Open Source Linux/BSD and Laptops from Scratch

A very informative discussion has appeared on Slashdot under the heading,OEMs Allowed To Lock Secure Boot In Windows 10 Computers, that has revealed some good information. It may become less straightforward for new people to discover Linux and other operating systems that are alternatives to Microsoft Windows.

As I mentioned in an earlier article, Microsoft Windows can be great in some scenarios while alternatives desirable in others. What if you bought a computer that cannot run Linux at all or at least is such a time-consuming process to get it to do so, you decide it is not worth it? In that situation, you will give up any notion of using Linux technology.

Let’s talk about assembling a laptop from scratch so you have maximum control over what you can install on it.

Assembling a Laptop – An Overview

A user by the handle, Lumpy (12016), on the Slashdot forum talked about simply putting your own laptop together. WikiHow has a good article titled,How to Build a Laptop Computer, that gives you the broad steps involved. It is what you need to do. You need more than that, you need specifics.

Decide on Computer Processor and Memory

Are you going to run a 2012 version Intel processor? How about a late 2014? Maybe you want the latest and greatest they have available. This is where you start. Each of those years is formally described as an architecture. Wikipedia has a list of Intel Micro-architectures that is kept up-to-date. For example, the Haswell architecture is roughly the 2014 Intel architecture.

There is a reason I point that out. The micro-architecture determines what kind of motherboard you are going to get. The is the main unit that makes up the majority of the laptop. What you choose determines what processor you can run. The motherboard is designed to a standard called a chipset architecture. The chipset standard is going to determine what the motherboard and, hence the computer, will support. Intel has different chipsets that roughly correspond to processor architectures discussed in the previous paragraph. Currently, they call these chipset variations, Platform Controller Hub.

What is a Barebones Laptop?

Now that you know what processor you want, you know where to find the chipset it will support (Intel.com has very detailed breakdowns for both); you then need to choose a specific manufacturer of that chipset. To keep things simple, we will just highlight one manufacturer, MSI or Micro-Star International. They have a website at the address, www.msiwhitebook.com that lists current board models. These are what is called Notebook Barebones.

A Notebook Barebone is a laptop you add your own processor, memory, wifi card, and hard drive. The same companies that make barebone laptops are the same companies that make the ones you buy pre-built. The difference is you add your own processor and provide your own support. It comes down to control versus external direct hands-on support.

Where you Buy Them?

A Web search of Barebone Notebook will bring up a large number of websites that provide them. All the top brick and mortar, major retailers sell them online and as well as pure online resellers. I’ve checked. It means you can get the laptop kits in far more places than at first would seem likely. It also means you can get full warranty support for the units. Not assembly, but if the unit itself is defective, they can facilitate those kinds of issues.

What You Should Know At this Point

Now you know the basic approach to creating your own laptop computer if you choose to do so. This blog post is not a step-by-step on assembling your own laptop. The goal here is simply to document that fact that you can assemble your own laptop from parts. In general, what you will need to do is the following:

  1. Read the official guides on the Web about building your own laptop.
  2. The computer processor you are thinking about using.
  3. The chipset that is compatible with the processor you want to use.
  4. Buy your processor.
  5. Buy your barebone notebook that has the chipset support you need for your processor.
  6. Read the manufacturer’s instructions and materials very carefully before you proceed.
  7. Buy the relevant parts, memory, hard drive, optical drive (if needed), and wifi card (internal or external).
  8. Be methodical and systematic in putting the machine together, don’t rush and don’t power on until you are sure.
  9. Install the operating system of your choice whether that is Microsoft Windows, Linux, BSD, vxWorks, QNX or seL4.

Observe how it all goes and then celebrate that you went through the roadmap for maximizing your computer options. The mindset you apply in this process extends to any other electronics area if you so choose. You can build whatever you want including TVs, blu-ray players and remote car starters if you have the patience, time, money, and willingness to do it. Linux simply means you can have access to an operating system for running these things. Of course, these are just possibilities.

Why Buy a Barebone Notebook?

First, a laptop is a useful vehicle for mobile computing in form between a tablet and a desktop. Second, everything I say here applies to desktops and will eventually apply to tablets. Third, you have full control over the standardized parts that make up the computer based upon what the barebone model supports.

Why Would Anyone Not Do This?

This is not as simple as buying a computer in a box, packed up and fairly ready to go. That is far more convenient with a much broader formal support network available in the consumer realm. You also have most component assembly risks nearly ruled out with a fully packaged unit. Those considerations are valid for a large audience.

Future of Open Source on Hardware

People have speculated that Secure Boot could diminish the appeal of Linux. Depending on how it is approached, it could decrease the numbers of new people not previously exposed to Linux from trying it out on machines they bought. Others in the Slashdot forum think that the cost of computers that could run Linux may go up. Here is another view.

First, it may be in the best interest of those who deal in Linux in an official capacity to incorporate the concept of barebone computer construction in the approach to open source. That will more fully align with audiences interested in the A to Z of Linux.

Second, given where companies who are profitable in Linux are these days, they can decide to fund a focused venture that seeds the marketplace with Linux friendly hardware. RedHat, Ubuntu, Amazon, Google, and Facebook collectively derive billions from the use and distribution of Linux. They are not affected by such things as hardware shifts in consumer computer models, but their future would be technical collaborators could be. Easy access to Linux in the social pipeline indirectly benefits their basic long-term objectives.

Third, the server hardware prices are not going up. People who operate Linux (I knew 2 top gun Linux admins 10 years ago) do not have the least bit of reservation about using hardware from boutique sources that may offer far lower per unit prices. You can build your own server hardware and sometimes you can produce a faster system that way.

In the end, if Secure Boot takes things south in terms of a negative affect on Linux accessibility to mainstream packaged hardware, it could become a good thing for the open source community. Such an event could spur on efforts to make barebone creation better communicated, advertised, and widespread than it is today. It may even urge on a new generation of top hardware makers who bring their A game with Linux and BSD.

It Still Takes Money for a Machine

 

Whatever the case may be, if you are so motivated, you can have a computer system able to run Linux with very few issues. Linux is free but the machines to run it on will cost regardless if you build it or it was fully built for you. Software is unlimited but hardware is physical and is a scarce resource. Only so many units can be made and the cost of their manufacture has to be balanced with the potential to reclaim the cost plus whatever margin makes the effort worthwhile. That has to be respected. It also means that going the barebones route bears even more methodical research than contrasting brand name, fully packaged units.

An Easier Path Involves Apple

 

Speaking of hardware, all Apple MacBooks can run Linux. While the reality may be that the ideas in this article are time intensive to undertake, Apple computers do offer the same end-result in a convenient package. In fact, out of the box, those machines are running a variation of BSD Unix in a commercially supported form. You can even get Microsoft Office. Many mainstream Linux tools and processes will run on a MacBook without alteration. Therefore, a shorter path to open source if creating a system from a barebones notebook proves untenable may simply be to go Apple.

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