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    So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed?
    Contributed by Terence on Monday, August 27 @ 13:06:29 BST

    So you want to buy a computer with Linux pre-installed? If you do, don't make the same mistake I did. Let me share with you my experience with one vendor, EBIZ.

    DanielS: One man's fable of love, honour, desperation, and dodgy pre-installs. Warning: long read ahead. In short: the Debian pre-install sucked and screwed up; but what do you expect?

    So you want to buy a computer with Linux pre-installed? If you do, don't make the same mistake I did. Let me share with you my experience with one vendor, EBIZ.

    In March 2000, I bought a PIA computer from PIA (manufactured by EBIZ) was meant to be a Linux client for the desktop, ready out of the box for the end user (internet, word processing, desktop, games, etc.). It was o.k. at first. There was a lot of stuff installed on it I didn't need. There was even one annoying process that cron would kick in every so often that hogged the CPU. But a call to tech support fixed that.

    I accepted the fact that I had a fairly complex operating system and that I would be spending some time "under the hood" to get functionality that wasn't mature yet. But, after all, I was already baptized in fire when I installed Debian (via boot floppies) on an old Compaq LTE notebook (ugggh). I knew it would be a love/hate relationship. I just didn't want to be consigned to a propriety inferno named Windows.

    The computer has served me well. Though I still consider myself a newbie, I have learned quite a bit on my PIA. The editors, console screens, and HOWTOs have all become my little buddies. I have had to tweak a lot of things - annoying at times, but not cataclysmic.

    Then, this month came. I tried to upgrade my Debian packages using apt-get. Apt-get, I am certain, did something to my modules/drivers. I have had no sound and my modem has been connecting when I turn off the computer. Everything else is pretty much untouched.

    I said to myself that the modules and drivers for sound/modem need to be recompiled and reinstalled. But, ah, here's the rub: Linux, at this stage of the game, still requires the end user to be intimate with the hardware and software setup on his computer. No problem - if it was you that installed everything.

    What I have come to realize is that I since I bought my system pre-installed, I am at the mercy of third party vendors. For a long time, I didn't know that my motherboard was an integrated mainboard, which handled all the multimedia functions. It took further research to find out who manufactured it. The documentation that came with the computer was just not all that I wished it to be. Phone calls to EBIZ didn't clarify matters much.

    As for EBIZ themselves, they recently restructured. I tried to get on the phone with JBSI, which handles their tech support, in order to get information about any unforeseen customization issues for my PIA. The man to whom I talked told me the old PIA crew is now gone and everything they did is ancient history. No information or support left - have a nice life, kid.

    Moreover, he obviously had no knowledge of the PIA himself, as he seemed utterly surprised that his own company would put Debian on the box (himself being a Red Hat fan). He told me he searched Google for "apt-get bugs" and found all sorts of problems with apt-get. He frowned upon automatic upgrade packages, saying a person should wipe their system clean and start fresh if they want to upgrade it.

    The man (who is experienced in Unix and new to Linux) said Linux is not for average users, but is a "tinker-toy." I could be wrong, but he seemed to suggest that this is what Linux was meant to be - hard and for experienced techies only. Indeed, I have seen such a mindset before, which could be expressed as: "If you don't have an intimate knowledge of computers, you shouldn't use them, moron." I find this sentiment to be grossly hypocritical. Who forced us non-technical people to use computers in the first place? Now that computers have become an integral part of mainstream society, non-technical (which does not necessarily mean computer illiterate or non-intelligent) users are here to stay. Should we be forced to use a proprietary system simply because we don't have a computer science degree or don't have enough time in the day to hack? Get real. I thought the open-source community was about choice.

    But what choice does one have when he gets the system pre-installed? Sure, you can avoid what I did, and even buy a pre-installed system from someone stable and reputable like Dell (that is, until recently in the U.S.). They might even furnish you with ample documentation for the hardware. But that still leaves questions about whether or not they did any behind-the-scenes tweaking on your operating system. You'd still be making phone calls. The man on the phone thought I could find drivers for my mainboard (a SiS PC6SET-ML) rather easily. But all I have is his word. It is not very comforting since I remembered another EBIZ person telling me over a year ago that some things needed to be custom written for my system. Will I be forced to writing drivers for my PIA? Heaven forbid.

    I am thinking that in some cases, buying a pre-installed system makes sense. I just can't think of those particular cases right now. If you're a sys-admin, you probably have enough experience installing Linux quickly. Why would you want to pay someone else? If you are a newbie, you still have to learn about your system - unless you just plan on letting it collect dust. How can you learn about it when someone else knows the gory details, but you don't? Anyway, these are my thoughts on the matter. Take them for what they are. If you want to buy a computer with Linux pre-installed, think long and hard about it.

