I recently underwent an interesting adventure of trying to purchase a Linux-based laptop that I thought I would share as it lead me to some interesting revelations about the laptop industry in general. First let me admit, that my home is kind of like the United Nations for Operating Systems and Tech Platforms. I have Windows-based machines, Macbooks, Ubuntu and Mint flavors of Linux, and my home servers are a mix of Microsoft, CentOS and Fedora.
I recently decided to go out and look for a high performance Linux Laptop to use for home purposes. Up until this decision I did what everyone probably does when they want to use Linux, they go out and download the latest distribution depending upon whether or not they prefer .DEB or RPM variants and install it on an old or existing machine in their home. I have done this over and over again. This time, however, I was determined to go out an purchase a ready-made Linux laptop. My love affair with Unix or Linux based laptops began when I ran into an engineer from Cisco earlier in my career who was sporting a clunky (but at the time amazing) HPUX based laptop. It was a geek thing of beauty and I was hooked.
If there is a name brand in Linux laptops its System 76. These guys have been building special purpose system since 2005. They have three models to choose from and all of them are rock solid. Now to say they are a ‘name brand’ is a little bit misleading. The hardware is generally sourced from firms like CLETO or MSI. But what makes System 76 so special is that they really do try to replicate the normal laptop (or desktop) purchasing and product experience that you are likely to find with traditional Windows based experiences. They ensure optimal driver support for the hardware and generally deliver a very high customer experience. I have always been jealous of people with System 76 gear when I have seen them at the odd trade show. It’s generally a rare sighting, because lets face it…with the proliferation of Windows based machines and Macbooks, seeing a Linux based laptop environment brings out my inner geek.
Another brand that I occasionally see around in Zareason. Like System 76, they custom build their laptops and pre-load Linux on as well. Where System 76 is limited to and specialized in Ubuntu loads, Zareason gives you many more options.
Other firms like Linux Certified try and take a best of breed approach and try to find the balance of purchasing their own hardware and/or mixing it in with other manufacturer created platforms like a Linux Optimized Lenovo Thinkpad. They also give you a choice of which flavor of Linux you would prefer.
Now you could also go out and purchase all of the components yourself from CLETO, MSI, and others to build your own model, but as I was expressly going out to buy one, and not ‘build’ one I opted out of that effort.
But the Linux Certified approach got me thinking about what do the ‘Big Guy’ manufacturers offer in terms of Linux based laptops. The answer in short was Nada. Not off the shelf at least. I had remembered that Dell was making a purpose built Linux machine and started digging in. I found all kinds of great references to it - the XPS 13 Developer Edition. However when I went online to the Dell website to dig in a bit more, I found that the XPS 13 only had Microsoft based options on the Operating System. I searched high and low, and somehow managed to get linked to www.Dell.Co.Uk, where Lo and Behold, I found the XPS 13 Developer Edition. Apparently they are only selling it outside of the United States. Huh? This piqued my interest so I started up a chat on the Dell web page which confirmed my suspicion. I had secretly hoped that there was some super secret way to get one here in the United States. But apparently not.
To be honest this kind of made me mad. Why can people in Europe get it, and we can’t? It probably sounds a lot like whining as I am sure there are tons of things Americans can get that Europeans can’t, but for now, I am atop my high horse and I get to complain. Essentially I could get it. However, like the old adage, there would be Some Assembly Required. Purchase the hardware, blow away all of the preinstalled Microsoft Software, and install over it. Surely HP must have a version with Linux. Nope. What about Lenovo? Nope checked that too. As I gazed at the Thinkpad website I relegated myself to a position that I would need to also think about the ‘some assembly required’ category. Truth be told, having owned them in the past, I absolutely love the Lenovo keyboard and solid case construction. I do not think there is a better one anywhere on the planet.
So I created my Some Assembly Required List as well and it was then I realized two things – First, that If I wanted anything in this category it was really no different than what I had been doing for the previous ten years. It really highlights the need for better partnerships of the Linux community at large with the hardware manufacturers if they ever want to break into the consumer markets. Most non-professionals I know would never go through that kind of trouble nor do they have as much affinity for the Operating System as I have. The second thing I thought I had realized was that in going this route, you essentially have to pay a ‘TAX’ to Microsoft. Every laptop you buy like this, comes with Windows 7 or Windows 8. Which means that you are paying for it somewhere in the price of the equipment. At first I was irked, but what’s more interesting is that generally speaking (with the exception of the Lenovo configuration) the Price points for the ‘Assembly’ options were generally lower by a significant margin than the ‘Optimized Linux’ counter parts. Some of this was reflected in slight configuration differences. Which led me to believe that the Microsoft ‘Tax’ gave little value to the machines overall. Here’s an example of my process:
Not all of the configurations are like for like above, but it gives you a flavor.
My Revelations? I would have thought by now that the OEM to Microsoft connection would have seriously weakened. At least weakened to the point of offering a little more variety in Operating Systems or at least the ability to purchase equipment without an Operating System. It could also be a factor of the people I hang around with and what we think is cool. I guess, once a hobbyist, always a hobbyist.