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The Pros and Cons of Computers with Pre-Loaded Linux

written by: rdubas•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 2/2/2012

More vendors are offering some computers that come with Linux pre-installed instead of Microsoft Windows. For many Linux enthusiasts this seems like the herald of the long-awaited "Year of the Linux Desktop."

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    So, you're a Linux enthusiast and you're about to buy a new computer. For most of us that means buying one of the major brands such as HP or Dell, burning a CD of our favorite Linux Distro and then spending a few hours installing and tweaking it to our likes. While many of us came to Linux because we love those first few hours setting up a new install, what if we could buy a computer without that overpriced operating system which we hardly use anyway? In the past, if you wanted to buy a computer without Microsoft Windows your options were limited. Nowadays, both independent and major vendors sell some new computers with Linux pre-installed. But, it this a good option?

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    Helping Open Source

    With numerous quality products such as Apache server, the Firefox web browser, and Linux, open source has proved that having a different business model other than sheer profit can be successful. However, open source does not exist on an island. Anyone who has struggled with setting up a wireless card in Linux knows the importance of having the manufacturer's support for multiple operating systems. Profits still matter to any tech company. Buying computers with Linux pre-installed will give the OS a larger market-share. Then you can be sure those hardware vendors and developers who shunned Linux in the past will start releasing drivers and software for the open source OS. Plus, an increase in the visibility may attract more developers who can further assist in improving Linux and related projects.

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    Microsoft Windows costs more than most of the commercial Linux distros, such as SUSE Enterprise. And many distros, such as Ubuntu and Fedora are free.

    Because of differing specifications and availability, it can be hard to compare the exact difference in price of buying a computer with Linux versus Windows. The HP Mini 1000 Mi upgraded to a 16GB hard drive costs $294.99 while the same Windows XP version is $329.99. When the Acer One first came out, the version with Linpus Lite was $379 and with XP was $399. No, it's not a substantial savings, but in this current recession, every bit counts.

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    Better Hardware Support

    Installing Linux often comes with a few hours of setting up the PC's hardware. On a pre-installed PC, all hardware should work out of the box, wireless, screen resolution, blue tooth, etc. These should all have been tweaked and tested by the vendor. If there are any issues with hardware, a reputable vendor should point this out before the sale. While the newer versions of Linux do support many types of hardware, a computer pre-installed with Linux should arrive ready to go, without the need to install additional drivers or kernel modules.

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    Limited models

    A small variety of available models is likely the biggest downside to buying pre-installed Linux computers. Major vendors such as Dell and HP offer only a few systems with Linux compared to the hundreds they sell with Microsoft Windows. Dell does have a Linux computer in each of the main consumer categories- a desktop, high-end laptop, mid-priced laptop, and portable net-book- but those who enjoy a wide selection may be disappointed.

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    Limited Distro Choices

    Vendors selling Linux computers usually only offer a limited choices of distros, and often only Ubuntu. Other popular distros you may find are OpenSUSE/SLED, Fedora/Redhat, Linpus on Acer Aspire One, and Xandros on Eee PC. Forget anything non-standard or more tech-oriented such as Slackware or Debian. You also probably won't find a localized distro, such as Red Flag Linux which has full language support for simplified Chinese.

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    Sometimes You Still Need Windows

    While the Wine project and the commercial version, Cross-over Linux, have been a god-send in that I can run MS Office on Linux for my job, there are other programs that just aren't compatible yet. I haven't found a Linux equivalent to use with my Garmin GPS, for instance. And I once consulted in an office where my laptop would not work with the printer when I used Ubuntu instead of XP. There are times when having Windows is a necessity to get the job done. In most cases, dual-booting is painless and you then get the best of both worlds. The Wine Application Database is an excellent resource to help determine if you'll need to dual boot or can use Linux to run specific Windows software.

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    Not Available in Most Stores

    Finally, unlike a computer with Windows or Mac OSX, you can't just walk into your nearest Best Buy and browse their Linux selections. Most likely you will be ordering your Linux PC online through either an independent vendor or a specialty builder. But, if you still feel that you want to support Open Source and buy your next PC pre-loaded with Linux, here is an article I wrote for Brighthub about finding a new computer with Linux installed.