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Dell Opens the Door to Parallel Universe - Free Software For Everyone

Major PC Manufacturer Offers Computers Preinstalled with Ubuntu Linux

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More and more people are discovering the strange worlds of GNU/Linux FOSS (free and open source software) operating systems. Only a small percentage of the earth's inhabitants have so far ventured into the uncharted dimensions of computing devices that operate entirely on software that costs nothing and provides access to thousands of application programs that can be safely downloaded and cost nothing as well. The transition from the familiar MS Windows world to the parallel Linux universe has been somewhat bumpy, which accounts for some of the hesitation, but this is now changing.

The convergence of two celestial developments promises to incur a major shift in the adoption of alternative computing systems: (1) Ubuntu Linux has lead the usability of Linux desktop computers to new levels; (2) A large, reputable PC manufacturer, namely Dell, has started to offer desktop and notebook computers preloaded with the Ubuntu Linux operating system.

While the Linux versions of Dells desktop and notebook computers cost only slightly less than the corresponding systems with Microsoft's operating system, what you subsequently save includes:

  • cost of additional software
  • time for dealing with software registration and licensing issues
  • cost of upgrading the operating system in the future
  • your privacy

Since I was in need of a new notebook computer, I decided to purchase the Inspiron E1505N soon after Dell started to sell them in June 2007. I selected a few upgrades from the standard configuration on the Dell web site, and the unit shipped three days after I placed the order. Unpacking the computer and setting it up was remarkably painless. It has a cool design with black keys, silver and white framing and a beautifully bright and clear screen.

The packaging included a chart with very simple set up instructions: plug in the AC adapter and the network cable (unless you want to use wireless Internet access). So I did and turned the system on (the on/off button is in the middle at the back of the keyboard). After requesting consent with the Dell End User Software License Agreement, and briefly showing a GRUB boot loader screen, Ubuntu Linux started up. The first time around it asked a few questions to set up an initial user account and set the time zone. The rest of the booting took about 20 to 30 seconds.

The Internet was operational immediately without any further setup. Using Firefox, I was able to access all my favorite websites. Going to youtube.com, the Flash plug-in installation was required, which was successfully completed in a few simple steps. Along the way I plugged in a USB mouse which was immediately functional without even asking a question.

The system can be switched to "suspend" mode by selecting this option after clicking the on/off button on the screen, or simply by closing the lid. After sending it into "hibernation" the state of the device can be revived by pushing the physical on/off button.

The default configuration of the E1505N was priced at around $600 after a $200 discount (the corresponding MS Windows system is listed at $948 and gets a $249 discount). After upgrading the memory to 1GB, the hard drive to 120GB, the DVD drive to writable, and the screen to an UtraSharp TrueLife, the charge came to about $800.

The following warranty and services were included in the price: "1 year limited warranty and mail-in service; Dell hardware warranty plus return to depot, initial year; Type 12- mail-in service, 24x7 technical support, initial year; Warranty support, initial year." My understanding is that technical support is limited to hardware issues. For software support the user is probably best served by the online documentation and Ubuntu forums.

If you have trouble playing certain types of DVDs with media players Totem or Xine, you may want to give VLC a try. After I installed VLC on my Dell Inspiron E1501, running Ubuntu Linux, I was able to operate DVDs that other media players had problems with, such as those that use menus. Installation from the Synaptic Package Manager was quick and easy. After the installation is completed you can select VLC from the menu, under Applications -> Sound & Video, and open the DVD in the disk drive.

I have been pleasantly surprised by the responsiveness of this machine and the ease of set-up, enabling me to use it in a productive fashion right away. Installing software using Ubuntu's Synaptic Package Manager is straight-forward. It allows you to explore thousands for quality packages from safe repositories, giving you the confidence everything there has been thoroughly tested. There is a search function that quickly finds all the software related to what you are looking for and gives you descriptions of each. With a few more mouse clicks the software is installed.

For example, installing Google Earth using Ubuntu's Synaptic Package Manager took no more than two minutes. A "Google Earth" entry was added to the "Internet" section under the Ubuntu "Applications" menu during the installation. The dynamic 3D images produced by this program are spectacular and have amazing resolution. The mouse, the keyboard, and a graphical user interface can be used to navigate and change perspectives.

Dell's Ubuntu project has been so successful, the company has decided to expand sales of Ubuntu systems to other countries, and to offer Ubuntu pre-loaded on a larger choice of machines. Now a new release of Ubuntu Linux (Version 7.10) is out and will soon be available on Dell's Linux boxes, making the passage-way to the Linux parallel universe smoother than ever.

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