Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Review: Dell Inspiron 1420 with Linux

    I have finally received my Dell Inspiron 1420 that comes with Ubuntu 7.04 preinstalled today. The order took about a month to process; this is a brand new model, and I was one of the first people to order it. I would have gotten a Thinkpad, but chose Dell since they are going out on a limb and are making computers with Linux preinstalled. This means that I get a computer that works out of the box with Linux-compatible hardware; there is no need to use ndiswrapper to get the wireless card to work with Linux, and no strange winmodem without a Linux driver lurking in this laptop.

    This is one of the first systems; I ordered the system too early to get the free hard disk and memory upgrade. When I asked to upgrade the system, I was told I would have to cancel the order and reorder to do that. The systems have a two-week backlog and I want to get back to Mexico as soon as possible, so I decided to have just get the computer as quickly as possible.

    The system booted in to Linux without problem. Since Ubuntu uses all 80 gigs of hard disk space, I tried to reinstall Ubuntu from the supplied CD in order to have more free space. Strangely enough, while Ubuntu runs fine on the system, the Ubuntu Live CD can not successfully boot. I had to download and burn the Ubuntu "alternate install" CD in order to get a Ubuntu system I could repartition from.

    The good news is that the partition manager included with Ubuntu's "alternate install" CD has partition resize support. I was able to resize the partition Dell's Ubuntu install is on without having to reinstall the OS. While it was a slow process, it saved me the bother of reinstalling all of the restricted drivers and configuring the computer yet again.

    As a Linux system, it is a great system. If you are a Linux hobbyist or experienced Linux user, this is a system worth having. All of the hardware works with a minimum of restricted drivers (for the winmodem and wireless network card) used. Even the SD card reader works. If you are an average Windows or Mac OS X user, however, I would not recommend this system.

    Here are some issues which I have seen with this system:
    • The wireless configuration GUI tool only supports the very insecure WEP encryption. Setting up WPA encryption is non-trivial. For the record, the cookbook linked to does work and I am using it to be on our secure wireless network at home.
    • Firefox's inline spelling dictionary is really nice. Unfortunately, Ubuntu comes with a really long list of languages that makes it difficult for me to switch between English and Spanish; something I do quite frequently. Even after uninstalling all of the languages besides English and Spanish, Firefox still has this huge list of languages I can spell-check against, only two of which I will actually use.
    Linux has a made a lot of progress since the mid-1990s in terms of being an end-user desktop machine (the resize partition feature is a very nice addition); however I must conclude that Linux, as a desktop machine, is more geared towards the kind of people who had a computer in the late 1970s (see my last blog posting).

    I think one day Linux will become a viable desktop system for the masses. Until then, Dell is a pioneer in making Ubuntu desktops and laptops for the small niche who would rather have Linux on their computer. I just hope Microsoft does not illegally punish Dell for making this bold move.