The next generation of Linux notebooks arrives at CES

After Dell broke the ice for pre-installing Linux on desktops and netbooks in 2007, the other major OEMs (original equipment manufacturers) reluctantly tried it out. Some, like Lenovo, backed right out of the Linux desktop market again. As 2010 dawns though, Lenovo and HP are both back in the pre-installed desktop Linux game.

Lenovo gets the 'credit' for the oddest laptop, with or without Linux, that I've ever seen. The IdeaPad U1 is two computers in one — or, as my fellow technology writer Mitch Wagner describes it: "It's the mullet of notebook computers: Business in the front, party in the back."

When the IdeaPad U1 ships in June 2010 you'll get a notebook that runs Windows 7 on an Intel Core 2 Duo CULV processor with a 128GB solid-state drive on one side. So where's the Linux? I'm getting to that.

Detach the 11.6-in. multi-touch-enabled screen, and, ta-da, you have a full-sized tablet computer running Lenovo's Skylight touch-enabled version of Linux on a 1GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon ARM chipset and 16GBs of flash memory.

Laptops that can also be used as tablets aren't new. The Lenovo ThinkPad X60, introduced in 2007, could do that. To the best of my knowledge though, this is the first computer that has both two processors and allows you to snap off the screen to use as a standalone computer.

You can, however, switch back and forth between the operating systems while the screen is docked by using Lenovo's Hybrid Switch technology, which lets you jump back and forth between the CPUs and their operating systems. But as far as I can tell, you can't have both operating systems sharing the screen at one time as you can with virtual machine software.

While the IdeaPad U1 is getting the headlines, it's not Lenovo's only pre-installed Linux offering. In April, the company will also be releasing the Skylight smartbook, which stands between a smartphone (like Google's Android Linux-powered Nexus One) and a traditional netbook (like Dell's Ubuntu-powered Mini 10v). But with a 10.6-in. screen and compact, chiclet keyboard, the Skylight has more in common with a netbook than it does a smartphone.

Both the U1's Linux personality and the Skylight uses a customized interface rather than an ordinary KDE or GNOME desktop. This interface, Live Web Gadgets, is like Google's Chrome OS: designed to make it easy to use Web-based applications. On both systems, you can run the computer with both the keyboard and touchpad or with their multi-touch screens.

The U1's pricing appears to be just under a grand. The Skylight's price will vary depending on if you buy it with or without a 3G data plan. Without one, it will run you $499, a bit more than most netbooks. The price will be less with a plan from AT&T.

HP, which has also had a long love/hate affair with desktop Linux, is also back in the desktop Linux game with its new Mini 5102 While the 5102 also includes a multi-touch display, it is more akin to ordinary netbooks than to Lenovo's more novel offerings. The Mini 5102 uses Intel's latest Atom 1.66GHz N450 processor, and comes standard with a GB of RAM; a fast, 160GB hard drive; three USB ports, Ethernet, and VGA Out and Bluetooth and 802.11n Wi-Fi support. This lightweight system, 2.64 pounds, also has a 95%-of-standard-laptop-sized keyboard. For a display it comes with a 10-inch LED screen with 1024x600 or 1366x768 resolution.

As a more conventional netbook, the Mini 5102 also comes with a more conventional Linux: Novell's SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 11. SLED 11, in my experience, is a very solid business Linux desktop. This unit should be available by this spring and will list for $399.

That's the big news so far from CES on pre-installed desktop Linux. I'm sure there's more news coming though. Tune in tomorrow to see what else develops.

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