Desktop Linux for brand new computers has come a long way. Not too many years ago, consumers had fairly limited options in this space, but today we have more options than I could have ever imagined.
One company offering desktop Linux on new systems is Dell. After seeing mixed success with its first line of Ubuntu PCs, Dell dumped Ubuntu almost entirely. But now Ubuntu is back with Dell's new ultrabook offering.
In this article, I'll examine what Dell diving back into the Ubuntu space means for Ubuntu adoption as a whole, whether other Ubuntu PC providers have cause for concern and whether or not Microsoft should be worried about Dell's latest position.
Dell Is Still a Microsoft Shop
Go to Dell.com and show me where I click to purchase the Ubuntu desktops. How about the link for buying a new Ubuntu-based Dell notebook?
That's right, you can't.
But you will find ample links to Microsoft-powered Dell PCs and notebooks.
Now at this point, some of you might point out that if I just visit the Small Business section and filter my search results down to FreeDOS and Linux, I will then have easy access to Dell PCs. To those who think this is acceptable, I beg to differ. Dell is completely missing any Ubuntu desktop PC options. And those available running FreeDOS offer specs that I would rate as fairly lackluster. An i3 CPU Dell for my next desktop PC? No thanks, I'll pass.
Meanwhile, both home and small office users alike have endless choices for Windows OS desktops thanks to Dell's partnership with Microsoft. Therefore, the idea that Dell is a friend to Ubuntu or to Linux on the desktop is laughable at best.
Outside of enterprise users, everyone else is left with slim pickings when it comes to PCs with Ubuntu pre-installed from Dell.
This leads me to wonder why people are getting excited about Dell offering Ubuntu computers at all. It's not like they're actually offering any real level of commitment to their Linux-using audience!
Dell's Project Sputnik
Recently, there has been a ton of excitement surrounding the Dell XPS 13 ultrabook. Aimed at developers, this ultrabook has seen quite a bit of press. Thanks to Dell's collaboration with Canonical early on, the XPS specs work well with Ubuntu 12.04. Overall, it's great to see collaboration between Dell and Canonical because it is adding more portable Ubuntu choices.
My concern, however, is that Dell may become bored with this partnership down the road. It's happened before with other projects, and when you combine that history with Dell's Microsoft partnership, you must be skeptical with regard to Dell's long-term commitment to Ubuntu.
It's worth noting that the XPS isn't the only built-for-Ubuntu ultrabook on the market. ZaReason, for example, offers an alternative, but its UltraLap 430 sadly lacks specs when held up against Dell's. ZaReason's ultrabook is cheaper, but the ZaReason model has only an i3/i5 processor compared to Dell's i7. Had ZaReason decided to offer a comparable CPU option, I suspect the pricing would be very close to Dell's.
Where things differ, however, is that ZaReason is a Linux company.
To me, buying from a Linux-only vendor seems a better investment. ZaReason doesn't treat its Linux offerings like an "experiment"--they leave that to Dell. As ultrabooks go, the XPS and the UltraLap have pretty close to the same specs. For my money, long-term support is much more important than superficial specs, like the difference between i5 and i7 CPUs in an ultrabook. For this form factor, an i5 with ample RAM is going to deliver plenty of power. If you need something more powerful than that, then maybe what you're really looking for is a full-on desktop replacement.
Desktop Replacement Linux Laptops
Recently, I had the opportunity to get my hands on System 76's Pangolin Performance laptop, and I must admit, this machine is the single most powerful laptop I've ever laid eyes on -- period. The CPU, dedicated NVIDIA graphics, sound card and high-definition display provide a fantastic enterprise-level desktop replacement machine. It's sleek despite its obvious size, plus it's fast--really fast.
Dell's laptop offerings lack anything that compares to this.
If you're a Ubuntu enthusiast looking to find a serious desktop replacement, Dell isn't going to have a pre-installed solution for you. Quite honestly, I wasn't even able to find a 17-inch Dell with a 3rd-gen i7 CPU that remotely came close to the Pangolin in the enterprise/Windows section of Dell's website.
So it seems to me that Dell would not be your destination in this instance. Instead, you would need to search Ubuntu only system providers or perhaps deep-search around on Google to find the right system for you.
Dell Has a Long Way to Go
As things stand right now, I would say Dell has one Ubuntu-only product that is really worth looking into. I think its Sputnik project for their XPS ultrabook is exciting, but it's only one product.
In fact, Dell doesn't even provide a compelling catalog of PC products at this point. It needs a desperate refresh in the desktop tower department, and its other notebook products are terrible. Celeron CPUs, despite being the latest generation, aren't sexy or compelling from a purchasing perspective. Even Dell's own rating system rates their other notebooks as mediocre.
If Dell is serious about attracting new Linux-enthusiast customers, it needs to dedicate a portion of its site, perhaps a subdomain, to selling Ubuntu products properly. A complete refresh of their product line would be a good place to start. Bundle this refresh with some compelling page design and actual information on the software that Ubuntu provides, and we might actually begin to see Dell become relevant in the Ubuntu space.
Before anyone else brings this up in the comments below, yes, I realize that Dell's enterprise offerings are light years different from what home and small business customers experience. Sadly, though, this offers zero value to those of us who aren't enterprise customers. My advice to Dell is to step up or step off.
As I mentioned above, I have no quarrel with Dell's support of Microsoft Windows as their primary OS for their PCs. However, having notebooks priced at $300 and expecting to wow people is just sad. Worse is jumping from a $300 to $1449 price point with only three notebook options to choose from.
Long story short, Dell's not even on the Linux desktop radar, in my opinion, compared to competitors like System76, ZaReason and EmperorLinux. In the grand scheme of things, I simply don't see Dell winning over Windows converts or providing value to current Ubuntu users. As things stand now, Dell has one decent Ubuntu desktop-ready product -- one product only. Tie this together with the amazing lack of information on Ubuntu, and Dell isn't fooling anyone.