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  • "So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed?" | Login/Create Account | 9 comments

    The comments are owned by the poster. We aren't responsible for their content.

    Re: So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed? (Score: 2, Interesting)
    by droo on Monday, August 27 @ 17:02:11 BST
    (User Info)

    Shameless pimpage, but for a pre-installed Linux system with lots of configuration options and great service, try out Micronux.

    [ Reply ]

    Try lspci (Score: 5, Informative)
    by matthewg on Monday, August 27 @ 17:54:04 BST
    (User Info)

    The lspci command will often show you what hardware you have installed. If you have any ISA cards, pnpdump is another good command to try. Those two in conjunction with dmesg should get you started.

    [ Reply ]

    Re: So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed? (Score: 0)
    by Anonymous on Monday, August 27 @ 21:25:20 BST

    He frowned upon automatic upgrade packages, saying a person should wipe their system clean and start fresh if they want to upgrade it.


    Sounds like someone from the Windows club.

    [ Reply ]

    Re: So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed? (Score: 1, Informative)
    by Anonymous on Monday, August 27 @ 23:30:11 BST

    I try to support the community by always buying preinstalled, and my only real problem is trying to find a vendor who knows what they are doing (cheaper than Dell et al). Usually the way things have been installed can be figured out from the /etc files, and actually most times the install is pretty standard.

    I bought a PIA too, in June 2000. I had to do 2 or 3 returns, obviously a low-quality operation. However, I did get it working after a few months. I wiped it and reinstalled fairly early, so I don't remember all the details, but here goes.

    First of all, the machine was shipped with Corel Linux, which is Debian-based, not Debian. So it's not too surprising that a simple apt-get broke it. I think you might find some advice about upgrading in place to Debian, try a search engine. As I said, I simply started with a fresh Debian install and copied over the bits like WordPerfect that are in Corel but not Debian. I don't think anything custom was written for the PIA, other than setting it up with the right config files.

    Do you still have any kind of backup of the original install? You can figure out most of how things were installed by poking around in /etc. If not, this is most of the configuration (from memory). The modem is a standard non-Winmodem. The IRQ can be figured out from the BIOS since they set up all the IRQs to be used by the PCI bus except for the modem one. The sound chip is an Ensoniq 1371 I think. The graphics chip is a Cirrus Logic which XF86_SVGA supports (I believe the exact chip number is mentioned in the motherboard manual). I think X -probeonly will detect it.

    The rest of the system is pretty standard.

    [ Reply ]

    And preloaded on a laptop? (Score: 0)
    by Anonymous on Tuesday, August 28 @ 06:52:10 BST

    Any suggestions of where to turn to? While looking through, I didn't see a linux distro as an option --- and surprised.

    [ Reply ]

    Re: So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed? (Score: 1)
    by zarrus_abbestia on Wednesday, August 29 @ 15:25:39 BST
    (User Info)

    Well, I'm personally not configent with this type of deal, I always preferred to do the things by myself as long as my confidence with the subject became pretty good. So I have studied to install, configure and choose the tools by myself, becoming from newbie to pretty good user and system administrator. I also joined the Unix knowledge to Linux one to grow up as soon as I could. What I suggest is not to be worry and try yourself to install, from a friend's Debian CD-ROM, your own system. You need time to learn how to do it, but first note apart some usefull infos about the drives, modules and all the stuff you need and you would like to "reproduce" on the new system. In order to do it, print out the output of the commands (lsmod; ifconfig, if your system is not stand-alone; the version of your favorite application; etc). Consult the Linux newbie reference guide on: (or .com, I don't remember!)

    Over there you will find pretty good information how to manage in this situations.

    [ Reply ]

    you have to pester vendors for manuals (Score: 0)
    by Anonymous on Wednesday, August 29 @ 17:04:36 BST

    Many of them don't ship them by default, but many of them also have them available if you ask. Make sure you get the manuals for every component in the system. In the worst case, go to the manufacturers sites yourself, download the PDF (many offer it now), and print it (you'll need it just when you can't look at it on-line).

    [ Reply ]

    Re: So You Want to Buy a Computer With Linux Pre-Installed? (Score: 1)
    by Anonymous on Saturday, September 01 @ 20:54:39 BST

    I bought a machine from Spindletop with Debian "preloaded". But the CD-ROM and network card don't work, nor does X, and they won't or can't help. Just so you can be better informed (as I wish I'd been) if you're thinking of buying from them.

    [ Reply ]

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