Preloaded Linux systems: Weighing the options

If you need a Linux-based desktop or laptop and don't have the time or inclination to do the installation yourself, here are some alternatives.

People may joke about "the year of the Linux desktop" always being some five years into the future. But for a whole clutch of PC vendors who sell Linux as a standard preloaded OS on their systems, that year came a long time ago.

Of course, your first question is probably: Why? Having Linux as a preloaded OS might strike some people as odd, specially since Linux users tend to be do-it-yourselfers. There are actually several good reasons:

  • Linux preloads are guaranteed to just work. One of the hassles of dealing with installing Linux manually (and with installing any OS manually, generally) is getting all your hardware ducks in a row: finding and adding hardware device drivers not included in the Linux distribution's repository, making sure they work properly, configuring storage and so on. A preloaded Linux system has the vast majority of those issues addressed before you even open the box.
  • It's one less thing to do. Linux users are much more inclined to tinker than the average PC user; the nature of the OS encourages (and in some cases mandates) such things. But, sometimes, letting someone else do the basic heavy lifting can be worth paying for when you're in a hurry or have other things on your mind.
  • A different range of options. Those who build their own PCs and preload it with one kind of Linux or another are typically building a desktop or home-theater style system or a "mini-PC" (such as a Raspberry Pi). Rarely do they build a laptop, simply because of the relatively few options available for the latter, apart from buying an OEM or name brand system wholesale. If you want a laptop, it's a lot easier to buy from a Linux vendor.
  • Service and support. Having "one throat to choke," as someone once put it, is a great thing. Linux users are used to blaming themselves if their system falls over, but it can be useful to have a third party handling support, maintenance and repair. This is doubly useful for hardware not built by your own hands, or which sports a custom design. It's also important if you're buying Linux as a preload to satisfy the demands of others. For instance: some corporate contracts may require a responsible third party as a supplier, rather than performing the installation in-house.

In this article, I'll look at the different ways Linux can be purchased as a preloaded OS on PCs, and what that convenience costs the end user. Most of the discussion will focus on laptops, not only because laptops are becoming a larger percentage of PC sales generally, but because of the complexities that often surface in running Linux on laptops. Having someone else do most of that heavy lifting would be a boon -- or so goes the conventional wisdom.

The big-name vendors

When Linux was still being bruited around as an alternative to Windows 95, 98 and NT, a few big-name PC vendors such as Dell and Hewlett-Packard started an on-and-off flirtation with delivering Linux as an optional OS. But Microsoft's massive presence in the PC space and the under-baked nature of many Linux distributions at the time made it a tough sell for non-technical users.

Today, very few PC vendors make a point of offering Linux as a preload, although there are a couple of notable exceptions. Among them is Dell, whose offerings come courtesy of its partnership with Canonical. Through that vendor, Dell has not only certified several of its systems as being compatible with Ubuntu Linux but provides Ubuntu as a preload.

Rather than try to make converts out of ordinary users, Dell's approach is to make Linux available to the people most likely to want it: developers, experts and hackers. For example, the Dell XPS 13 Ultrabook is available in a Developer Edition that comes preloaded with Ubuntu 12.04 LTS. Likewise, Dell's high-end gaming PC brand, Alienware, now comes with Ubuntu as an option thanks to the growing presence of Steam for Linux.

Two other vendors that have provided Linux for its desktop users are Hewlett-Packard and Lenovo. HP currently has a number of corporate-aimed systems certified to work with Linux; its workstations are generally compatible with Red Hat, SUSE and Ubuntu.

Lenovo also works with various Linux distributions (again, including Ubuntu) to ensure compatibility. Neither Lenovo nor HP consistently offers Linux as a preloaded option for desktops or laptops -- but both are happy to ship servers that come with Linux as a preloaded option.

(I do want to note that Chrome OS and Android are both based on Linux. But since neither of those operating systems are actually Linux as most users know it, describing computers that are loaded with either as "Linux systems" is a misnomer. Of course, some Linux mavens snap up Chromebooks, wipe the laptops clean and install Linux on them.)

Independent system builders

If most name-brand PC vendors still don't offer systems preloaded with Linux, dedicated system builders have stepped in to fill that gap.

System76 (founded in 2005) wasn't the first Linux-centric PC vendor, but its name surfaces regularly in discussions concerning which vendor site to shop at first. Its distro of choice is Ubuntu, which isn't surprising considering the two-way relationship System76 has with Canonical. System76 sponsors events including the Ubuntu Developer Summit, while Canonical in turn hosts the company's official support forums.

Like many smaller PC companies, System76 does not manufacture its laptops. Posters on and on Reddit have asserted that System76 laptops are generally rebadged laptops manufactured by Taiwanese maker Clevo. I went to the Clevo website, and System76's Bonobo Extreme does appear to have the same case design, the same backlit keyboard, even the same Onkyo speakers as the Clevo P370SM.

Still, Phoronix, which covers Linux-based hardware and software, had good things to say about System76's recently released Gazelle Professional.

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