When Dell first announced its line of preinstalled Linux PCs a couple of months ago, Maximum PC was eager to check them out. But, fearing the tough criticism for which Max PC is widely known, Dell flatly refused to send us a system to check out. We weren’t surprised, honestly, but we were a little annoyed. As it happens, though, I was in the market for a new laptop anyway, so I decided to plunk down my own personal credit card and buy a Dell Inspiron 1505N with Ubuntu preinstalled. Here’s what I think of it.
The 1505N arrived at my door yesterday, but my first impression of the machine came about a week or so earlier, when I noticed that Dell had discontinued it from their product line. I initially opted for the 1505N because it came with the option of an Nvidia GeForce Go 7300 graphics card, rather than just an integrated Intel card. Preferring 1680x1050 to 1440x900, and wanting to play a little WoW from the road, I chose the 1505N over the 1420N almost exclusively for its better graphics hardware. And I’m glad I bought when I did, because Dell took the system out of its Ubuntu product line just days after I placed my order.
Unpacking the notebook from its shipping carton revealed very little out of the ordinary, save a single Ubuntu disc sitting in the bottom. The disc is mostly a formality, as the OS is not only preinstalled on the hard drive, but also sits in reserve on a restore partition just in case I do something foolish like ‘sudo rm -Rf /*’ or whatever. This restore partition is the sort of thing I would have cared about back when I was a net admin, but I’ll most likely repartition the entire drive when it comes time to install Gutsy Gibbon or some other distro in the future. All of the drivers are available in the Ubuntu repositories anyway, so there’s little reason to tie up the disk space.
Within about 30 seconds, I had the system out of its box, plugged in, and booting on my coffee table. The 2GHz Intel T7200 CPU and 7200rpm Seagate hard drive made for a quick boot, so within another 40 seconds I was greeted by the Ubuntu configuration dialog, which prompted me to choose my language and keyboard layout, set my time zone, and set up a username and password. All in all, the whole process took about two minutes.
I was initially disheartened to notice that my audio card and GPU weren’t working out of the box. I had expected to have to enable the GeForce 7300’s proprietary driver using the Restricted Drivers Manager, but it simply wouldn’t enable until after I downloaded 84 updates, which took another few minutes. Fortunately, the Intel wireless card worked perfectly right away, so I just surfed the Web for a few minutes while all the updates downloaded and installed. After another quick reboot, the sound worked fine and I was able to enable the Nvidia driver. So the actual time from opening the carton to starting real work was about 10 minutes total. That’s a darn sight better than the usual process of wiping out a Windows partition, installing Ubuntu, and then configuring the drivers, which normally takes me about half an hour on my old notebook. And as annoying as it is to have any piece of hardware not instantly jump into action on the first boot, even my grandmother could have breezed through this initial setup process quickly.
Once the system was up and running, I enabled Desktop Effects to see a little eye candy. Ubuntu’s default Desktop Effects consist of a stripped down Compiz Fusion with just Wobble and Cube enabled. I wanted the whole shebang, so I ended up uninstalling Desktop Effects and installing the full version of Compiz Fusion, which took about five minutes. Then I spent another half hour screwing around with different themes, just for the hell of it, until I settled on something I liked. None of this was necessary, really, but what’s the point of having a new toy if you’re not going to play with it? To that end, once I had my desktop interface all customized out, I popped in Brazil on DVD and played with the notebook’s front-mounted media controls.
All things considered, the Dell Inspiron 1505N is a competent—albeit discontinued—notebook that strikes a healthy balance between business and entertainment (you know, busitainment). Dell’s preinstallation fell short of my expectations by delivering a system that wasn’t quite fully functional the moment I booted it up, but the machine basically fixed itself with the first round of automated software updates. But the real question to answer here is whether I’d recommend a preinstalled Ubuntu system like this to you, the reader. So here goes:
If you’re an experienced Linux user who knows how to select hardware appropriately, there’s no supremely compelling reason to choose one of these Dells over another system you like more. After all, you’re not likely to go looking for support from the manufacturer unless your hardware is legitimately defective, in which case the preinstallation wouldn’t help you much anyway. But if you’re relatively new to Linux, or just don’t feel like hassling with setting up all your drivers—which can be a pain even for those who’ve done a hell of a lot of it—then Dell’s Ubuntu systems are worth a look. For my own part, I’m pleased enough with the system. It’s got plenty of power for the limited gaming I do, and now that it’s up and running it’s robust and immensely stable. Could I have found another laptop with all the same components and installed Ubuntu myself for about the same price (and without waiting two weeks for it to arrive)? Sure. But I’m just as happy that I didn’t have to.
SIDE NOTE: I’m damned glad Dell is going to be selling some systems through retail channels in the coming year, because for someone (like me) who’s into instant gratification, it just sucks waiting around for a new PC to arrive.