Looking for a Linux laptop

13 minute read

With a Macbook 12” update unsighted in two years, and Apple releasing a revamped Macbook Air last year, I started considering whether my next laptop needed to be Linux. Surprisingly though, the issue became not so much Linux as the OS, as PC laptop hardware available. Early 2019, this is how I saw my options.

My trusty Macbook 12” 2016 has been a shockingly excellent laptop for my needs: ridiculously light (<1kg) with a bright retina screen and enough memory and storage to get everything I need done (8GB RAM and 512GB SSD respectively). Completely silent since it has no fan, and with the nice reliability side effect that comes from not a single moving part, my only complaints to date have been about battery life and a processor that could have been a tad punchier (though perhaps thermally incompatible with fanless cooling). I’ve been super happy with it (and do most processing heavy-lifting in the cloud anyway) so despite my initial worries about purchasing one in 2016, my complaints have been very few. More than three years with a laptop is a record. Laptops rarely survive 18 months under my cruelty.

That said, while Apple’s privacy stances have become laudable, I’ve been increasingly concerned by them moving to more of a consumer device model that doesn’t really give me the type of control over things I prefer and an increasingly tied-to-Apple ecosystem that’s not as open as I feel it should be. Added to this, a number of things I’m doing these days work better under Linux, so I’ve been experimenting a bit on a second laptop on what tradeoffs a move back to Linux might entail (For those interested, I’ve been using Solus linux and its Budgie desktop environment and while it’s surprising how many things you take for granted that OSX just gets right and makes effortless, it does seem that some things may be made easier moving back to Linux – though there are, of course, drawbacks for other things.). I should point out, I’m actually a big fan of what Apple has built on the desktop here. I’ve been using OSX since 2002, and I’m impressed with how far its come as a desktop environment for getting things done. In parallel, while I feel linux desktop environments still lack in polish in some regards, you have to be impressed with how far they’ve evolved as a daily work environment.

The Spec

In the hardware space, competitors have been hard on Apple’s heels for a while now, though they all seem to be chasing the Macbook Pro rather than the Macbook. Consequently, I’ve been unable to find a laptop that doesn’t feel like a step down hardware-wise from my 2016 Macbook 12”. Especially with processors becoming more powerful, all PC laptops seem to be tradeoffs between heftier processors versus thermal cooling and battery weight. This is the wish list I went in with:

Aspect Want
Weight <1 kg
Screen 12-14” 4k/retina
Processor min 8th gen i7 (Ice Lake or similar preferred)
RAM 16 GB
SSD 1 TB
Touchscreen Do not want
Graphics Discreet graphics card optional
Cooling Fanless (or very quiet fans)
Build quality Solid
Linux compatibility High
Longevity 2-3 years

So far, no machine I’ve looked has met all these criteria successfully which really surprised me (the LG Gram perhaps comes the closest though needs to be upgraded to 16GB/1TB and is not fanless + I worry about the build quality). In fact, I feel like what I’m really forced to do with all the machines I’ve looked at is choose between a Macbook Pro and a PC Laptop, rather than the Macbook 12”. This does change the equation somewhat if that is question that needs to be answered.

The Contenders

In the end, here at the front end of 2019, it came down to five machines which looked like they might have the chops to get me through the next couple of years computing-wise (and I should point out that my computing needs seem to be getting simpler, not more sophisticated these days, so there was also the option of taking the same specs – 8GB RAM/512GB SSD – but merely a newer machine.).

  1. The LG Gram 14Z980 14”
  2. The Dell XPS 13” 2019
  3. The Lenovo Yoga S940
  4. Razer Blade Stealth 13” 2019
  5. The HP Spectre x360

There’s a few machines not in the above list that I disqualified from previous experience such as the Lenovo Carbon X1 (just meh on it), the Huawei Matebook X Pro (which seemed amazing until I saw the crazy keyboard, recessed nosecam), and Asus and Acer machines which have made progress but I just didn’t like or had mediocre reviews in the tech press. YMMV for your use cases and aesthetic sense.

For the reason I expect the machine to be running for 3 years, I’ve speced out 16GB RAM and 1TB SSD. While 8GB RAM and 512GB SSD has served me very well over the last three years, I am noticing on the Mac that I could use more room now for things like photos and videos, so am imagining will definitely need the space in another year or so (though to be honest, it’s difficult for me to tell if this is just a side effect of the way OSX’s Photos and iTunes tends to make resource decisions about my SSD space since the actual size of photos and music libraries is smaller than what is being taken up.)

From the cost profile of the five machines, all of which are pretty premium, as long as I can amortize the cost of the machine over roughly 3 years, I’m less concerned about purchase price than other factors. Let’s face it, it’s the tool I use every day so payig for quality doesn’t bother me that much. Basically, I tend to buy the maximum machine I can and make it last until I start to worry about catastrophic hardware failure.

People may be surprised at the 1 kilo weight limit. This may seem a trivial concern, but since I am a one bag traveller and constantly in motion, lighter laptops make a big difference on the road. Only the LG Gram met this restriction, which is super disappointing.

Here’s the rundown:

LG Gram 14Z980

Weight-wise the only machine I could find under a kilo was the LG Gram 14” though it only comes in a 8GB/512GB config. It is possible to upgrade the memory and SSD with an added slot each so assuming I could get this to 16GB/1TB though this would definitely blow out the cost. The Gram feels less solid than the Macbook when I was playing with it, despite a whack of toughness tests touted on the LG site, and an all-metal magnesium alloy body (and it quite a bit chunkier though you do benefit from some plugs there.). All marketing aside, I can’t imagine it going the distance longevity-wise from me playing with it (then again, I though the same about the Macbook when I got it.). Additionally, the Gram lacks a 4k/retina screen which I’m worried will be a huge step down for me after having the Macbook’s gorgeous retina screen. I do like the keyboard on this machine strangely and found it a surprisingly attractive options compared to the many others I looked at. Apparently, the battery life is also spectacular which would definitely be handy.

