Linux on Laptops

Linux on laptops is less difficult in the last few years than it was early in the game. Linux has many more drivers for using different hardware nowdays. The first thing you need to know is if your laptop cannot run an off the shelf version of Win 95/98, it probably won't run a stock Linux distro either. You see, some "compatible" computers are not so compatible. This was a problem with Compac, AST, and a few others.

Fortune shines on us today. Early Linux users set up web sites to let other people know about their successes and failures. We owe them a debt of gratitude, especially if you want to put Linux on an older laptop.

The older the laptop, the more likely you are to have trouble. Most new laptops will have little trouble with networking, USB, soundcards, monitors etc. The only thing that will tend to cause trouble is WinModems. These are basically garbage in the first place, and Linux has decided not to support them to any large degree.

What to Expect

If you are running a 33 MHz laptop with monochome display and 4 MB of memory, you will NOT be able to run X-windows. If you have a 512 Meg. hard drive, you will have to be VERY careful what programs you install, it doesn't take an awful lot now days to eat up a 512 Meg. If you have a 1 Gig laptop, chances are you will have little trouble with most Linux distributions. If you want to use Debian, write down what Windows drivers and hardware you had. Debian is a great Distribution, but it is not very user friendly, especially if you are new to Linux. If one Linux doesn't work on your laptop, don't despair. Try another. Several if you have to. There is almost always a solution if you keep looking. If you have no room on your laptop for Linux, and you have a cdrom drive, consider loading AFU-Knoppix, or DDD. They will run off the cddrive without messing up your windows partition. After doing that a few times, you will probably be willing to get rid of that windows partition to see what a real Linux distro can do.

What to look for in a laptop

If you are only going to use the laptop at your qth, there are a few things to consider.
1)  Does the laptop have line and mic inputs?  If not, can you disable the internal mic when using soundcard interfaces?
2)  Display area.  800 X 600 is the smallest you should even consider.
3)  Do you have some metal to help with grounding?

If you plan to take your laptop into the field, there are more things to consider.
1)  Battery life.  This is critical.  A laptop can drain a large battery quicker than you think.
2)  Display.  Can you adjust backlighting for day/night?
3)  Sleep mode.  Can you reduce the power when it is not needed?
4)  Size.  The bigger the screen, the more awkward it can be to carry
5)  Weight.  The heavier it is, the harder it will be to lug around.
6)  Security.  Don't forget, laptops get stolen, even in the wilderness.
7)  Can the laptop be powered directly from 12V automotive or storage batteries?

AX25 on laptops

The best advice I can give here is a Tigertronics BayPac modem.  They are small, take very little power, and perform very well for their compact size. The Baycom modules in Linux work well with the BayPac modem, are fairly easy to set up, and will work solidly as long as they get power. That is another factor, there are some laptops that will not power a BayPac modem (they apparently wanted to save that tiny amount of power on the serial port). If a BayPac modem will not work, there are several "Real" TNC's that are acceptable, but they will need external power, which adds to the size and weight. If you do not use the soundcard on your linux box, you can also set it up to be a modem for AX25, and network it using mkiss. This can be difficult to do if you use the sound card for other soundcard applications, and will probably not be worth the hassle on a laptop. Most people who use the soundcard modem use multiple sound cards, and that is not an option on the average laptop.

For some ideas on how to set up ax25, see the AX25 page.

Soundcard Applications

There are many good applications for soundcard Ham modes with Linux. There are several that can be run without X-Windows, but, if you want the best selection, you need a laptop with at least 64Meg of memory, and X-windows. If you want to have the speed and power of a desktop, you will need 256Meg of memory. The software can be found on the Linux software page. And more is being developed all the time.

Software of Interest for Laptop Owners

One very interesting use of a laptop is GNIS software. Using GPSDrive and my Garmin E-Trex GPS unit, I have my own personal digital navigator for my car. And, yes, with the Festival Free Speech program, it will talk to me.

I can use photo software to dump my camera's images onto the laptop, so I never run out of room on the memory stick

I have used my netcam to give me remote pictures during a Skywarn, but, leaving my laptop unattended will not happen again!

I can use the camera and laptop to give near real-time photos to the EOC during a disaster event using SSTV.

And of course, I can make my laptop do all those wonderful digital modes for Ham Radio, out in the field.

And, the list just keeps going.

I develop web pages, and I can use easily transport my laptop to a customers site to show them the latest updates, and get their approval BEFORE uploading them to their pages. This drastically reduces development time.

Warning on Laptops

RF and laptops don't mix. Make sure you have the antennas away from the laptop and it's associated cables. Use RF chokes on all cables connected to a laptop. Use a good isolated soundcard interface with a laptop (or any other computer). Reduce your power output. That will save your batteries and your laptop. Use the same common sense you would with any computer near rf, then turn up your paranoia level, and check it again.

If you need assistance in getting your favorite laptop connected to your favorite O. S. then try Linux On Laptops, this is a site where other people may have worked out the kinks for you. If not, then send them your results.

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This webpage updated by KF8GR on May 19, 2005