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You've probably heard by now that Dell's started selling desktop systems preloaded with Ubuntu Linux -- a big step forward for Linux as a whole, since Dell's PCs are, for many people (and organizations), something of a default choice. But there are a few things about the way Dell assembles their open-source PCs that caught my eye -- reminders that their business, for the most part, is and will continue to be driven by Windows sales.Dell has billed the whole thing as as Dell Open Source, and in addition to Ubuntu, they're also offering FreeDOS as an option for folks who want the closest thing you can get to a bare system from Dell. (Note: I did this price comparison on July 2, 2007, so it may almost certainly change with time.)

When you start assembling an Ubuntu system, you're given a couple of choices. The most basic edition of Ubuntu (7.04, "included in price") comes with no support, and in fact there's a disclaimer: "Dell provides hardware support only. Software support is available through Canonical and Linux Community." Other disclaimers read: "Dell does not warrant or provide support for drivers provided in the base Linux distribution" and "Dell supports the N Series hardware, but does not warrant or provide technical support for operating systems installed by customers, including Ubuntu Linux. Dell offers Ubuntu Linux 'as is' under the GNU General Public License."

So they're making it as clear as they can that Ubuntu is not something they can or want to support directly. Probably a wise idea to underscore this. Most of the people who would order a Linux PC in the first place would probably know all that going on, although I can see how that would change if Linux starts making inroads into the general PC populace.

There are other hints of Dell hedging its bets. In the section labeled What Is Open Source? a passage reads:

An advantage of open source is that it can deliver more reliability and flexibility, as well as faster updates and fixes, all at a lower cost. Plus, if you're an expert, you can tweak and alter the code to completely customize the software to do exactly what you want. A downside is that some open source software requires intermediate or advanced knowledge to use, and in the case of operating systems, may not be compatible with the same software applications and hardware as Windows operating systems.

And on the same page:

Not sure Open Source is for You?

The main thing to note is that when you choose open source you don't get a Windows operating system. If you're here by mistake and you are looking for a Dell PC with Windows, please use the following link...

(I also found it funny that, throughout the assembly process, if I clicked on a "Help Me Choose" icon, the logo at the top of the window that read: Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium. Uh-huh.)

Dell does sell support for Ubuntu -- just not through them directly. If you're determined to buy some variety of Ubuntu support, you can add 30 days of "Starter," one year of "Basic," or one year of "Standard" support -- all provided by Canonical. Strangely, however, every single selection of support for Ubuntu OS also read: "May delay your Dell Inspiron 530 N ship date."

The total cost of the configured system, which included an Intel Core2 Duo Processor, 4GB DDR2 SDRAM, a 160GB ATA hard drive, and a 256MB NVIDIA Geforce 7300LE TurboCache videocard, was $875 before taxes and shipping.

There were a few things missing. For one, there was no third-party software, but in my opinion that's not a huge omission, simply because the vast majority of the software people use with Ubuntu is either already "in the box" or available in the repositories. Peripherals, such as Dell's printers, also weren't available as an option with the Linux machines -- possibly because many of them use Windows-only drivers (although I haven't confirmed this; it's just a strong hunch).

When I tried to configure a similar machine with Windows Vista Home Premium, a number of other defaults changed aside from third-party software or other peripherals. For one, I couldn't get a 160GB drive; the smallest offered was 250GB. I also couldn't choose the same video card; I ended up with a 256MB ATI Radeon X1300 Pro. Total price: $955.

The difference? About $80 -- or, roughly speaking, the cost of the Windows license, which doesn't surprise me at all. So one of the unexpected side effects of buying a Dell Open Source machine is that it's another way to get a "bare" Dell, without going through the hassle of getting a Windows license refund.

I'm curious if any of you have ordered a Dell Open Source PC, either Ubuntu or FreeDOS. What was the whole thing like? How are you using the PC you received? Most importantly, are you happy with what you got -- both the hardware and the software?

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