The $139 Linux PC

by Caitlyn Martin

In recent comments to my review of Vector Linux 5.8 SOHO keyfitter wrote:
There is a reason why they are using Win 98 in 2007. I think it's called, being cheap!.

I wonder if these people realize they can buy a brand new computer for $139. Granted the hardware is a bit dated by today's standards but it's probably light years ahead of what they are running Windows '98 on. Of course these computers come preloaded with Linux: Vector Linux 5.8 Standard to be precise. That's fine. Without having to worry about installation or hardware compatibility someone who buys this system gets a nice, ready to go, user friendly Linux system with a warranty. The return policy is listed as "no matter what" short of physical abuse. What they don't get are Windows virii and malware. They do, of course, have to learn a new OS.

Why not offer the same system with Windows? It would nearly double the price. People forget that they pay an average of around $100 for the privilege of having Windows on their new computer. Of course Windows Vista wouldn't run on a 1.5GHZ system with only 256MB of RAM, would it? Vector Linux 5.8 Standard will run quite nicely, though. A memory upgrade wouldn't hurt particularly if you're interested in a lot of multimedia applications (an extra $39 for 512MB) but it isn't strictly necessary.

22 Comments

wjl
2007-08-03 03:13:44
Cool - and with using a VIA C7, it should even be environment-friendly. Thanks for coming up with this.


Kind regards,
Wolfgang

Alan Rochester
2007-08-03 10:19:45
How about the 150USD Linux laptop at http://www.medisoncelebrity.com/product.html
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-03 10:52:40
@Alan: I missed that one. That may actually a better deal. I wish they'd say which distribution of Linux they use and I wish it wasn't a 4-6 week delivery time. Those two issues will give a lot of people second thoughts.


Thanks for the heads up and the link!

Robert42
2007-08-03 11:33:10
Check out Zonbu.com for a new take on providing inexpensive desktop pc's with ongoing customer support.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-03 11:59:42
Zonbu is anything but inexpensive. Sure, you don't pay much for the box but you absolutely have to buy a maintenance subscription. I'd point out that Mad Tux offers similar subscriptions for the $139 machine but they are not obligatory.


Also, Zonbu is Windows-based, isn't it? How do they handle the relatively short life expectancy of the flash in lieu of a hard drive? In the case of similar Linux machines there are distributions like Wolvix, Slax, Austrumi, and Damn Small Linux that can load entirely into memory and reduce I/O to the flash device serving as storage to something truly minimal. I don't believe there is an equivalent for Windows as of yet.


If someone wants a tiny, green machine I'd recommend Nano-ITX technology for sure but not from Zonbu. A better choice would be The Damn Small Machine, though I'd probably substitute Wolvix for Damn Small Linux and I wouldn't get the IDE flash device from them.

AnotherGeek
2007-08-03 12:58:46
This is perfect for those who are not heavy duty users. Most of my family members could probably get by on this.
Karl O. Pinc
2007-08-03 20:03:59
The wonderful thing about getting a computer pre-installed with Vector Linux is that Vector Linux does not include any proprietary drivers. This means that the hardware will run any Linux distro, for those who want a cheap box on which to run their favorite.


The spooky thing about buying a sub-$200 computer is that the one's I've bought have come with a crippled BIOS. This has happened to me twice, once from a machine from Frys and once from MicroCenter. Both of those boxes were pre-loaded with Linspire, so that might explain it. I've no reason to believe that the MadTux boxes are crippled.


The most notable problem when you get a crippled BIOS is that the "boot up when plugged in" option is removed from the BIOS. This means the box can't be used for an "always on" server, because if there's ever a power failure it won't always be on. Other options that allow the installation of a faster processor and suchlike are also removed from the BIOS. The motherboards were labeled with 'special' part numbers, but it turns out you can replace the crippled BIOS with another, a BIOS made for another of the manufacturers' boards -- a motherboard with a very similar part number. By the time you go through that trouble, the cheap computer you bought is not worth the price.


