Has Dell Delivered on GNU/Linux?

Almost exactly one year ago, I made the following suggestion in the wake of Dell's long-awaited decision to offer ready-configured GNU/Linux systems alongside the usual panoply of Windows systems:

we must vote with our wallets. Assuming the Dell GNU/Linux systems are not hopelessly flawed in some way, we must all try to buy as many of them as we can (within reason, of course).

What follows is a short report on my own experiences of putting my money where my mouth is.

The first thing that struck me when buying a couple of systems – a desktop and laptop – was that after you've entered the Dell.co.uk site (the one I used), finding the GNU/Linux systems is not exactly easy. If you look hard, there is an option on the desktops page in the selection box for “Open-Source (Ubuntu) Desktops”, and something similar for laptops. However, the words “GNU” or “Linux” are nowhere to be found on the page (although “Linux” does appear in a drop-down menu at the top), so unless you know already that this wacky-sounding Ubuntu is indeed GNU/Linux, you may well be put off.

The equivalent pages for Dell.com are even worse: there is no option to select “Open-Source (Ubuntu) Laptops”; instead, “Open Source PCs” are placed literally as the last option on the page, after “Windows Vista” and “Still looking for Windows XP?” By contrast, the very first thing that you meet on practically every page is “Dell recommends Windows Vista Home Premium.”

Clearly, then, Dell is still very timorous about this weirdo GNU/Linux stuff, and remains in thrall to its masters in Redmond. That, at least, is the current state: I would hope that as more Ubuntu systems are sold, and as GNU/Linux becomes more widely used, so Dell will take a chance and start to treat open source on an equal footing with Windows.

Moving on to the systems themselves, the choice when I bought my desktop and laptop were rather limited, both in terms of models and options on those models. To be fair, I wouldn't expect Dell to offer its entire range immediately, so I wasn't unduly put off by this. The rest of the process – choosing options, paying etc. - proceeded without a hitch.

One area where I was deeply impressed with Dell was the speed with which it built and despatched my systems: the desktop arrived within a week, and the laptop was built the same night I ordered it – Dell's tracking system is extremely well done – and delivered immediately after the supervening weekend. This seems to me to be an extremely good sign, because it suggests that GNU/Linux systems are not being built in some shed at the back of the factory by part-time workers, but are fully integrated into the main Dell assembly line.

As to the machines themselves, they came with a basic Ubuntu 7.10 installation that did everything it should have done. A naïve user would have no difficulty running and using programs, with one important exception. Setting up networking requires a fairly good understanding of basic TCP/IP technology, and would have defeated most average users. Perhaps there is scope for someone to put together a short, easy-to-follow explanation on how to do this that would be supplied with all Dell Ubuntu systems. Of course, all that information is out there on the Internet, it's just that you need to install networking to access it....

All-in-all I was pleasantly surprised what a good job Dell has done with its GNU/Linux machines. Things aren't perfect, and there's certainly room for improvement in terms of signposting on its Web-site to make the GNU/Linux options easier to find and more immediately attractive. But I will have no hesitation going back to buy more GNU/Linux systems when I need them.

So one year on from my original exhortation to support Dell, I will make another plea: not only should readers of Linux Journal try to buy systems from Dell and other companies that are offering ready-configured GNU/Linux systems, but we should encourage others to do the same, however non-technical they may be. Just be ready to help out with the networking.

Glyn Moody writes about open source at opendotdotdot.


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AdamTorki's picture

We are working with Dell to help them simplify their online presence. I was wondering if you would be willing to link to www.dell.com on your http://www.linuxjournal.com/content/has-dell-delivered-gnulinux page instead of http://www.dell.com/content/default.aspx?c=us&cs=19&l=en&s=gen. Thanks!

Dell Inspiron desktop

Chris C's picture

I went for a cheap Inspiron Ubuntu desktop - just added a little memory and upgraded the CPU - and it's been awesome. I'm an app programmer not a hardware guy so I didn't want to have to build my own system or troubleshoot basic operation, peripherals and drivers; I wanted it to just work and Dell delivered. I shopped around a lot and for the hardware and level of support etc. - it was the best deal I found in a comparable Linux desktop.

The only limitation I see right now is that there are not quite as many configuration options as I'd like, e.g. I would have liked an officially supported wifi card (only available in laptop, not desktop) - but I think offerings like that will grow with demand.

Great post Glyn. Dell took a

lipbalm's picture

Great post Glyn.

Dell took a chance by listening to the users of their IdeaStorm website. Users asked Dell to put Linux (particularly Ubuntu) on Dell machines and Dell did just that. So, in order to legitimize this (surprisingly democratic) process, we need to follow up and buy an Ubuntu Dell. Otherwise the data Dell collected from their IdeaStorm site becomes irrelevant and Dell will be less likely to implement IdeaStorm suggestions in the future. And, if tens of thousands of Linux users are willing to ask for, but not pay for Dell machines running Linux, the relationship between the Linux community suffers and we end up with less choice in the long run.

