Shopping For Linux-Compatable Hardware Is Easy!

Shopping for Linux-compatable hardware is only slightly more difficult than finding out if that RAM upgrade for your computer needs 168, 184 or 240 pins on it. I have been in the market for a new motherboard for a couple months now, and I will detail what steps I took before finalizing a purchase decision.

The reason why I’m writing this article about selecting a motherboard instead of another component is because it requires the most research. There are a dozen different components that need to be analyized before knowing for sure that everything works in Linux. Things that are trivial to get working in Windows, such as USB, RAID, or Sound chipsets may need to be validated to work properly in Linux.

I need Gigabit Ethernet and 5.1 or more channel Onboard Sound. Firewire or eSATA are bonuses, but not required. I need at least one 16x PCI Express slot, and other than that, I’m not too picky. After a little bit of research, I settled on the Intel P35 chipset for two reasons:

1. It is a fairly new chipset. People have claimed over the years that Linux has bad hardware support. If Linux really does have bad hardware support, then this newer chipset would not be supported.

2. P35 Motherboards are widely available, with dozens and dozens of choices. If a specific motherboard is unsupported, I’ll simply go with another choice with different components that are supported.

In this case, I’ll be taking a look at one prospective motherboard, the DFI BLOOD IRON P35-T2RL LGA 775 Intel P35 ATX Intel Motherboard.

Also, you need to shop in the right places. I like using Newegg.com since they have two things that help out quite a bit when shopping:

1. Customer Reviews. This is the main reason why I like Newegg so much – they let customers speak their mind on a product, and give it a rating from 1-5 ‘eggs.’ If you think a product is TERRIBLE, you can go and bitch and moan all over the Customer Reviews page.

On the customer reviews page for the DFI Blood Iron, we see that someone used it with Sabayon Linux 64-bit, and did not mention any hardware compatibility issues while running Sabayon. This alone is very encouraging.

2. Detailed hardware specifications. I’ll let a picture speak more words than I can:

newegg_dfi_blood_iron.jpg

Pay attention on the right side, and we very easily find all of the chipsets used on this motherboard:

North Bridge: P35, South Bridge: ICH9R, Sound: Realtek ALC885, Network: Marvell 88E8053

That was pretty damn simple, now we get to put our Google-Fu to the test! Google-Fu is the most important ability needed to find out if something is going to work.

Start by searching the Ubuntu Forums, which often have users posting problems they have with specific hardware that doesn’t work out of the box.

Searching the Ubuntu forums, for the Gigabit Ethernet chipset name “88E8053″ in titles of posts resulted in a hit:
88E8053 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Controller 32 bits problem

Reading through that thread, come to find out – it’s a relatively new post (3 days ago) and there is on-going troubleshooting going on about using the Marvell PCI-E Chipset in Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon 32-bit, and that it indeed does work fine in 64 bit Linux. I think just from reading this first thread, it will indeed work in Ubuntu.

Next, let’s find out about the onboard sound. The DFI board uses a Realtek ALC885 chipset. When searching for this chipset I did not find much information, however I was able to find an Ubuntu forum thread where someone using the chipset referred to it as Intel HDA Audio. A few searches later, I found the Ubuntu Wiki article on installing the snd-hda-intel kernel module. We should be good here. Intel HDA Audio is well supported, although the process may not be easy, it will certainly work.

Now, down to the last bits of hardware on the motherboard that needs to work properly, the North & South Bridges. Doing a google search for these together should make it easy to find a motherboard that uses both of these, and judging from what they say, we can determine what works or doesn’t. Googling for “P35 and ICH9R linux” finds a review on Phoronix of a similar motherboard, but from a different vendor. I suggest printing out the review, go sit on the toilet for 20 minutes, and come back knowing that it works. That’s what I did.

“[...] Luckily we did not have any major issues with the P35!” – David Lin, Phoronix

Everything we needed to know about buying a P35 and ICH9R powered motherboard has been discovered. Between the review of a similar board, and several of the other pages visited which had users reporting that they were running the DFI motherboard in Linux and reported no compatability issues, it’s a fairly safe bet that this particular motherboard will work just fine.

These processes outlined above can be followed for any piece of hardware, with a few exceptions. Peripherals are going to be the easiest to find Linux compatibility information for, simply search for the model number followed by “Linux.” Some devices, like Hard Drives or RAM are going to work as long as they are detected by your motherboard – no need to look up anything for those things. Video cards are a little different, but for the majority of video cards, if you search for the GPU used on the card (i.e. Radeon 2xxx or GeForce 8xxx) followed by “Linux” or “Linux driver” you’re pretty much guaranteed to find exactly what you’re looking for.

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