Dude, you don't have to get a Dell

Robert Strohmeyer

If you're a newb looking to dip your toe into the waters of the Linux world, Dell's line-up of preinstalled Ubuntu PCs is a very good first choice. After all, you'll be able to get started right out of the box, without having to struggle with unsupported hardware and missing drivers. (Frankly, I've been using Linux almost since it first appeared, and that proposition doesn't sound half bad to me, either. So I'm not bashing any newbs here.) But while Dell certainly appears to have the best offering of Linux desktops and notebooks at the moment, it isn't the only choice out there. Here are five alternatives for Linux-ready PCs.

Note: Many vendors still consider Linux an enterprise-only OS, and deliberately avoid selling it directly to end users. So don't expect to find Linux on the list of config options in the online ordering system. In many cases, you'll have to call up the vendor and place your order over the phone, usually through their corporate sales number. You may even want to avoid telling them that the system is for personal use.

The purpose of this post is not necessarily to recommend any of the vendors listed, but to give you an idea of what's out there today. IMHO, the best option is still to build your own PC from the ground up, choosing the components that fit your personal needs. And while Linux-certified workstations do have their merits, I don't really suggest newbs run out and buy them as starter Linux systems.

HP is still gunshy about the prospect of supporting home users on the Linux Desktop, but its deep roots in the enterprise world make it a good source of Linux desktop and mobile workstations. HP offers a number of Linux-certified systems for as little as $359. While they don't ship PCs with Linux installed, they do offer machines preconfigured with FreeDOS and bundled with the HP Installer Kit for Linux, which contains all the drivers you need to get the system's hardware working well in Red Hat Enterprise Linux. (Many of the systems are also certified for a variety of other distros.) Because these machines are enterprise-focused, you'll find their multimedia features lacking.

I shouldn't need to introduce anyone to IBM. This is the company that gave birth to the PC. In recent years, the IBM brand has faded from view in the mainstream PC world, but remains strong in the corporate sector. As such, IBM is big on Linux, and offers some serious desktop workstation solutions. Preconfigured. Ready to run. IBM IntelliStation workstations aren't cheap. Low-end machines start at $1,307, and performance systems quickly leap into the upper $3,000 range. If you choose the "Build your own" option on the IntelliStation ordering page, you can pick a Red Hat preinstall, or choose "drop in the box" to get the discs but do the installation yourself.

Carrying on the legacy of IBM's ThinkPad line, Lenovo is all about enterprise systems. So it's no surprise that their T60p and newly announced T61p ThinkPads are certified for Novell SUSE. Unfortunately, Lenovo is a little sheepish about its Linux offerings, so it doesn't ship any of its systems with Linux preinstalled. You'll have to buy your ThinkPad with a blank hard drive and then get your own copy of SUSE to install. While this is less attractive for unambitious first-timers, the ThinkPad's spec sheet reads like a laundry list of readily supported hardware, which means getting up and running with any major distro should be completely headache-free (even though Lenovo only officially supports Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10). At press time, the T60 and T61 Mobile Workstations were priced starting at $1,378. You won't find any good multimedia options in these built-for-corporate systems.

Long before Dell decided to make Ubuntu available to ordinary home users, Mirus and Linspire (formerly known as Lindows) were putting Linux machines in the real-world shopping carts of everyday Americans, right next to the bulk packs of pork rinds. At press time, it appears that Wal-Mart has discontinued its Linspire-equipped PC offerings, but budget-minded shoppers can still order whimpy Celeron systems for as little as $300 from Sears.com. Koobox.com offers Mirus's Pentium 4 Linspire systems for $400.

System 76
Dedicated entirely to Linux, System 76 offers a wide variety of notebook and desktop machines for home and business. The company's line-up boasts four different notebook series, from ultralights to widescren performance systems, and four different desktop syystems, from the compact Koala to the gamer-centric Wild Dog. Desktops start at $399 and notebooks at $649. All of the systems come with Ubuntu pre-installed.

Ultimately, if you really are looking for a preconfigured Linux PC, Dell is probably your better choice. But it's worth knowing that Dell isn't your only choice. The five options listed here are just a sampling of the many companies offering systems equipped with or ready for Linux. And with a small amount of forethought, you can easily build your own Linux-ready system from the mobo up. (Or just try slapping Ubuntu on the machine you've already got. It'll probably work just fine.)

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