DELL 1420n Laptop Experience

TonyG's picture

I recently ordered two DELL 1420n Laptops preconfigured with Ubuntu and have been very impressed so far. The machines are every bit as easy to operate as my Sony VAIO running XP pro--including preconfigured wireless, DVD (dual layer) with playback, brightness, hibernate/standby. In short: all the basic things you expect to work 'out of the box.' They also included an ISO image of the original install with a link on the desktop so you can program it to DVD (dual layer--it was slightly too large for standard DVD) and this ISO is also one of the choices in the grub bootloader which allows a restore of the original factory image.

I do agree that DELL needs to step up on their website and make Linux more visible/accessible. I knew what I was after and had used Linux enough to dig to find it. But they sure don't make it very visible!

ISO image

Glyn Moody's picture

Yes, I should have mentioned that: it's a nice touch, and another indication that Dell has thought about its offering, and not just thrown it together.

RE: Has Dell Delivered on GNU/Linux?

Sergio Ortiz's picture

Nice post! I like both the content and the several comments it generated.

There are just a couple of things I want to share with everyone here:

I have been several times looking at Dell's site "setting up a computer" for myself without actually buying it. After some time playing with their site, I arrived to the following conclusion: if you pick a low end computer and start adding better components, you will get a more expensive machine than if you get a high end machine and just add a couple of components, supposing you are "building" the same machine.

At this moment, Dell only offers "low end" machines for their Open Source initiative, thus if you want a nice machine, you are paying more for the same machine running Windows.

On the other hand, I read some time ago that Dell was asking all their hardware providers to be able to provide drivers for all their components, i.e.: every manufacturer has to provide drivers for both Windows and GNU/Linux if they want to be chosen as a provider!!!

I believe this is a huge step forward, and it shows up their commitment with open source, but probably it needs some time to adjust their business.

Right now, they already started adapting their business in countries different from the U.S: U.K, France, Spain are just some of which I can remember...

I believe they are doing a good job, even though it is now a bit more expensive than expected ;-)

Windows refund

Marcos's picture

Excuse my poor english. It is not my native language.

Even if you favorite Dell model is not offered with linux option you can boycott Micro$oft giving back your unused windows OEM license and receiving the money back

http://www.networkworld.com/news/2006/110706-dell- windows.html
http://www.pcpro.co.uk/news/98163/dell-refunds-lin ux-users-who-ditch-xp.html

Boycott M$ dirty comercial pratices saying no to M$ EULA and asking for you windows license refund !

See the price of M$ tax: I got US$ 70 with refund of a Windows Vista Home Basic OEM that comes with a Dell notebook.

The process was simple and after 1 month only I received a credit of US$70 in the credit card used to buy from Dell.

In my country Dell still not sell linux laptops and the same model with FreeDOS was more expensive than windows version. So I bought the laptop with Vista and received the windows refund. My notebook is much faster now with linux. Vista is a trash.

Dell not worth the effort

:jim's picture

It is not worth the pain seeking a refund. Better to buy a computer without Windows or with Linux pre-installed. Unfortunately Dell's offerings seem to charge almost as much as for a Win/Dell system. One wonders if Dell is paying MS a conciliation fee for systems delivered with their hardware. If so then buying a Dell is still paying tax to MS.

Better to reward dealers who genuinely sell pre-installed Linux systems, such as "The Good Guys" here in Australia. They sell an Acer Aspire 4315-100508CI Notebook for $499 (After Cashback) at a considerable saving over the Windows offering. This compares with the eeepc price and aims at the more mainstream consumer.

If you live in Oz and are looking for a Linux laptop, ccheck out the Good Guys. (I have no connection with them other than being a customer)

Who cares

Lawrence D'Oliveiro's picture

Dell's contribution to the Linux market is irrelevant. It has been overtaken by the Asus Eee and its upcoming competitors. They have managed to sell ten times the number of units in just half the time as Dell.

The Eee PC is important

Glyn Moody's picture

I think that the Asus Eee PC is extremely significant, but it's not a substitute for desktop computers: it's an additional possibility that's complementary. I think we need both for the full benefit of GNU/Linux to be enjoyed by as many as possible.

Dell have not delivered.

tracyanne's picture

Linux on Dell are not available in Australia, and there appears to be no desire on Dell's part do ever do so. For this reason I won't touch Dell and won't recommend Dell to anyone I have even the slightest amount of influence with. Instead I recommend that they import ZaReason computers, as they do support Linux, and at their prices it's still cost effective to ship them to Australia.

