A few months ago in PC Advisor, we ran a feature on buying the cheapest desktop PC possible. We considered the idea of specifying no operating system at all, believing that the truly cash-strapped consumer might be interested in saving a few pennies by sticking on an open source Linux operating system - such as is the case with the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu. In the end we decided that, perhaps, the typical PC user wasn't yet ready to step into the rather fearsome world of Linux. Dell, it would seem, disagrees, and it's now possible to get a Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu loaded not with flashy mainstream Windows Vista or XP, but with a Linux operating system.

The idea of open source software is that the code is freely available to the general public, so that anyone with the necessary knowledge can make their own modifications to the original. Over the years, the open source Linux operating system has been passed from programmer to programmer, and many different incarnations have bubbled out of the original code. Fedora and OpenSuse are well-known variants of Linux. But the one creating the biggest waves (particularly for those who want something a little more graphical, something that feels a little more like Windows) is Ubuntu. Now in version 7.04 (subtitled Feisty Fawn), this is the operating system which Dell is packaging with the Linux-flavoured Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu.

But before we take our first tentative steps into the world of Ubuntu, let's look at the issue of price. This Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu is available for £223. We put together a similarly-specified Vista system and the price came to £320 - almost an extra £100. Now admittedly, the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu came with just 512MB of RAM, whereas the Vista machine was equipped with 1GB (specify Windows Vista, and Dell won't actually allow you to put in less than 1GB of RAM). You could upgrade the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu to 1GB for an extra £18, but this, in reality, is missing the point. The £223 Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu, cheap as it may be, will do a very decent job of running its operating system, while its Vista counterpart would be much happier with some fancier technology on board. But, as it happens, this is also missing the point. If you do buy this machine, it shouldn't be simply because you want to save money.

See also: Fedora 7.0 Linux review

Linux, you see, is a very different beast from Windows XP or Vista. Even Ubuntu, undoubtedly the most user-friendly of the Linux variants, will feel like a foreign land to native Windows speakers. Visually it's not as slick to look at as Vista. If you're to succeed with the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu, you'll need to grasp some new terms and get pretty used to searching the (copious) help pages and forums for assistance. Also, if the thought of typing text into the PC scares you, Linux's more technical aspects could have you running for the hills.

Ubuntu does its best to make the transition from Windows as smooth as possible and, in contrast to some Linux variants, a batch of useful applications are installed as default. Some of the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu's preinstalled programs will be very familiar. OpenOffice works as a very decent office suite, while FireFox eagerly steps forwards to display web pages. GIMP is becoming increasingly popular as a first-class image editor in Windows, but its open source roots mean it's never happier then when it's running on Ubuntu. However, not all of these applications work flawlessly. Making an internet connection was easy, but getting DVDs to work with Totem proved a long-winded process.

Some Linux systems (Fedora anyone?) adore the idea of open source code so much that they won't entertain the idea even of proprietary drivers. Which is all very well, but it makes getting working drivers for your hardware somewhat tricky. Ubuntu is more sensible but, even so, the Device Manager is rather more spartan than it would be if this was running Windows. Should you want to upgrade your hardware in the future, you'll have to get used to asking searching questions of the hardware manufacturers to ascertain whether the components will work with Linux or not. Also remember that much of your existing software is unlikely to work - although there is now a good range of open source software freely available - and as a games machine, the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu simply doesn't stack up.

Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu: Specs

  • 1.6GHz Intel Pentium E2140
  • Ubuntu Linux 7.04
  • 512MB DDR RAM
  • 160GB hard drive
  • No Monitor (19in Dell SE198WFP available for £177 extra) 128MB nVidia GeForce 8300 GS Turbocache
  • 16-speed DVD-RW Drive
  • Flash Memory Drive
  • 1-year collect-and-return warranty
  • 1.6GHz Intel Pentium E2140
  • Ubuntu Linux 7.04
  • 512MB DDR RAM
  • 160GB hard drive
  • No Monitor (19in Dell SE198WFP available for £177 extra) 128MB nVidia GeForce 8300 GS Turbocache
  • 16-speed DVD-RW Drive
  • Flash Memory Drive
  • 1-year collect-and-return warranty

OUR VERDICT

We'll be honest here. Beginners probably aren't going to like Ubuntu - it's still rather arcane and bewildering - and gamers shouldn't even bother. But Linux enthusiasts swear by the added functionality of many of its programs. Future upgrades (and software titles) will be free, and you'll have virtually no problems with viruses and spyware. And while Windows PCs tend to slow down over time as more and more files pile up, the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu should retain its speed long into the future. Best of all, you don't need an amazingly powerful PC on which to run Ubuntu. You can load up a ‘Live CD' version on your home PC and test out Ubuntu without installing it. If, after that, you want to take the plunge, the Dell Inspiron 530n Ubuntu is a brilliantly cost-effective machine with which to do it.

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