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.

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ZaReason (founded in 2007) takes a slightly different approach. Rather than just pick hardware that's known to work well with Linux, it makes its systems Linux-compatible by submitting any needed driver or code fixes that its systems need back to the people who actively maintain Linux. Consequently, ZaReason supports not just one distro but several: Ubuntu (including Kubuntu), Fedora, Mint and Debian. Its range of hardware is a bit more limited than System76's, especially the laptops, but Ars Technica thought well of ZaReason's UltraLap 430 back in 2012.

Up until 2011, ZaReason had an unusual hardware warranty it called the "open hardware warranty," which encouraged users to open up their laptops without fear of voiding the warranty, as described by Canonical's Jono Bacon. This is no longer offered, but it does honor that warranty on computers shipped before August 1, 2011.

ThinkPenguin (founded in 2009) emphasizes hardware and software unencumbered by patent restrictions. When you access the site via the URL libre.thinkpenguin.com, a cookie is set in your browser that hides all non-free software or hardware -- such as devices that require proprietary drivers. ThinkPenguin also has a partnership with Linux Mint; purchases of ThinkPenguin PCs from the Linux Mint store return a 10% donation to the upkeep of the Linux Mint distribution.

The resellers

Yet another approach to selling Linux systems is to take a system from an existing name-brand PC maker, load Linux onto it and resell it. This works best when the system in question is already known to work well with Linux, either because the manufacturer has taken pains to certify it as Linux-compatible or because a third party has done that legwork. In all cases, though, it's the original manufacturer that handles any hardware support duties.

Two things can be problematic here: The degree of support offered by the reseller (as opposed to the original hardware maker), and the markup imposed on the resold hardware.

EmperorLinux (founded in 1999) offers four major laptop brands with Linux as a preload: Dell, Lenovo, Panasonic and Sony. It can install any of the most popular distributions -- including Ubuntu, Red Hat / CentOS and Slackware -- but also provides its own Fedora-based EmperorLinux distribution, with a custom kernel designed to work on laptops. The company is also an officially designated VAR (value-added reseller) for each of the brands it sells, rather than simply an eBay-style system repackager. One year of phone and email technical support is included for any Linux distro installed by EmperorLinux, but any support for the laptops themselves is supplied through the manufacturers.

What's startling is how much of a markup there is on its offerings. Its version of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon Ultrabook starts at $2,850 -- but an identically equipped system ordered from Lenovo, albeit running Windows, is $1,775. This translates into over a thousand dollars out of pocket for the luxury of an out-of-the-box Linux experience.

Linux Certified (founded in 2000) is a Linux training and services company that also sells Linux-loaded ThinkPads, as well as some rebadged OEM laptops. A ThinkPad T430 from this company starts at $1,599 -- but the same system configured at Lenovo's site is only $773, the latter including Windows 7 Home Premium.

Hardware support for ThinkPads is again done through Lenovo, and its support for Linux seems limited. The Terms and Conditions document for the company reads: "Although, in general, we do help out customers with Linux configuration issues, we will restrict the number of such incidents that we support. We only support drivers with default distribution kernels."

Because there is no one Linux, it makes sense for any reseller supporting the OS to limit its support options to whatever edition of Linux it installs. But customers should check to make sure that any price markup on a system translates into a reasonable amount of company-provided support.

Conclusions

If you want, or need, to run Linux, your cheapest bet at this point -- but not necessarily the easiest -- is to start with a laptop or PC that's known to work well with the OS, either because the vendor says so or because of third-party testing that can be found on sites such as Linux on Laptops (an adjunct of LinuxCertified) and TuxMobil, both of which have lists of known compatible hardware.

Buying a custom-built system is a bit more expensive, mainly because the systems in question are generally rebadged OEM models, albeit ones chosen for being Linux compatible. Their prices can be competitive with A-list systems, but again the quality of their hardware may vary widely.

Buying a preload is the costliest option, and cost-effective only in that in some cases you're purchasing support for a custom-built kernel for the system. But it also goes a long way towards guaranteeing that the entire system -- Linux distribution, drivers, hardware and all -- works well as one complete system.

This article, Preloaded Linux systems: The pros and cons, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Serdar Yegulalp has been writing about computers and information technology for over 15 years for a variety of publications.

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