It takes time, unfortunately

Glyn Moody's picture

Initially, GNU/Linux machines were not available in the UK, where I have bought them now. Dell was obviously waiting to see how things went in the US. Presumably, they went well enough, and I'm hoping that sales to people like me in the UK and elsewhere will encourage Dell to make the machines available in places like Australia. The question is not so much What would we like them to do? but: What can we do individually to get them to do it?

Yes and no

davesnyd's picture

I agree with the sentiment of encouraging "the big guys"-- to a point.

I spent many months watching Dell. They seem to change what they offer in a Linux desktop fairly frequently but it was never quite what I wanted. The selection and options for the Linux box were never enough, much less equivalent to what you could get for a Microsoft machine. Plus, whenever I tried to do a side-by-side comparison, the Windows machine was rarely more expensive and I had a sense that with rebates etc., it was actually less so.

Then I started looking at the Linux-dedicated retailers and was able to purchase a ZaReason machine just the way I wanted it-- with an Intel 6550, 2 GB of RAM, and a 500 GB HD. I'd like to make myself sound objective by telling you what was wrong with it but I haven't found anything yet. The machine arrived faster than I expected (faster than I wanted, actually!), everything worked right out of the box, and I've been very happy with it. Customer service was personal, responsive, and friendly.

Nope, I have no ties to the company other than being a customer-- so no disclosure necessary.

So I agree-- there is value in encouraging "the big guys". But there is also value in supporting "the small and dedicated shops", too.

There is indeed value

Glyn Moody's picture

And I'm not knocking their work. But it won't get GNU/Linux machines in front of the general public: Dell will. I'm looking at this not just from the point of view of what I/we need, but what we can do to promote open source. The machines I bought from Dell were not perfect, but they were near enough that I was prepared to put up with minor inconveniences for the sake of supporting a move that can only help spread GNU/Linux more widely.

Gotta agree

Alan's picture

I have to agree with these sentiments. There is something a little wrong with all the talk about "supporting Dell" and so forth. If the last year has proven anything, it's that there IS a market for a PC or Laptop with preinstalled Linux. Not huge market, but a significant one that is growing daily. If Dell wants to capitalize on that market, they need to put together a package that will sell and market it effectively. When people talk about rallying behind Dell or voting with our dollars, it almost seems like we're saying "it may not be the system you want, or a good price, but buy it anyway because it will help Linux".

I think the important thing is not so much to buy a Linux system from Dell, but to buy a Linux system from SOMEONE -- whoever has the best system at the best price. When they realize that we are a market worth capturing, they will step up and compete.

My Dell experience

Webmistress's picture

Thanks Glyn for bring up an interesting example of Linux in the marketplace.

I frequently wonder if Dell can properly measure the success of offering Linux pre-installed on their products though, as like you say there are so few options that someone like me ends up buying a windows machine and doing the install myself.

I wrote a little about my new Dell laptop a couple of months ago, and at that time the XPS laptops were not available with Ubuntu installed. I just checked the site and they are available now, but it is still far cheaper to go with the windows version and install Ubuntu yourself. This makes me think there are many others like me who, in Dell's eyes, are windows users. I am merely one more purchase on the Windows side.

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at LinuxJournal.com. You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit


Glyn Moody's picture

Until lots of people buy systems with GNU/Linux installed, the prices for them will be inflated in this way; because the prices are inflated, few people buy them. I suppose I'm hoping my (our) widow's mite will eventually change that.

I do hope someone from Dell is reading :)

Webmistress's picture

I wish I could afford to spend the extra money for a vote, but unfortunately for two laptops this would have meant several hundreds of dollars for the configurations we got. It is a shame I suppose, but at least now we all know. This comment can be my vote. I bought a windows Dell, but it loves Kubuntu 7.10 :) My husband runs Ubuntu 7.10 on his identical machine. So that's two.

Katherine Druckman is webmistress at LinuxJournal.com. You might find her on Twitter or at the Southwest Drupal Summit

crazy prices

hdaz's picture

"Until lots of people buy systems with GNU/Linux installed, the prices for them will be inflated"

WHY do they have to be inflated??? what extra costs do dell have to factor into creating a laptop and installing linux or installing windows???

once they have worked out their platform they wish to ship all they are doing is cloning a harddrive.

they would spend more time working out the thickness of their plastics they were going to use etc then whats best to package with Linux....

Dell have failed their biggest test to date... a few flowery words from time to time flipping and flopping from one way to another... will dell ever make anything (ever) interesting?

Not really true

Anonymous's picture

If you price out the identical configuration the Ubuntu configurations will not cost more. The key thing that people seem to be missing is the value add provided by the vendor. Every hardware component is verified to work correctly if it is available as an option, and the scoping, testing, debugging, retesting, configuring, selling, and supporting with these capabilities and constraints costs the vendor money.

