After scouring the local shops, the resolution requirement proves the most difficult to match. Well, apart from trying to buy a laptop without buying a Microsoft Operating System. The best-looking high-street options are the Acer range, although they can't provide the screen resolution I want.
Looking to the online retailers, Steg Computer jumps out by offering their own laptops without Windows XP pre-installed. Their closest match to what I'm looking for is their Hercules 01, with a 15" 1400x1050 screen, a Pentium 4 3GHz processor, 512MB RAM, a 40GB hard drive at 4200rpm, a CD-writer/DVD-reader drive, an ATI 9700 graphics card with 128MB RAM, and a variety of ports including Firewire, serial, IR, USB, VGA-out and a built-in memory card reader, all for 1700 Swiss Francs. Only the processor is not quite right, but such an OS-less offer must mean that it's suited to non-Microsoft environments, right? Well, I emailed the supplier, and got an impressively speedy response. "We recommend Windows XP and can't provide any help or information about Linux". OK. I asked if I could bring in a Knoppix CD to just check it works before I buy it, and got another, equally speedy response. "Knoppix may work in failsafe mode but I don't believe you will be able to install a working Linux system on these machines. You can try it in our shop if you like but not in the evening and not at the weekend."
And so with this discouraging response, I turn to Dell, and find a suitable system in their range. They also have the advantage of being able to customise the whole thing online, rather than just select from a few options. An Inspiron 510m jumps out, also with a 15" 1400x1050 screen, but with 768MB RAM, a Centrino (aka Pentium M) 1.6 GHz processor, a 40GB hard drive at 5400rpm, DVD-writer/CD-writer drive, an Intel Extreme graphics card, and a selection of ports as before but without the card reader. The graphics card is a bit weak but according to mandrake-tips.fr should be less likely to cause compatibility problems than the ATI card. And the weakness would only be evident in complex 3d FPS scenarios so that's ok.
Another factor to consider is the ease of getting customer service if something goes wrong. With a shop, you can take it back, but with an online retailer it may be more tricky. So I email Dell and ask them if they provide the option to buy a laptop from them without buying an Operating System from Microsoft (or to gain a refund for the unused OS). I wasn't necessarily expecting a hearty "yes of course", but I was expecting a response. A response other than the automatic "we've received your email" response, that is. One week later I repeat my question, still without reply. At the time of writing, it's about 8 weeks since my emails, without a single (non-automated) response from Dell.
On the other hand, searching the web for user experiences of installing Linux on Steg machines comes up empty-handed. Searching for the same on Dell laptops, even this very model, comes up with helpful hints and tips.
Even though the response (ie, complete lack of response) from Dell's customer "care" team, they did have all the right specifications on their Inspiron 510m and did allow me to customise it the way I want, all the way from the processor speed to the hard drive capacity and right down to the keyboard and documentation language. Although I didn't originally want to buy a laptop unseen, their website did give me all sorts of details and pictures of what I was buying and the reviews on the internet were reassuring. So despite the tales of their customer support, I took the plunge and ordered the 510m late on Thursday evening. Instead of the 2 or 3 weeks delivery time I was expecting, it actually appeared on Tuesday afternoon, which was a pleasant surprise.
So after much debating and considering, this is the result:
Machine: Dell Inspiron 510m
Processor: 1.6 GHz Intel Pentium M (Centrino)
Screen: 15" at 1400x1050
Memory: 768 MB RAM
Hard disk: 60 GB, 5400 rpm
CD/DVD drive: CD read/write, DVD read/write
Graphics: Intel Extreme, shared 64MB memory
Ports: Serial, parallel, Infrared, Firewire, 2 x USB 2.0, PCMCIA, Monitor out, S-video, modem, ethernet, headphone socket (stereo), microphone socket (mono)
Price: CHF 1400, which is approximately EUR 900, or GBP 620.
Some useful guides to which laptops play nicely with linux are available at linux.org, linux-laptop.net and tuxmobil.org.