Updated: February 15, 2016
If you are following my distro reviews, you have a pretty good understanding of how well different Linux distributions support a relatively brand-new laptop that comes loaded with a bunch of modern techno obstacles like UEFI, Secure Boot, GPT. To a point. Sometimes, correlating all that info can be tricky. Plus you may also think this article could be a boring rehash. Think again.
Some of it will definitely cover my experiences with the laptop in the last 7-8 months, but it will also mention a few new names, and also give you a broader perspective of the state of Linux hardware support toward the end of 2015, beginning of 2016. If anything, that's the one lesson that could be useful today. Shall we?
The Red Hat family
You thought I would start with Ubuntu and friends. But no, not really. Red Hat is the first, and here, there isn't much to report sadly. None of the Red Hat derivatives would boot on this machine, Secure Boot notwithstanding. Think of a distro based on the enterprise release, and ask yourselves whether it can do that. Nope. Not even Fedora 23.
Scientific Linux, CentOS and the rest share the same sad fate. They would start booting, either from a thumb drive or a DVD, and then just fail. Very annoying, as I'd love to have one of the Red Hat flavors installed and used on this host. Especially CentOS. Or a highly pimped up Fedora if it ever decides to offer codecs more easily and be supported for longer than nine minutes.
I wish I could debug, but there's nothing to debug. Not even a measly virtual console. Well, sometimes, it's just not meant to be. The same way Mandriva and all its modern and renamed derivatives would not boot on the T61 machine. Shame, really. But there's still hope.
While I expected openSUSE to fail, it actually booted just fine. The subsequent desktop experience wasn't too stellar, and I did have problems in several key areas of day-to-day use, however, I didn't have too much to complain on the hardware side. Smartphone support in KDE is rather awful.
The version before Leap also worked fine. However, Tumbleweed does not seem to like UEFI, which I came about testing after failing to upgrade the openSUSE 13.2 with Plasma, an exercise best left alone. I will retest the rolling release, see if it makes any difference, but for the time being, your best bet is the mainstream Leap 42.1 edition. To a point.
For all our need to bash Ubuntu, it's the most forgiving of all the distros. Early on, Trusty did a trustworthy job of it, but we did have some small issues with its derivatives. Since, the experience has been mostly positive. Virtually all flavors and releases would boot without any ugly hiccups. A few of them still struggle with the network card, and in general, the support for a variety of peripherals isn't awesome. More about that later.
I was asked to review several distributions in the last six months, and honestly I tried. But the reason why you're not seeing any reviews on these is because there's nothing to report. So frustrating. I was hoping for some great time, and then, blue balls.
The examples include KaOS, Antergos, Mageia, Chakra. Alas, for whatever reason, even with UEFI turned off, they still would not boot on this particular machine, with symptoms similar to the Red Hat family case. Nothing to do, nothing to debug. A complete freeze that can only be recovered through a hard, cold reboot. We might try again someday.
In general, when it comes to the Arch family, it gets rather complicated. Netrunner Rolling and Apricity OS both failed to install their bootloader, and so they failed. But Manjaro worked okay, which is both good and bad. Consistency is the key, right.
What did we learn here?
Ask yourself that Osbourne Cox, Burn After Reading style. Indeed, there are several rather interesting observations, but they go beyond the specific per-distro hardware support. Surprisingly, UEFI is not the big limiting factor. Far from it. It's the one thing that kind of challenged a few distributions early on in 2015, but soon thereafter, the issue went away, then the problem rolled into the actual usability space.
The network stack was (is) dodgy, especially with the Ubuntu distros. Worse yet, the Trusty Realtek bug that was supposed to be fixed in later kernels still seems to persist, and comes to bear in the most random of fashions. Touchpad was also flaking in some earlier kernels, the way we saw in the Linux Mint example, but the issue did not reappear in the more recent releases. It seems to have been fully and completely resolved.
Peripherals wise, and this definitely seems to be more of a desktop environment implementation than anything else, but hey, we cannot and we should not separate them from the overall distro experience, smartphone support remains quite tricky. Bluetooth is another point of contention, with intermittent, inconsistent behavior. Overall, Gnome-like desktops seem more favorable when it comes to smartphones, whereas KDE and others really suck. We're not just talking about iPhone, as it is understandably a complicated piece of hardware. Even the trivial stuff like Windows Phone and Ubuntu Phone are far from given. Again, tons of reading for you should you choose to browse my distro review catalog.
On the bright side, the Intel processor and graphics posed no difficulty, nor did the disk itself. The mundane stuff seems to be supported just fine. I had no problems with the Fn buttons or the suspend & resume functionality. Power management is mostly spot on, with a few occasions where the distros and their environments wouldn't manage brightness that well. Battery life is wildly inconsistent, and is getting worse over time, because the new releases are far more gluttonous.
How are we doing here? Well, okay. Not stellar, but not bad either. New technology will always take time getting adopted and implemented properly. For instance, UEFI is no longer an issue. But I am more worried about in-between-release inconsistency in the quality of drivers for the network and power management rather than the fact something works or not. Things that suddenly break are far more serious.
Provided they work in the first place. Of the three major distro families, Red Hat is out of the picture. Ubuntu suffers from Wireless hiccups. Well, all of them really, to be honest. Bluetooth remains unreliable. And there are some other issues and problems. I won't be comparing to Windows, because it really makes no sense. In fact, early on, Windows 10 had some major difficulties with the hardware, too.
All in all, if you are keen on using Linux, statistically, your initial boot luck stands at about 75%, the probability of failing when it comes to networking is about 0.3, and if you need strong smartphone or Bluetooth support, you will be disappointed. Ubuntu clearly leads overall, which is kind of expected, haters be hating. Anyhow, this is where we stand, end of 2015 early 2016, a laptop that is less than one year old. If you are looking for the latest and greatest, hardware and Linux wise, the initial ride could be a little rough and tough. But definitely quite doable and fun. Provided you choose Ubuntu. Hard facts, 30+ distros tested. Hint: This is not the end of it. Far from it. We'll get some more funky distros under our belt, or my name isn't Sam. Maybe even Fedora. Who knows. Hint. See you around, fellas.