On Linux Hardware Compatibility

I love how anti-linux advocates and windows fanbois always pick on Linux for hardware compatibility or rather lack of thereof. Just about every rant about Linux I have seen so far includes a gripe about it not supporting new or exotic hardware out of the box. Funny thing is that, neither does Windows.

Here is an experiment, and I encourage everyone to conduct it at their leisure. First, grab your Windows XP CD (preferably the one with SP2 slipstreamed in) and do a clean install on a formated drive. Once it is done, pull up the device manager and count the yellow question marks (these are the devices that failed to initialize because they are not supported out of the box). Try to figure out what they are (good luck on that), and write them down on a piece of paper. Once you do that, grab your favorite Linux distro (I recommend Ubuntu) and repeat the exercise. Once you have your Linux installed, run lshw or equivalent command and see how many of the devices from your “yellow question mark” list were detected and configured during the installation. I suspect that you will be able to cross of at least few of them from your list. Your results may vary

I did this experiment several times on fairly standard, and widely deployed (at least in my company) Inspiron 600m hardware. Both Dapper Drake (6.06) and Gutsy Gibbon (7.10) have booted into fully operational machines and installing optional “proprietary” drivers was as easy as clicking on a button in one of the system menus. Windows XP SP2 on the other hand booted in low resolution mode, and without any working network device forcing me to install 4 or 5 driver packages off an OEM “Drivers & Utilities” CD that was shipped with the machine.

I had very similar experience when I installed Hoary on my old Inspiron 4000 laptop back in the day. Not to mention that one time when I pulled the HD out of the aged 4000 and installed it in an Inspiron 4150 which actually had a different motherboard, different video card, sound card and network devices… And it still worked. Don’t ask me how – but I was using that machine for over two years without a hitch.

These are just the examples which I have documented, but in my experience every time I pitied Linux (or rather Ubuntu) against Windows the former always turned out to be the more robust, and more user friendly (at least during installation and setup) than the later. Perhaps I’m biased, but I implore you to test this yourself.

Note that I didn’t talk about Vista here, because I have yet to do a clean install of that monster. Hardly anyone that I know is running it, and those who are are usually more interested in downgrading to XP than re-installing it when the time comes. Honestly, that’s the sentiment around here. I can’t tell you how many people approached me asking if I can downgrade their Dell or HP computer to XP. But that’s inessential. Perhaps the new OS from Redmond can really match Ubuntu in it’s ability to detect, and configure hardware out of the box. Still, that doesn’t change the fact that Ubuntu had Windows XP (the most widely deployed OS in the world so far) outmatched and outclassed for years now all the while Microsoft fanbois were ragging on Linux for lack of hardware compatibility.

So I ask you, which operating system is better in this area? The main difference between the two is that all the hardware being sold out there is guaranteed to work on Windows. So while a clean install of XP will often have your machine limping in a half crippled, low resolution mode, with no sound, no network connection and no working modem, you can always get it working with the proprietary 3rd party drivers. You just need to find and install them – which may or may not be difficult, depending on whether or not you managed to lose the OEM CD with the drivers.

So what is the main difference between Windows and Linux? Windows always has access to 3rd party drivers – Linux, not so much. Is this something we should blame Linux community, or developers? No, not really – just like we can’t credit Microsoft and their dev teams with making all these drivers. They are made by hardware manufacturers who are at liberty to pick and choose which operating systems they are willing to support. How do they choose them? I guess they look at adoption and deployment rates – and many of them find Linux to be to small of a target to commit their resources to supporting it.

So we end up with an endless loop scenario. Hardware vendors are not supporting Linux because to few people are using it. Few people are using Linux because the lack of support from the hardware vendors. In such environment the only thing Linux community can do is to hack, and reverse engineer everything they can get their hands on, and support it out of the box. And this is what they have been doing for years now.

[tags]ubuntu, linux, hardware, gutsy, dapper, hoary, inspiron, dell, xp, windows[/tags]

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12 Responses to On Linux Hardware Compatibility

  1. Starhawk UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Well of course i agree luke having installed Ubuntu as well as windows on several machines. Ubuntu does great esp on older hardware.

    Here’s a funny one for ya tho if ya haven’t saw it, WinUtuxU. An illegal copy of win xp hacked up to look like buntu with a bunch of open source software installed. I must be a bit twisted cause i think it is hilarious.

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  2. Stephen! UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    Hardware support generally seems quite good, particularly when there used to be distros such as Corel Linux, where you’d be lucky if you could get so much as a USB mouse to work.

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  3. Greg AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    The average punter does not install operating systems, they buy a computer with everything installed. XP and SATA is a classic example, you have to add a floppy drive to load the drivers to install the system, whereas Linux has the SATA support build in to the kernel. Motherboard manufacturers added an IDE emulation mode to their SATA chips to get around this problem. How many computers are running XP in this reduced performance mode just because it was “too hard” to do it the proper way.

    Another jibe is the “can’t play DVDs out of the box”. People who say this do not even know that XP cannot play DVDs either, a copy of Power DVD or other must be installed to enable Windows Media to play DVDs. This ignorance is created by preinstalled Operating Systems where some one has already fixed it all up.

