The Quest for an Ubuntu Netbook
Netbooks don't offer quite as many options as a full-blown computer, so there's not as much to think about when purchasing one. Moreover, I like to think of myself as a flexible guy, so I'm not looking for anything too specific. My only requirements are:
I recently came into the market for a new Ubuntu netbook, and have been scouring the Internet looking for the best deal. It’s been a fun experience, but also one replete with frustration at certain large computer vendors with byzantine websites that treat Linux as a dirty word. Read on for details.
Netbooks don’t offer quite as many options as a full-blown computer, so there’s not as much to think about when purchasing one. Moreover, I like to think of myself as a flexible guy, so I’m not looking for anything too specific. My only requirements are:
- at least 2 gigabytes of memory
- a built-in webcam
- a solid-state drive
- something that’s not Windows–ideally Ubuntu–needs to be preinstalled, because I don’t want to pay for a license I won’t use
Not surprisingly, my research has led me to conclude that the only realistic offerings in my prince range (around $350, before shipping) involve the three major vendors that include Ubuntu among their official operating system choices.
Here’s a rundown of these manufacturers’ respective offers as of December 7.
Dell, which famously became the first large PC vendor to start offering Ubuntu as a pre-installed option in 2007, was the first place I turned in my search for a netbook. Unfortunately, although the page I found by googling “Dell netbook” suggests that Ubuntu is an option, it was nowhere to be found when I clicked the link to buy (nor was it a customizable option):
It turns out the only way to purchase an Ubuntu netbook from Dell is to start from Dell’s Ubuntu page. Presumably this decision is intended to prevent non-geeks from accidentally purchasing computers with Ubuntu, then returning them. If so, fair enough. But the main netbook page shouldn’t mention Ubuntu if it’s not accessible there, and it shouldn’t take careful sleuthing around Dell’s site to find the Ubuntu options.
When I did finally find the part of Dell’s website that I was looking for, I priced a netbook with a 16-gigabyte solid-state drive and webcam at $309. Unfortunately, Dell limits the memory option to 1 gigabyte, presumably because Microsoft has decided no one can ship Windows XP on a netbook with more than that much memory, which is really dumb.
After my frustrating experience with Dell, I visited ZaReason, which ships its computers exclusively with Ubuntu pre-installed.
Zareason’s netbook, the Terra A20, is available with 2 gigabytes of memory and a 16-gigabyte SSD for $437. It also comes with a 6-cell battery (Dell’s was 3-cell) and b/g/n wireless card (Dell’s was only b/g), which partially explains the higher price. But that still seemed like a bit much, so I kept looking.
My third major consideration was System76, which also deals solely in Linux machines. Its netbook option, the Starling, can be configured with 2 gigabytes of memory, a 6-cell battery and a webcam for $359. Unfortunately, an SSD drive is not an option, which is a major disappointment. Nonetheless, the price is not bad for a Linux-oriented vendor that will likely offer better support to Ubuntu users than Dell.
Concluding the quest
None of these vendors offers exactly what I was looking for. Dell is cheapest, but its convoluted website and reluctance to help customers purchase computers without Windows are obnoxious, and I’d have to add the extra memory myself if I want to get above 1 gigabyte. System76 offers a decent price, but its lack of an SSD option is a deal breaker. And the pricing for ZaReason, the only manufacturer offering all the features I want, seems a bit steep.
I haven’t made a purchase yet. I’m still exploring a few alternative options, and am hoping–perhaps vainly–that someone will offer a deal on netbooks before the holiday. Stay tuned for my final decision.