Linux and Hardware Compatibility

If you haven’t installed Linux on your machine yet and are wondering whether you can, it is relatively safe to say that Ubuntu will run on most machines out there today. Of course, this statement comes with a major caveat: You just never know until you get up and running.

There are so many minor parts to your machine that it is difficult to say whether each part will cooperate with your installation. Ignoring minor parts for the time being, there are video cards, sound chips, LAN cards, monitors, and so on, and they all need to be considered.

If you are going to buy a new machine on which to run Ubuntu, then it is reasonable enough to do a bit of worrying and check things out first, but if you are going to install it on the machine you have, I recommend just diving in. After all, you don’t really have to install anything the first time out.

If you have a live CD, just pop that CD in your drive, boot up your machine, and, biff, bam, zowie, you’ll be up and running (or not) in a minute or two. If everything seems to be going as it should . . . well, your worries are over, and you can go ahead and install the system when you’re ready and willing.

That is one of the Ubuntu advantages— not only do all the essentials fit on a single CD (compared to four or more for other distros), but that CD is both a live operating environment and the installer! You can’t get much more convenient than that.

If things don’t work out for you with the live CD, you can search the Web to see if you can identify what part of your hardware puzzle is causing your problems. (Or if you are looking to buy a machine on which to install Ubuntu, you can search for hardware that is supported by Linux.) Of course, before you can do this, you need to know what models of hardware you have.

You should know at least what motherboard, central processing unit (CPU), monitor, and video card you have if you want to be able to find out anything of value. Identifying your CPU and monitor should be easy enough, but the motherboard and video card may require a bit more searching.

If you have no documentation that clearly states the make and model of these devices, you can find out most things you need to know from within Windows by going to the Windows Control Panel, double-clicking System, and then clicking the Hardware tab in that window. Once in the Hardware tab, click the Device Manager button, and see what you can find about your system components there.

Sometimes the information there is rather limited, so you might instead want to try out a shareware application such as HWiNFO or Sandra to get more useful details, such as the specifications of your motherboard or the supported video modes for your present setup.

Both HWiNFO and Sandra should give you the information you need about your motherboard, but if they don’t (or if you don’t feel like bothering with them), you can always just open up the case of your computer and look at your board. You needn’t worry about damaging anything because you don’t need to touch anything—so don’t.

You may need a flashlight to find it, but the model name and number should be stamped on there somewhere, either in the middle of the board or around the edges. Mine, for example, says quite clearly in the middle of the board, AOpen MX46-533V. You should be looking for similar information. Once you have all your information, you can do a variety of things to check out your hardware’s compatibility with Ubuntu.

You can simply do a Yahoo! or Google search by entering your motherboard’s make and model plus the word Linux. This works for other hardware devices too. You can also post a question to the Ubuntu User Forums or one of the other various Linux forums or mailing lists on the Web.

Just write that you are a newbie and want to know if anyone has had any experience using Ubuntu with the board (or other hardware) in question. You will probably get quite a few responses. Linux users are usually rather evangelical in terms of trying to draw in new Penguinistas.

All worries about compatibility aside, there are some minimum hardware requirements that you will need to meet:

  • A computer with an i386-based, AMD64, or PowerPC processor
  • About 2 gigabytes (GB) of hard disk space, though having at least 10GB would be a bit more comfy
  • Sufficient memory (RAM)

As for RAM, the official specs tell you that you need a minimum of 128 megabytes (MB) to run Ubuntu. While you can no doubt get by with this, you’d get by much better with more. My basic rule of thumb, no matter what OS I am dealing with, is that you need the recommended (not the minimum) memory plus at least 128MB.

Regardless of what the official specs say, put in more. You won’t regret it. Saying that the more memory you have, the better, may sound a bit simple, and perhaps even cavalier, but trust me on this one. When you have too little memory, no matter what system you are running, weird things happen: Applications seem to take years to open, or don’t open at all; menus take forever to render their little icons; freezes and general system meltdowns just happen much more often.

To be realistic and exceedingly honest, I would say that 256MB is the absolute minimum you want to have. I personally would recommend that you have at least 384MB of RAM in order for things to move smoothly and comfortably. It is such a waste to have a pretty speedy CPU and not be able to appreciate it because its hands are tied by a lack of memory.

It is sort of like trying to do jumping jacks in a broom closet. Sure, you could do it, but you would be all contorted, and you’d be smashing your hands into the walls every 1.4 seconds. Fortunately, it is pretty hard to find a machine with only 128MB of RAM these days, but if you do happen to have such a beastie, you can at least take solace in the fact that memory is relatively cheap, so go for it.