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The Linux Hardware Hurdle

Hardware compatibility can be a major issue for Linux users -- but users can take steps to change that.
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Over the years I've run various Linux distributions on my desktop. Each new distribution or update has been a learning experience. During this time, I have also discovered that – unfortunately – many Linux users still choose to support those companies who don't support the Linux platform.

In this article, I'll examine this issue closely, and I'll also offer tangible solutions to these issues as well.

Define a Linux PC

There are few things in this world that frustrate me more than the scenario below:

  • A newer Linux user wants a new PC.
  • This same Linux user visits their local big box store to buy one with Windows installed.
  • After getting the PC home, they decide to try installing their preferred Linux distribution.

  • Something goes wrong with the installation due to compatibility issues.
  • The user then visits the related Linux forum to vent how poor Linux hardware support is.

Did you catch where things went wrong here? Out of ignorance and misunderstanding, some newer Linux users will visit their nearest big box store to pick up a new PC assuming it will work flawlessly with Linux. If their intent was to simply run the operating system that the PC came with, then purchasing a local computer in this manner would be fine.

Sadly though, these newer users have been led to believe that popular Linux distributions will work on every piece of hardware you throw at it.

While it's true that, out of the box, distributions such as Ubuntu have more new and legacy hardware support, PCs from big box stores were custom designed with specs for the latest version of the Windows desktop. In other words, it's like installing OS X on a PC.

Yes, it's possible to do. However, running OS X on a Mac is surely going to offer a smoother user experience since the hardware was setup for that operating system. So when I hear people complain about how a specific desktop Linux distribution didn't install as expected on a PC designed for Windows, I find myself rolling my eyes.

To be ultimately fair to newer Linux users, most of them have no idea that desktop Linux distributions can be pre-installed from select PC vendors. For those Linux users who know better and still choose to purchase from companies that don't support Linux supporters’ preferred platform, it should come as no surprise if things go poorly during a Linux installation.

After all, the PC clearly states it was built for Microsoft Windows.

Hardware compatibility hurdles

More than legacy software, it's the ability to install a distribution that will make or break a first time experience for a new Linux user. This has been true for years and even today it remains valid.

Certainly, buying PCs pre-installed with Linux solves this issue. But what about for those people who aren't in the market for a new PC? Surely, we can't expect everyone to rush out and buy a new computer just to run a specific Linux distribution?

The truth is, being able to install Linux on any desktop PC we wish is one of the most attractive advantages to the Linux desktop. And this leads us to depending on good information as to which components should be sought out for our existing PCs.

Hardware compatibility lists, or HCLs, are lists designed to ensure users have a firm grasp of which hardware works with Linux and which doesn't. Unfortunately, they're usually dated, poorly put together and more often than not, plain wrong.

I've seen these HCLs state that PCs specifically designed for Linux had poor compatibility. Not only was this wrong and misleading, it further demonstrates why HCLs don't work. User edited lists are flawed since we can't determine the skill level of the person entering the information.

Issues with HCLs only add to perceived Linux hurdles by pushing FUD (fear uncertainty and doubt) front and center, even when that's not the intent of the list itself. One might even call this an unfortunate event of "happenstance."

Wireless devices and peripherals

One of my favorite things to berate is the current state of Linux wireless devices, as Linux distributions present it. I realize I bring this up far too often, however it's relevant to this article.


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Tags: Linux, hardware


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