Dell Ubuntu Machines Start Hitting the Streets, Answering Qs

Opinion: Dell moves forward with its customer feedback-driven initiative for preloading Linux.

Dells customer feedback-driven initiative for preloading Linux on some of the machines it sells is moving forward with a full head of steam.

Its been only a handful of months since the OEM began fielding Web-borne requests to add the open-source operating system to its preloaded platform mix, and Dell is already a few weeks into filling orders for the penguin-loving public. Its too early to judge the success or failure of Dells mainstream Linux foray.

For one thing, the PC maker has not yet disclosed how many Linux aficionados have purchased one of the three Dell models on which the company is preloading Ubuntu Linux. For another, Ive not yet tested one of these machines myself. However, I can see enough from my Web browser-based vantage to answer the questions around price, selection, positioning and support options that had curbed my enthusiasm when I last covered this topic.

Price: Ubuntu Linux is free, and Windows Vista is not, so it stands to reason that Dells Ubuntu machines should cost less than its Vista machines do. Sure enough, Dells Ubuntu-powered XPS 410n costs about $50 less than an equally outfitted, Vista-driven XPS 410.

For those whod prefer to install their own operating system, there are machines that ship with a FreeDOS disk. A Dimension E520N thats outfitted to match Dells XPS 410 and 410n costs $110 less than the Vista model.

Selection: Id wondered whether Dell might offer Ubuntu Linux on a segment of its machines too narrow to appeal to potential buyers, but the I feel satisfied by companys three Ubuntu machines, which include a notebook, and one model each from Dells budget and high-performance desktop lines? Considering the customization options available for these systems, these three Ubuntu systems cover a respectable amount of ground.

Positioning: Im also impressed with the way Dell is positioning its Ubuntu systems. Sure, the sentence, "Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium" is still plastered on every corner of the OEMs site—including those now devoted to Ubuntu. However, Dell has done a good job attempting to explain Linux to newcomers, and laying out the pros and cons of running the free operating system on your PC.

In particular, Im impressed with the five-minute "Linux 101" video thats available for viewing on Dells Ubuntu launch page. In the future, I might even send friends or family who ask me about Linux (yes, that does sometimes happen) to Dells Ubuntu page for a quick primer.

Support: Dell had announced that Canoncial, Ubuntus primary sponsor company, would offer optional support for an additional fee, which made me wonder how much better off customers would be buying from Dell and loading up Ubuntu themselves. However, Dell does support the hardware for its Ubuntu systems, and these machines ship with a couple of extra disk partitions to facilitate this support.

As with Dells Windows machines, theres a partition loaded with Dell diagnostic tools. Theres another partition that carries Ubuntu install media, and Dell has configured the boot menus of its Linux machines to include an option for reinstalling the operating system.

Im also rather pleased with Dells new Linux wiki, which offers pointers to all of the Linux efforts and resources, along with concise but complete information on the three models that Dell ships with Ubuntu. Dells Linux wiki also offers workarounds for bugs—theres a particularly annoying-looking one that rendered some customers machines unbootable after their first kernel upgrade. A certain number of kinks are to be expected, however, and what Im paying closest attention to is how Dell deals with them.

Does the solid shape of Dells consumer Linux effort so far mean that well soon see Dell expand its desktop Linux focus to the enterprise? Linux providers like Canonical, Novell and Red Hat are going to have to put more work into connecting the management dots to make this happen, but for its part, Dell appears to ready.


Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news in desktop and notebook computing.