Dell XPS 13” 2019

An Editor’s Choice favourite amongst all review mags. Despite all the lauding and especially with this machine running Linux very well, I’m a little bit reluctant to get one. I have the 2015 model of this laptop as my secondary and it has been cantankerous on some distros running on it. More annoyingly, it had the infamous “nosecam” making videoconferencing farcical (now fixed on the 2019 edition with a top bezel camera), and anemic, flakey wifi with a Broadcom wifi chip, so I’m a bit gunshy to buy the 2019 edition and go all-in with this as my main machine. That said, it is very well priced, has a nice 8th gen i7, 16GB and 1TB, as well as a decent keyboard so definitely meets the profile. With a 4k screen the battery life gets weak on this thing, but that’s about the only criticism I’ve heard on it. As my main machine though? having trouble picturing it from working with the 2015 model I have (disclosure: Dell also acquired the company that acquired the company I ran here in Singapore, so also a bit meh on supporting them.). Due to weight and battery life issues if I get the nice screen, I’m also shying away, and I’d really love a laptop that could last through a trans-Pacific flight without needing to be plugged in.

Lenovo Yoga S940/S920

Announced in Jan and apparently available in May, the new Yoga seems to be a premium machine with reasonably light weight (lighter than all others but the Gram), a wrapped screen and no real bezels (we’ll see how that goes). They somehow manage to get a camera in the right place (unlike previous Dell XPS 13” and the Huawei Matebook X Pros). The S940 has a 16GB and 1TB available with a new Ice Lake processor. I had been looking at a Yoga S920 previously (the one with the interesting watch clasp hinge which have now been discounted), and linux compatibility was fairly solid for laptop mode (if not tablet mode which I do not use anyway) so I’m just waiting for a S940 model to make it to Singapore to check it out in-person (May release in SG, I’m told). Lenovo has also only made this as a laptop rather than tablet so that makes it much more attractive from my perspective. Linux compatability is still a quetion mark so also holding on that to make sure I’m not emphasizing hardware over the OS.

Razer Blade Stealth 13”

This was my running favourite up until Razer changed the 2018 model and seemed to take a step backward from where they were with the 2019 version of this machine. Effectively a Macbook Pro at this weight profile, I tried a 2018 one in a store and have to admit, the build quality seemed solid, it has great Linux compatibility, the specs and performance were amazing, and I loved the keyboard. For some reason though, and despite the fact Razer says it’s upgradeable to 1TB (a nice change from soldered on), the Stealth comes with only 256GB of RAM onboard now which makes this a very expensive option if you’re buying it and then having to upgrade. I like this machine and its aesthetic, but also had concerns after a co-worker complained about Razer quality control after receiving a bad gaming keyboard from them. Still in the running, though waiting for 2019 models to hit Singapore shores to see if they seem like as big a step backward from the 2018 versions as they appear to be on paper.

The HP 360X

This machine gets raves from reviewers with amazing battery life and a fabulous screen, as well as a “gem cut” aesthetic which seems to impress (though personally, I’m meh on it.). It does meet specs, though heavier than I’d like, can have 16GB and 1TB onboard, but much like others, I’ve found the strangely small trackpad a little off-putting, they keyboard a little meh, and overall the machine feels fragile to me. I can’t imagine it surviving one of my non-business adventure trips so question whether it would hit the two year mark, let alone three. Also, a former colleague who has a previous iteration of this model complains about the keyboard as he has it as a machine for his home coding.

Denouement

At the end of the day, I’m still not happy with my options here except for the perhaps radical notion of maxing out a Gram, unless I really, really love the Yoga when it arrives. Sure, an XPS 2019 13” is a safe (and endorsed) bet, but I am having trouble bringing myself to do that.

So, other than the possibly backwards step of purchasing a Macbook 12” 2017 which would probably make me happy but put me two years behind current hardware, those are the options save just buying a Macbook Pro. So far, I am trying to wait out Tim Cook and hoping for an updated Macbook in June at WWDC (nope) or in September when machines get released ahead of XMas (though the rumour mill is talking a Macbook with an ARM processor which sounds slightly risky and imagine may cause some dev issues for me.).

There is, of course, the new-ish Macbook Air, though this feels both expensive for what you get (i5 processor?), and once it’s maxed out it is only slightly cheaper than a fully loaded Macbook Pro so, again, suboptimal from my perspective, and then, of course, if I’m replacing for a Macbook Pro, I’m back again looking at the PC laptop replacements.

Overall, I think the thing all this review work has done has made me really appreciate the excellent design tradeoffs Apple made to create the Macbook I do have – at least for my use case. It’s something to say that despite all the new, shiny machines on the market, in their various configurations, I’d still rather keep my current Macbook if I wasn’t worried about it having gone past the three year mark now.

While it might be slight productivity risky (I have triple backups so it’s more a matter of how long I’d be down), I’m going to keep an eye on the market and wait to see if there is a new Macbook in September, or what else comes out in the 2019 lineup from other computer manufacturers. I will be checking the Lenovo as soon as it hits Singapore shores, and maybe play around a little more with an LG Gram to see how well it works with Linux and if loading that out would be worth it.

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