    As an aside my daughter has an M-Audio MK-149 midi keyboard that came with Windows 98 software and a Yamaha sound card. It struggled with XP, but sort of worked – Vista, forget it. I paired it with a Sound Blaster Live and Ubuntustudio, and with minimal configuration (switching midi from timidity to hardware) in Rosegarden and Jack it now plays perfectly and has access to all the latest linux music software.

    Linux is easier to install and configure, but there will always be new hardware that will take time to have drivers created, I just avoid buying anything until i know it works.

    :)

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  4. Well, currently I am on windows until ATI releases an update.

    :( I am in the middle of a big project or I would try your suggestion luke. Typically with my linux install i don’t care about breaking shit… but right now its important that i don’t.

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  5. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Bah. XPSP2 was released in 2004. Compare it to one of the linices from then if you want an accurate comparison. There’s been a hell of a lot of change in the PC hardware environment in the last 4 years. Hell, XP has just reached end of life – you’re comparing a very-soon-to-be-obsoleted OS against current ones. Perhaps compare XPSP2 against Ubuntu 5.04?

    Don’t get me wrong, linux installs are much more flexible >if you know what you’re doing

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  6. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    < (damn html fails), but this kind of comparison isn’t particularly fair.

    The best install I’ve seen to date was a SuSE install (I think it was SuSE) about 5 years ago. My mate installed it on a second box for me from a totally clean hard drive. After it had been up 45 minutes he asked me how many reboots it took to get to a working state… and the answer was ‘none’. From starting it up to finishing configuring it, the system hadn’t been rebooted.

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  7. ths UNITED KINGDOM Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    the problem is not the requirement to install something, but more IF IT’S AVAILABLE. Most hardware comes with a windows driver package, but not with Linux drivers. Most probably you have luck and recent kernels support it, but just have a look at the mess with graphics cards: the manufacturers don’t release documentation, or insist on ridiculous NDAs, and then you end up with a product you can use to only 20% of its power.

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  8. Geoff CANADA Mozilla Firefox Debian GNU/Linux says:

    Also, don’t forget that once hardware is supported in Linux, it stays supported, I assume until such a time as the hardware is just so ancient that nobody needs it anymore. And even then, the last version of the driver source will be available for any ancient hardware lovers to mess around with if they want to.

    In contrast, every new Windows version obsoletes tons of hardware (at least that which has no support in Linux).

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  9. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    [quote post=”2429″]Here’s a funny one for ya tho if ya haven’t saw it, WinUtuxU. An illegal copy of win xp hacked up to look like buntu with a bunch of open source software installed. I must be a bit twisted cause i think it is hilarious.[/quote]

    WTF? Why on earth would someone even do something like this. I mean, I thing it would be much easier just to install Ubuntu with the windows based Wubi installer and use it like that. :P

    [quote post=”2429″]Another jibe is the “can’t play DVDs out of the box”. People who say this do not even know that XP cannot play DVDs either, a copy of Power DVD or other must be installed to enable Windows Media to play DVDs. This ignorance is created by preinstalled Operating Systems where some one has already fixed it all up.[/quote]

    Excellent point! One of my coworkers learned this the hard way when he purchased a CD/DVD burner for his laptop. He plugged it in and it was working fine up until he wanted to watch a movie. :P Most Windows users however never learn this lesson.

    [quote post=”2429″]Hell, XP has just reached end of life – you’re comparing a very-soon-to-be-obsoleted OS against current ones. Perhaps compare XPSP2 against Ubuntu 5.04?[/quote]

    I think I did – I linked to my experiments with Hoary Hedgehog which is 5.04. :) I was using middle-of-the-road hardware at that point (not new, but not obsolete) and XP failed to detect half of the hardware which Kubuntu had no problems with.

    [quote post=”2429″]Also, don’t forget that once hardware is supported in Linux, it stays supported, I assume until such a time as the hardware is just so ancient that nobody needs it anymore.[/quote]

    Yep, very true. This actually happened to me once before. I was trying to “resurrect” a very old, utterly obsolete desktop Compaq and I got stuck. Because of round of acquisitions, and no interest in the platform the web page with drivers, and support manuals for this system was simply lost in cyberspace. The URL’s printed in the user manual pointed to 404 pages or redirected into void. It took me a lot of effort to actually track down the right windows drivers and I still didn’t get everything working.

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  10. vacri AUSTRALIA Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    [quote comment=”8992″]I think I did – I linked to my experiments with Hoary Hedgehog which is 5.04. :) [/quote]

    Ah, my bad, I thought Hoary was later than that.

    Still, when a linux install doesn’t work, it’s time to start some indepth troubleshooting to try and figure out how to do things for this hardware, which usually requires a higher base level of knowledge. When a windows install doesn’t work, you generally just go to the manufacturer’s website and download the stuff to make it work. Each way has it’s pros and cons.

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  11. Fred FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Linux says:

    FYI if you want to check the level of compatibility of a device with a Linux distribution, you can use hardware4linux.info.

    Fred

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  12. Alma ISRAEL Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    There are solutions to almost everything but it takes much more understanding and knowledge in computers to overcome some of the challenges that a linux user can and does encounter while every one can use the XP even with minimum knowledge

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