Note: Our best Linux distro for laptops feature has been fully updated. This article was first published in January 2011.
The smart notebook user shouldn't overlook Linux. The question is, which distro should you pick?
You'll get a different answer depending who you ask. You'll probably be pointed in the direction of Arch for performance, Debian for stability and Ubuntu if you want easy access to the biggest collection of apps.
If that's not enough choice to make your head spin, Slackware has its fans too – particularly among people who use older laptops.
In this article, we'll look at a range of different scenarios that should be familiar to portable users, and explore Linux distros that will help you survive and flourish in these situations.
To make everybody's life easier, we'll limit ourselves to pre-packaged live Linux distros. We'll also stick to live installations as much as possible throughout this tour. This is important if you're working on a corporate laptop and can't install software.
With our advice, you'll be able to work in Windows, and when you're done, transform the machine into a bespoke system, laser-targeted for your needs and wants.
Linux for gaming
Linux is a wonderful platform for gaming, whatever your preferred genre. There's plenty to choose from, including real-time and turn-based strategy titles, puzzle games and first-person shooters.
To get started in the world of Linux gaming, one of the best live DVDs has to be Fedora Games Spin, which comes as a downloadable 4GB ISO you can burn to disc or copy to USB. Log in as the live system user (no password) and use the Application Finder to browse over 100 games spread across genres as varied as arcade, adventure and sport.
The concept behind the distribution is boot and play – just pop a USB drive, CD or DVD into your laptop, the distro will boot and you can start gaming. This approach is particularly useful if your laptop has been configured by an overzealous system administrator – the sort who robs you of the right to even adjust the time on your work machine.
If you copy the live install to a USB stick, you can then install extras such as Wine and other games through the Yum Extender app, which you'll find under Administration. Steam and Play on Linux (a gaming-friendly frontend for Wine) can also be installed via the RPM Fusion repository – install both free and non-free repos – and the PlayOnLinux RPM repository respectively. Once installed, just reload Yum, let it update and the packages will be accessible.
There are other live-friendly gaming distros to try too. Live Linux Gamers is getting a little long in the tooth, but offers a Lite edition that fits on a CD if you're fresh out of DVDs.
Play-Linux doesn't come with any games pre-installed, but is set up out of the box to work with Play On Linux and Steam, so use it in conjunction with a USB stick to build up your collection. Just boot from the live CD and close the installer when it pops up. Click the > button in the bottom left-hand corner to reveal the games menu where both can be found.
Finally, there's the Ubuntu-based Ultimate Edition – ignore the Gamer link, which points to an outdated release, and instead choose the latest build (4.x). Scroll down and you'll find a link to the current Gamer release. This also includes Wine and the PlayOnLinux app for playing Windows games on Linux.
If Windows games are what you're after, you'll also need to download Cedega and CrossOver Games. These tools aren't included in any distribution, but for maximum compatibility it's best to download the latest releases from the developers' original websites anyway.