Don't Buy Linux From Wal-Mart

Saturday Nov 3rd 2007 by Sean Michael Kerner

Though $199 may sound cheap, you can save more if you're willing to do just a little work.

You can now buy a Linux PC at Wal-Mart! Woo hoo!

The only problem is that it's really more of a Google network PC that could easily be run on hardware that costs significantly less than $199.

Don't get me wrong -- I'm a big fan of the world's largest retailer. I shop at Wal-Mart all the time. The store often really does offer the lowest price you can get (love those Rollbacks!). I'm not so sure that's the case when it comes to running a bare-bones PC, however.

Computer hardware vendor Everex's new gPC is supposed to be a really inexpensive PC that could meet the basic needs of computer users. As my esteemed colleague Andy Patrizio reported earlier this week, the gPC comes loaded with Google's suite of applications -- such as Gmail, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, Google Calendar, Google Product Search, Google Blogger, YouTube, Google Maps, and Google News. Other free apps include Meebo for instant messaging, GIMP for image editing, Firefox, Xing Movie Player, RhythmBox, an iTunes substitute, Facebook, Skype and 2.2.

From a hardware point of view, the gPC is a mini-tower system that comes with a Via C7-D low-power x86 clone running at 1.5GHz. Sounds pretty snazzy for only $199, doesn't it?

The reality is that you can to do better.

If cost is your primary driver for choosing a low-end PC, let me give you a tip from my own personal archive. Pick up a PC from the trash -- literally or figuratively. I've actually done both.

There are countless millions of old PCs out there that never moved beyond the Windows 98 era. Microsoft has cast off support for Window 98, so those that still run that operating system -- and don't think that millions of people aren't -- are essentially running unprotected, insecure systems. Often, of those Win98 PCs, most are considered to be too slow to run Windows XP and are certainly too slow for Vista. What typically happens is that those older-but-still-workable machines end up in basements, on the curbside and ultimately in even worse fates -- in landfills.

They aren't too slow for Linux, though. Let's take a Pentium III 800 Mhz machine, for example. What was once a cutting-edge Intel CPU today is half the power of what Everex is offering. Still, many different flavors of Linux will easily install on such a system. In fact, I'm running Kubuntu 7.10 on such a machine right now, using it to write this very column.

How much did the system cost me? Not much. I got this particular system from someone that gave it away so they could upgrade to a higher power CPU just to run Vista.

Thanks to Google Apps, all you really need for basic computer needs is a PC that can connect to a broadband network and has a Web browser. Sure, YouTube video and Flash can consume system resources -- which is why I'm not recommending you use a Pentium 90MHz-based machine (though I do use one in my infrastructure for file sharing and Web hosting.) But for Web browsing, word processing and e-mail, you don't need much more power.

There are likely many orphaned older Pentium III and even Pentium II systems that exist in the limbo of not being up to snuff for Windows, and yet are not yet totally unusable. It is those machines that live in the no man's land between operating systems, and which are ripe for being reclaimed and given a new Linux lease on life.

Sure you could go and buy a machine from Wal-Mart -- but hey, wouldn't you want to get the PC for free? Yes, you do have to actually install the Linux distribution yourself, but it's not all that scary. To tell you the truth, you don't even have to actually install Linux to get its benefits. Linux is full of LiveCD distributions that will boot a full operating system from a CD drive without the need to actually touch a hard drive. If you can put a CD into your computer and turn it on, you can run Linux.

That said, there is still money to be made from Linux for Wal-Mart and other retailers.

Perhaps Linux vendors could help Wal-Mart as part of a new eco-initiative. Wal-Mart could have an old PC "amnesty day," during which people could bring in their old equipment and have it updated with a fast, modern Linux operating system. Linux vendors could provide service and support at the in-store level, helping to reduce the number of old PCs ending up in landfills.

Or here's another idea: Retailers could sell bare-bones PCs without an OS installed. On the shelf next to them could be Linux distros (for free, with support offered for those who want it) as well as Windows. Shouldn't it be cheaper to sell hardware without any OS, and let the user decide? Wal-Mart (and other retailers) could then presumably sell the hardware at an even cheaper price point than $199.

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