I've not found a good rule of thumb yet, but I suspect it's going to be something like: "Stay away from the big stores and the vendors selling "mixed source" Linux."

roberr42
2007-08-03 20:10:52
Zonbu does not have a hard drive, only 4G flash. What Zonbu really sells is 25G of off-site storage for $12/ month. They give you the computer for free (plus a $99 fee) So basically you have a turn-key system, filled with office and web sofware, on a linux os that requires no updates of software installs by the user.
All for $325 spread of two years.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-04 06:56:55
@Robert42: First, the Zonbu website claims that the minimum cost is $12.95 a month plus the $99 price of the machine with a minimum obligation of 2 years. That's $410, not $325.


Second, they don't claim to be running Linux. They claim to have created their own OS. If it's Linux it's their own proprietary distribution, isn't it?


Third, I understand and even stated that there is no hard drive. I said they are using a flash device instead of a hard drive. You either didn't understand or deliberately sidestepped by technical objection: What are they doing to mitigate the fact that flash has a limited lifespan? What are the doing to reduce I/O? I gave examples of Linux distributions that run from RAM but they are all pretty lightweight as a result, as in no OpenOffice which Zonbu does offer. How does Zonbu address this issue? You haven't answered that. If you want to shill for Zonbu on my blog you had better understand the technology and address how it works.


Finally, I don't want to be tethered to their storage and their OS. I don't want someone running a continuous backup of my personal data to their storage and network. It's expensive and takes away all the freedom and choice that Linux offers. For $329 I can have the Damn Small Machine. I can put the OS, any Linux distro I want, on a USB pen drive I already have or on an IDE flash device. I can choose one that caches to RAM. If I want to change or upgrade the OS I can. I can choose any applications I want. In other words I can have a Nano-ITX system (which is what Zonbu is) for less money with more freedom.


Like I said before, Zonbu is a poor choice and it certainly isn't $139.

wjl
2007-08-04 17:54:15
@Alan: that could be a hoax. Search the internet, and you'll find many bad reports.


@Caitlyn: the Zonbu isn't running some own proprietary OS, it's some kind of locked-down Gentoo, which is ok for the intended audience. If you're interested, there's a blog at http://mrzonbu.wordpress.com/ about it. I wouldn't buy it, but for people who you don't want to support, and who can afford it, why not?


I looked at the Damn Small Machine you mentioned, and it looks ok, tho maybe the Linutop is more interesting, and it is Debian-based, and cheaper.


Flash done right means: no log files to save IO and all that stuff. If it's set up properly, it can work quite well.


Kind regards,
Wolfgang
http://wolfgang.lonien.de/
http://blog.thedebianuser.org/

mj
2007-08-04 23:43:10
Cheap is fine if it works,i like win98se & xp on older computers,
they still get the job done. If my being cheap bothers you,then by
all means buy us all new computers.
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-05 09:15:11
mj: WIndows '98 SE is no longer supported by Microsoft and is a security risk to both your system and others. That's hardly "getting the job done". Insecure Windows systems spread malware and are generally a menace on the Internet. With Linux you get current support and software and low end older computers are fully supported.


My point, which you missed, is that for $139 you can still be pretty darned cheap and have something new with a warranty and support. Oh, and sorry, I'm not giving out handouts.


Fernando orus
2007-08-05 14:04:20
Caitlyn,


I read Allan's post about Medison's laptops, visited their site, and found the distro they are using in their FAQ section: It's Fedora

mj
2007-08-05 15:51:03
Caitlyn,
I have used linux and at times i still do, if a person needs a new $139 computer, fine,If a person will use open source software
like firefox, and programs like ccleaner and many others that are up to date, than a person like me can have a clean well running system, yes--- even running windows. i like to test software so i run newer systems as well. most linux is only forum supported, and there are plenty forums for windows as well
(fedora core 4 is a good example of a very recent linux distro
one of many no longer supported)alot of linux users switch their distro every week. so if it is practical for you to get a $139
computer than do, but dont waste.


no longer supported, one of many)

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-06 09:31:25
@mj: Fedora Core 4 is still supported through the Fedora Legacy project. Patches and updates are still being issued. Also, something nearly two years old is not considered "recent" in Linux terms -- one of the many differences between Windows and Linux.


There is no reason to run a two year old version of Linux for most users. There are plenty of current distros supporting older hardware, much unlike Windows.