Obviously anyone can do a generic install of a free OS on any hardware, but they have nothing to loose if something doesn't work. A vendor like Dell can not ignore the legal implications of codec inclusion or the support impact of immature drivers for chipset components (which sometimes precludes some of the cheaper configuration options). In fact Dell has provided a commercial solution to playing DVDs and the like.

Frankly I've had far more problems with Vista, but people just don't seem to be getting the fact that there is significant value add that people take for granted when using a vendor like Dell. If they didn't have to do any of these things I'm sure that they and other vendors would be happy to ship you a blank HD, an install CD, and a good luck note.

That's right

Glyn Moody's picture

This is why I think it is worth making the effort to get Dell to broaden its support. When it offers GNU/Linux machines it is effectively guaranteeing you won't have the kind of problems we have all had when installing it on machines built from parts. General users just don't want that bother; they want someone like Dell to do it for them - and we need Dell to offer that option.

I was also telling the

Ridgeland's picture

I was also telling the forums: "Vote with your wallet". I bought my Dell-Ubuntu last May. I love it. It is sad that to buy it you must dig deep in Dell's site and push though mass warnings of "Go Back" "Use Windows".

Dell is on the right track

Andrew Carter's picture

I think your analysis is accurate. Clearly, there is a huge "sponsorship" fee that is being paid by Microsoft. I honestly don't think Dell cares less what you run on it. Microsoft's money is what is having them push Vista all over the site.

When I've bought Dell machines, I've always gone through the Small Business side (even for home). Not only are the machines offered higher quality but they don't have all the shovelware and Windows focus. Nearly all the machines are available with *supported* Red Hat Enterprise 5 WS on them. I understand this still doesn't cover the masses but for anyone else technically inclined, ordering the Red Hat boxes is a great thing. They still price out cheaper than Windows and all options are available (unlike the Ubuntu offerings).

Your comments on their assembly and shipping infrastructure is right on. No one does that better (not even Apple). As I speak, I'm waiting a new Quad Core machine. The first was damaged during shipping - FedEx sent it back before it even got to me. After speaking with Dell, the new machine will arrive today less than 2 days after speaking with them. That's impressive.

I'd like to see Dell do two things. First, offer a fuller range of machines on the Ubuntu side. The Inspiron for example is not a bad machine. But having no discrete video card options and a fraction of the CPU options of the Vista version makes no sense at all. At least offer the quad core. We all know Linux can actually do something with those extra CPU's.

The second is to make it clearer to their customers why they might want to get Ubuntu. Feature a comparison somewhere obvious on the site and let consumers make up their own minds.

Dell is in a bit of a no-win here. They are viewed as one of the established evil companies and they do have a huge business in Windows. However, I think they are doing a good job. The entire business line comes with Linux. They are the only major vendor that offers a *consumer* Linux computer. I say we tell Dell good job and keep it up. Now pressure HP to do the same. If you see both HP and Dell offering consumer Linux systems, I think momentum grows rapidly. Apple's growth shows that consumers will leave Windows when they have a better choice. If the two largest PC builders in the business offer Linux, people will notice.

Dell running Linux

FlyfishPanfish's picture

My work gave me a new Dell D620 a good year ago. I unpacked it, powered it on, and when the WinFlag started to wave I fed it Ubuntu. No problems, wireless worked along with all I needed. Had a D600 that I kept alive longer than most we had because I moved it to Ubuntu. Recemtly I put MSWinXP in its place by running it as a VMWare guest (have a few programs that only run under MSWin that I must use at work). Neither of these LTs were maked "Linux Inside" but are Dells.

I last 3 months I've been looking at Dell site for replacement for my home PC. I now know where to find the Linux PCs (scroll to bottom and hunt). What REALLY annoys me is lack of choice unless you phone and work with sales rep. And the choices change depending on whether you pick "home", "small business", "govt", etc. And trying to spec out what I want in a MSWin flavor vs Linux flavor where both match is well nigh impossible.

I was going to go with Dell, since I (ab)use them at work, have good things to say about their support - but trying to cobble what I want in one Dell PC is making me seriously consider building my own PC. I have a work-provided GX620 I will be fdisk-ing and rebuilding with Red Hat Workstation 5 plus VMWare container for MSWin in next couple of weeks. Curious to see how it goes :)

Then maybe I'll crawl about the Dell PC pages and try designing my new home PC again, especially since CrossOver just relesed their "game" version. Games are one of the reasons I even have a home PC.

Thanks for the comments

Glyn Moody's picture

Your idea of a feature comparison is excellent, and was something that also occurred to me. But it seemed a bit much to ask given Dell's evident dependence on Microsoft. Another obvious move that would be great for Ubuntu and bad for Microsoft would be to integrate the Windows and Ubuntu machines, and let customers decide as they build. Then we'd see the difference in price as you flip between Ubuntu and Vista, which might make a few more people wonder why they pay this Microsoft tax.

XSS .... :/

Anonymous's picture

XSS .... :/