Dell Ubuntu Machines Start Hitting the Streets, Answering Q’s

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

It’s 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. It’s too early to judge the success or failure of Dell’s 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, I’ve 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 Dell’s Ubuntu machines should cost less than its Vista machines do. Sure enough, Dell’s Ubuntu-powered XPS 410n costs about $50 less than an equally outfitted, Vista-driven XPS 410.

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

Selection:I’d 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 company’s three Ubuntu machines, which include a notebook, and one model each from Dell’s 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: I’m 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 OEM’s 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, I’m impressed with the five-minute “Linux 101” video that’s available for viewing on Dell’s Ubuntu launch page. In the future, I might even send friends or family who ask me about Linux (yes, that does sometimes happen) to Dell’s Ubuntu page for a quick primer.

Support: Dell had announced that Canoncial, Ubuntu’s 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 Dell’s Windows machines, there’s a partition loaded with Dell diagnostic tools. There’s 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.

I’m also rather pleased with Dell’s 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. Dell’s Linux wiki also offers workarounds for bugs–there’s 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 I’m paying closest attention to is how Dell deals with them.

Does the solid shape of Dell’s consumer Linux effort so far mean that we’ll 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.