The thing is you completely missed the point about support. A forum is NOT what I'm talking about. I'm talking about issuing bugfixes and patches to close security vulnerabilities. NOBODY is doing that for Windows '98 or any other legacy version of Windows. Having a vulnerable system for an OS with a proliferation of virii, worms, trojans, spyware, and other malware is a menace to other users on the 'net.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-06 09:32:39
@Fernando orus: Yes, tha Madison laptop looks like another very good deal on another very inexpensive new computer. For someone who wants an inexpensive laptop it's very worthwhile.
Karl O. Pinc
2007-08-06 17:17:06
mj,


You make it sound like you believe the myth that Linux has no support. I've always found there to be far, far, more information about Linux available on the web than almost any commercial software product. And it makes sense. Anyone can read the code, so anyone who can read code can pinpoint the problem and the solution.


Further, different Linux distros meet different needs. If you want support don't choose Fedora 4, choose it's relative, Centos 4. According to the FAQ it goes out of support on Feb 29, 2012. There are other Linux distros dedicated to being bleeding edge, and there are enough Linux distros out there that at least one of them's sure to be close to almost anybody's "sweet spot". At least when it comes to general purpose computing needs.


Finally, if you're getting support from web forums you're going to the wrong place. The best help comes from a real person, and most places have a local Linux user's group with real people willing to help. Then there's IRC chat areas for 24/7 support, either devoted to particular Linux distros or to particular software projects. There you can often find the people who actually wrote the software. Other sorts of problems are best addressed by email. Again, there are mailing lists devoted to particular distros and to particular projects, and again this is where you find the people who wrote the software. The archives of such lists are often invaluable when it comes to finding someone else who had your exact same problem and what they did about it. While there's lots of good information on the web, web forums are often clunky and clique-y; I think because the interface requires repeated visits in order to "check up" on what's happening, the new information is not delivered to anyone's doorstep.


Yes, an MS Windows system can be kept functional and secure. But I think it takes someone who's at least a little bit of an expert and is willing to devote time and trouble to it. In my opinion it takes more of an expert than a Linux system would need, and surely a whole lot more time. Further, you didn't answer Caitlyn's main point. With no support from Microsoft, Windows 98 cannot be secured -- short of disconnecting it from the Internet. Nobody's issuing fixes to the operating system itself, so when there's a problem that problem is _always there_ -- waiting for somebody to exploit it. Your mention of ccleaner does nothing to support your argument that MS Windows is easy to keep working, much less secure. I took the time to look up ccleaner, and found it only removes unused files. (Incidently, it cannot remove all unused files because, unlike Linux, MS Windows has no packaging system to keep track of which files are required to keep particular programs running.) Ccleaner might be be a fine example if we were talking about tiding up disk space, but we're talking about support. Support when it comes to troubleshooting, particularly when it comes to troubleshooting the most important problems; security and operability.

James D
2007-08-08 02:15:28
This is perfect for the family members who do light surfing and nothing too intensive. Perfect little machine and for that price you cant go wrong
Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-08 14:00:04
@Alan Rochester & Fernando orus: It turns out the Medison $150 laptop is probably a scam. I would definitely wait to see if anyone takes delivery on these before even considering ordering. If it seems to good to be true it probably is.


MadTux, OTOH, has an excellent reputation and is a legitimate company.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-14 15:24:10
@wjl: The problem with the Zonbu Zonbox and most every other Nano ITX system amd Mini ITX system with flash in lieu of a hard drive is that the OS doesn't fully cache into RAM. That is the ultimate way to reduce I/O and extend the life of the MTD device. DSL is loaded on the Damn Small Machine as a frugal install with the toram option.


There are larger distros that can be cached into RAM if you have sufficient memory. I've done it with Wolvix and AliXe. Others that would work well include GoblinX and Slax. In general you just don't want a conventional distro running from the storage device when that device is a form of RAM. Why the sellers of these boxes don't get that and preload with Gentoo or Fedora or SuSe or Ubuntu is beyond me. The Damn Small Machine is the one notable exception.

Rob
2007-08-30 17:24:20
"Fedora Core 4 is still supported through the Fedora Legacy project. Patches and updates are still being issued."


Incorrect. The Fedora Legacy project shutdown in late 2006, and the master repository was taken offline on February 7th, 2007.

Caitlyn Martin
2007-08-30 20:08:05
@Rob: I am sorry to learn about the demise of Fedora Legacy. In any case Fedora is a test bed for Red Hat Enterprise Linux. I have been unimpressed with Fedora for some time now and I do not recommend it.