Struggling to Buy a Dell Computer with Linux

by Pamela Jones

September 20 2004

It brings to the fore just how icky it could all end up, with GNU/Linux in its little ghetto, walled off from the business world, or two business worlds, one for Microsoft in its kingdom, and the other for the rest of us. On the other hand, it's a bit like that already. For example, I decided I wanted another desktop, no monitor, just the tower, so I went to Dell to see about getting one, because I have a Dell computer and I've really loved it. I had read what Michael Robertson of Linspire wrote [ ] about Dell and Linux, and so I thought I'd check and see if they had anything to offer with GNU/Linux installed. Try it yourself, and you'll see how hard it is to accomplish that simple goal. First, try to find the word Linux anywhere on the Home Systems Desktops page [ ]. Nothing. A search for "Linux" [ ] brings you to pictures of Red Hat software for sale. Scrolling down below, in text only, under "Services", they offer to show you how to migrate from Unix to Linux or Windows. And then I saw a "Dell Desktops" category, with the snip of text telling me:

"...businesses with proprietary software images or special Linux needs, these systems come without a Microsoft®...series systems are available with factory installed Linux. Dell PrecisionTM 370n NEW! Cutting-Edge Performance..."

That looked encouraging, so I clicked on the link and came to the "Dell Precision Workstations with Linux" page [ ] that offered me this as the first thing I see:

Dell recommends Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional

No kidding. There, they offer a few desktops, 4 to be precise, which they described like this:

"Dell PrecisionTM n series[1] workstations deliver maximum workstation performance. Smart for businesses with proprietary software images or special Linux needs, these systems come without a Microsoft® operating system. PrecisionTM n series systems are available with factory installed Linux."

"Special Linux needs"? Sounds like a handicap. They say they are "available with factory installed Linux", and accustomed to reading contracts as I am, that got my attention. What did it mean, available? The little footnote 1 tells you:

"In order to boot this system, you must install an operating system. A FreeDOS media kit has been provided which will allow you to boot your system once installed. Please note that many common applications will not run and/or fully function using FreeDOS, and in order to run these applications, you will need to install the appropriate operating system and/or device specific drivers. Consult or your chosen operating system vendor for compatibility details."

Can you believe it? I wonder how many "special Linux needs" customers they get, not that they seem to want any.

So what does it mean "factory installed Linux"? If you want Dell to install Linux for you, first add on $119. But here is the annoying part. They won't send you a computer with Linux pre-installed. They sell you the computer and the boxes of software on the side, and then they make an appointment to send you someone who comes to your house or business and installs it there.

How crazy is that? Oh, if you want your data transferred, of course that is extra. Why don't they just say they'd rather not sell to folks with "special Linux needs"? I simply couldn't believe my eyes, so I called the company. They verified. They will not sell you a computer with Linux pre-installed. The guy in support told me that you can't buy one online but that if I spoke to Sales, they'd probably do it quietly. So I was transferred to Sales, and he told me I was misinformed. They will under no circumstances sell a computer with Linux pre-installed. Maybe it varies by salesman, but is this what "factory installed" means to you? I guess they mean the software is installed in a cardboard box at the Red Hat factory.

The cheapest I saw on that page was $849 [ ] without a monitor. No speaker. No floppy drive, no sound card.. One hard drive, 40 GB. 512 MB memory. And a 20/48X, IDE CD-ROM. If you want a mouse pad, it's $3 extra. They throw in the FreeDOS installation CD and a box of Red Hat Enterprise with a subscription. For a home user.

If I go to the Windows selection [ ], in contrast, for $314 [ ] I can get one with a 2.40 GHz Intel Celeron Processor, Windows XP Home already installed, 256 MB Shared DDR SDRAM at 333 MHz, an Integrated Intel Extreme Graphics video card, 40 GB hard drive, CD or DVD drive, "Ethernet ready", with a special offer on WordPerfect ($49) and with Adobe Acrobat reader and Dell Jukebox installed and 6 months of AOL 9.0 "Optimized for Small Business" thrown in, as well as McAfee Security Center with VirusScan, Firewall and Privacy for 90 days. No floppy, no monitor, no speakers.

In short, it'd be considerably cheaper to buy a system with Microsoft's operating system installed than to buy one with no operating system at all. What is wrong with this picture? Obviously, those in the know will just buy the XP tower and install GNU/Linux on it themselves, rather than buy the "Linux" computer, with no operating system installed and go through the FreeDOS and then Red Hat dance. But will newbies know to do that? Obviously not. They are more likely to conclude that "Linux is too hard" or "Linux isn't ready for the desktop." I don't know about you, but that seems like misleading advertising to me.

