Linux’s hardware support is better than ever, but you still can’t take it for granted. Not every laptop and desktop you see at your local computer store (or, more realistically, on Amazon) will work perfectly with Linux. Whether you’re buying a PC for Linux or just want to ensure you can dual-boot at some point in the future, thinking about this ahead of time will pay off.
Give Linux a spin if you already have the hardware
If you already have the PC available to you, you probably shouldn’t spend much time researching how compatible it is with Linux. Instead, just give Linux a test run on that PC and see for yourself.
Michael Homnick Live CDs or flash drives are a great way to quickly determine whether or not a Linux distro will run on your PC.
This is quick, easy, and safe. You can download a Linux ISO in a few minutes, flash it to a USB drive, reboot your computer, and boot into a live Linux environment running off the USB drive. If it doesn’t work well enough, you can just reboot your computer, go straight back into Windows, and forget about Linux on that hardware.
Closed-source graphics and Wi-Fi drivers may sometimes be necessary, and may not be running out of the box. If you don’t have 3D graphics support, that’s normal. If Wi-Fi doesn’t work automatically, it may do so after you install Linux on your PC and install the appropriate Wi-Fi support.
Check hardware compatibility databases
There’s a lot of information out there about whether specific computers are compatible with Linux. Much of this is in dedicated hardware compatibility databases. Canonical provides a Ubuntu desktop certified hardware database that lists hardware guaranteed to work with Ubuntu, for example. If you’re looking for a list of individual components instead of full laptop and desktop PCs, try the Ubuntu component catalog. These aren’t exhaustive lists—in fact, they’re very minimal lists of only hardware manufacturers have gone out of their way to certify.
A simple Google search like "GeForce GTX 980 Ti Linux support" can often let you know if specific PC components work with Linux.
Linux-Drivers lists a wider variety of individual databases. For example, many Linux distributions provide their own hardware compatibility database websites, including openSUSE, Debian, and Linux Mint.
You could also just perform a web search for a model number of laptop—or a specific hardware component, if you’re building your own PC—and “Linux support” to see how well it works on Linux. A simple web search can often pull up a wealth of information.
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But let’s back up. You don’t need to dig through hardware compatibility databases to buy a PC you know will be compatible with Linux anymore. Many PC manufacturers offer laptops and desktops with Linux preinstalled. This means that those PCs are guaranteed to work properly with Linux. You can often even save some money when buying these—a Windows license isn’t included, so you’re avoiding the “Microsoft tax” you usually have to pay when buying a PC for Linux.
Dell's slick, powerful XPS 13 is one of the best laptops available today, and you can get it with Linux preinstalled.
Dell offers a line of Linux PCs, from affordable sub-$300 Inspiron laptops all the way up to the XPS 13 ultrabook and Precision M3800 MacBook Pro-competitor. Dell’s Linux laptops are nothing to sneeze at, either; the XPS 13 is one of the best lightweight laptops you can buy.
System76 is well-known in the Ubuntu community and sells a variety of laptops and desktop PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed. (The laptop at the top of this page comes from System76.) ZaReason offers a similar line of Linux PCs with a choice of Linux distribution—or none at all. Linux Mint is partnering with a hardware manufacturer to sell a “MintBox Mini” PC. You can install your favorite Linux distribution afterwards, of course.
LinuxPreloaded.com provides a more comprehensive list of other manufacturers offering Linux PCs and where they ship to around the world. In the past, Linux geeks could only dream of having so many options.