE: I'm paying in Canadian dollars. I expect to pay $3,000.00 for my Thinkpad. What is the minimum CPU you would recommend?

ED ENGELKING: Well, I’ve heard debates on both the AMD Mobile units and the new PIIIs. I prefer AMD, but I've seen the new PIIIs in action as well, and I must say that I'm impressed.

HAROLD966: Can you talk a little about the display?

ED ENGELKING: I've never been one to really dive in to the specifics of "what's good" in monitor displays. I know one thing, though, about laptops: If they could all have Sony displays, then everyone would be happy.

HAROLD966: I want to buy something good but not expensive. I want a nice looking display.

ED ENGELKING: Stay away from Toshiba then. Their display is terrible in my experiences. I'm not a huge fan of Compaq's either. I'd go for a Sony, Dell, or IBM, whichever is in your budget. Sony has the best display by far, but hey, that is their business.

NICKCM97: What kind of budget would it take to buy a Sony, Dell, or IBM?

ED ENGELKING: Again, it all depends on what you want in your machine. They can range from $1,000 to $5,000, perhaps even higher. I'd say a good mid-range laptop would cost you $1,500 to $2,000. You'll either be purchasing a Celeron or an AMD processor in those ranges. But, they're all great machines mind you.

GBLOCKER: Why not a PIII?

ED ENGELKING: You may, or may not, get a PIII around that price. It all depends on what you want in the machine. It is definitely possible, but you'll sacrifice features, I believe. Again, it all depends on the manufacturer. And on another interesting note: It may be of interest to keep your eye on machines that will be coming out with the Transmeta Crusoe chip.

NICKCM97: What can you tell us about the Transmeta Crusoe chip?

ED ENGELKING: I'm looking forward to the Crusoe. I believe it will take laptops, and palms for that matter, to the next level.

JCMCINTYRE: I think Crusoe will really change the way we use the Net.

ED ENGELKING: Soon there won’t be a difference between laptops and palms. They'll end up merging, I believe. You’ll see extremely small laptops with superb processing power, with low battery usage.

JCMCINTYRE: You'll see some devices, like cellular phones, take on the properties of laptops.

ED ENGELKING: Indeed, some of them already are. You can surf the Net and check your e-mail with your phone.

NICKCM97: Yep, I have one of those phones, and they're awesome!

ED ENGELKING: With the version of Linux that will be used for the Crusoe processor, we won't need big operating systems to run our programs, check e-mail, and surf the Net. I predict that laptops will not be the same in just a few years. As you’re most likely seeing already, they are getting smaller all the time. It's just a matter of time until they will join with the PDAs and then everyone will truly be wired.

Linux takes the lead in embedded systems
JCMCINTYRE: Do you think the fact that Linus Torvalds is with Transmeta means that Linux has an edge in the embedded systems area?

ED ENGELKING: Indeed I do. Transmeta made a brilliant move there. Not only do they get exposure, they get the creator of Linux.

JCMCINTYRE: They essentially get the kernel.

ED ENGELKING: They can create an OS that works perfectly with their chip, will be widely supported, and will help the Linux community grow! I'm looking at a future where Linux will be where Java tried to get and has never quite caught on... embedded in appliances. Just think—your stove will be running Linux so you can bake your turkey, your washer will be running Linux so you can wash your clothes, etc.

Windows vs. Linux
GBLOCKER: What do you think is the future of Windows operating systems vs. Linux?

ED ENGELKING: Windows, I believe, will be making a change over the next few years. I don't believe that they'll go full open source, but I think they'll follow the steps of Apple. They won’t release the entire code, just enough to make people happy. The problem with Windows is that people don't feel like they are part of the OS, which is why Linux is, and now MAC OS X will be, so popular. I personally love the idea of Mac OS X, and I can't wait to see it go gold.

GBLOCKER: I am not aware of what Mac is doing with its operating system. Could you explain?

ED ENGELKING: Mac has taken an interesting step in its operating system. In the past, you had to create software for the Mac OS in a very specific way. If you didn't, you wouldn't be allowed to publish, hence the reason why you see so few Mac titles on the shelves at your computer store. Even now, Mac has released a great deal of their code to the public, allowing developers inside their world so that people can create numerous items for the software. In a sense, Mac OS has become open source, but part of it is still a secret.

Buying vs. assembling
HAROLD966: Why is the world of the laptop not like that of the PC? I can go any place and buy pieces and assemble a PC in my house. Can I do that with a laptop?

ED ENGELKING: Laptops are not desktops. That's for sure. Have you ever taken a laptop apart just to see what's inside?

HAROLD966: Not really.

JCMCINTYRE: They are a nightmare inside.

ED ENGELKING: The problem with laptops is that they're so tightly packed together you honestly have to be a developer to create one of these things. They need a special kind of board, hard drive, processor, memory, etc., not to mention the monitor and keyboard. Odds are you'd have to put in a lot of the parts yourself and solder in specific pieces, and it's not a task I'd like to take on. I've taken on the task of repairing laptops before, but I don't like doing it.

JCMCINTYRE: I think you could buy the parts to make a laptop, although I don't know of generic cases. The problem is the density of the components inside the case. There is no guarantee that your assembled parts would fit together inside the no-name case.

ED ENGELKING: Not to mention the amount of screws you'd have to keep track of. I've taken apart laptops before with over 50 screws just to get to the processor. And then there’s always the price of the parts themselves. This is one of those things that is far cheaper to just buy. The man-hours are not worth it.

JCMCINTYRE: It would probably cost the equivalent of the purchase of a Thinkpad just to assemble an equivalent model.

ED ENGELKING: I agree totally. Plus the fact that it's already assembled when it comes from the manufacturer.

Future apps
JCMCINTYRE: Where would you like to see the next "killer app" come from?

ED ENGELKING: OS wise or vendor wise?

ALICIAG_2000: OS.

ED ENGELKING: Mac or Linux. Windows has too much as it is. It’s easy to get lost in a sea of Windows options.

JCMCINTYRE: What about on the vendor side? Computing is taken for granted today. We need something that just isn't being done right now.

ED ENGELKING: Vendor wise, I want to see a MAC emulator for the PC. I've wanted one for so long that it’s not funny. But, here is the real killer... the next possible killer could be... BeOS. This is the only operating system that works on both the Mac and PC. It’s truly interoperable.

JCMCINTYRE: Is Be open-sourced yet?

ED ENGELKING: Nope.

JCMCINTYRE: Will it be?

ED ENGELKING: I'm not aware of them becoming open sourced. But hey, that'd be nice. BeOS is a great mix of Linux, Mac, and Windows. It has a file structure much like EXT2, the look of a MAC, and the workings of a Windows system.

ALICIAG_2000: When do they expect it?

ED ENGELKING: I'd suggest going to the Web site, www.be.com. They have a demo available that you can install on your Windows OS. It's quite nice. All it really needs is community support along with driver support. However, at the moment, it is aimed as a multimedia OS.

JCMCINTYRE: Linux needs an app that Windows doesn't have. It's asking too much to expect Applix, StarOffice, etc. to knock off MS Office.

ED ENGELKING: Exactly, Jcmcintyre. Linux needs something to make it stand out, perhaps a little bit friendlier GUI? However, I think the people at helixcode.com have done a great job with GNOME. In my opinion, once you make Linux user-friendly, Microsoft is in trouble.

Thanks for coming
MODERATOR: Thanks everyone. We had great questions tonight!
Our Guild Meetings feature top-flight professionals leading discussions on interesting and valuable IT issues. You can find a schedule of Guild Meetings in your weekly TechProGuild Notes TechMail, or on the Guild Meeting calendar.

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