What if I was looking for hardware for a small business, I wondered? Then could I do better? I went back to the home page, and I clicked on the Small Business Desktops page [ ]. At first I couldn't see any Linux. But doing a Find for "Linux", I found it:

"Dell Alternative Operating System Desktops Dell n series systems available with FreeDOSTM open-source operating system included in the box or with Linux factory installed."

Clicking on that link takes you to a page [ ] offering three towers, two of them cheaper ones. Maybe they figure businesses are a bit more savvy than home users, because on this page, the cheapest one costs only $319. But I'm not positive about that, because when I click on that one, and then "Customize" and then "Continue", it actually costs $389, and you don't seem to get any operating system but FreeDOS, which they'd already told me wouldn't work out well for me on its own. I couldn't solve that puzzle.

The cheapo Linux box comes with Pentium 4 "up to 2.66 GHz with 533 front side bus", FreeDOS "included in the box, ready to install", 256 MB of "shared Single Channel DDR 333 MHz", video card, keyboard, 2-button scroll mouse, 40 GB hard drive, CD-ROM drive, no monitor, video card, integrated audio, no speakers, ethernet, 90 days service plan, their "Basic Plan".

I went back to the starting page [ ], where yesterday there was a "Featured Selection" for $399. For that price, you got a tower with an Intel Celeron D Processor 320 (2.40 GHz), Windows XP Home, 256 MB memory, a 17 inch monitor, 80 GB hard drive, a CD-RW or a DVD-ROM drive, keyboard and mouse, Adobe Acrobat reader installed, video card, integrated sound, no speakers, and Dell JukeBox software, so you can burn CDs, Dell Media Experience, whatever that is, and ethernet. A trial version of Dell Picture Studio, Paint Shop Pro comes with it, and a 40% discount on WordPerfect and 35% off McAfee. Today, I went back to check the details and there is a new "Featured Selection" for a little less, with no monitor, but still lots of goodies. At the top of the page [ ], it again says, "Dell recommends Microsoft® Windows® XP Professional." I got the message.

So, what did I do? I decided that any company that shows such hostility to my operating system shouldn't get my money. It's a matter of principle. Besides, I remembered that I got an announcement from Mandrake that they ship computers with their software preinstalled to the US and Canada now. For $449 [ ], they will ship you an AMD 2000 Duron workstation with 2,500 applications and Open Office and Windows emulation. For $649 [ ], they will send you a Pentium 4, 2.8 GHz, workstation with 80 GB hard drive, with a floppy drive and a CR ROM drive, a Ligitech 2 button scroll mouse, Logitech keyboard, with Open Office and the 2500 applications and Windows emulation, a preinstalled firewall, 30 days of web email support, 2 phone incidents, 356 MB memory, 2 GB RAM, audio and video card, no monitor, memory DDR PC2700 256 MB Single Stick, with a choice of "customizable or pre-configured solutions".

Did I tell Dell? Yes, I politely told them that they had lost a customer and I told them why. I haven't bought anything yet, but yes, I am willing to spend more, if necessary. So when you hear that Linux isn't ready for the desktop, or read figures for numbers of computers shipped with Microsoft as opposed to Linux, I'd say you aren't getting the true story. After all, if I'd bought the cheap XP box from Dell and installed GNU/Linux on it, who'd ever have known? And that is happening all over the world, even when it's against all odds.

Microsoft announced today [ ] that they are opening up more source code for governments to peruse, the code for Office, including Outlook, Microsoft Word and Excel. So far, only the UK has taken them up on their offer. And here is why they say Microsoft is doing this:

"Proponents say open-source software is cheaper to run and less of a target to security threats because the underlying code — and any improvements — are freely shared.

"Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research, said Microsoft's government program has been successful in terms of convincing governments that Microsoft is not hiding secrets within its source code, and in helping those governments feel more secure about using Microsoft products.

"Now, he said, it's important for Microsoft to expand the program to Office because open-source alternatives are gaining traction, particularly with overseas customers. . . . 'It is more than just a hum in the background,' Schadler said. 'There are real decisions being made and money being spent, and Microsoft is starting to see, at the margin, an impact.'"

Imagine if the playing field was actually even.

09:53 AM EDT

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