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6/30/2009
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Linux Netbook Prices: How Low Can They Go?

Some netbook vendors can't stop bad-mouthing Linux. But it's still the way to go if you want a low-priced, energy-efficient machine that is actually capable of doing useful work.

Some netbook vendors can't stop bad-mouthing Linux. But it's still the way to go if you want a low-priced, energy-efficient machine that is actually capable of doing useful work.O'Reilly blogger Caitlyn Martin has been following low-end Linux netbook prices for a while now. This week, she pointed out that models selling for less than $150 are quickly multiplying: Last month I wrote about netbooks powered by the MIPS processor, originally developed by SGI. I also pointed out that the price for the Belco Alpha 400 had dropped to $149 last December and January. That is now the regular price for the lowest of low end Linux netbooks at Geeks.com. Last week they had a special and the price dropped to $139.

Believe it or not that doesn't sound like a bargain right now. A number of vendors are closing out the much more capable Asus EeePC 900A. Geeks.com is offering it for $149, the same price as the Belco Alpha 400, and they're throwing in an mp3 player. If that special disappears by the time you read this, NewEgg is offering the system for $169. Unless you have a compelling reason to run a MIPS processor the Asus is clearly the better deal. A word about Martin's reference to the MIPS processor: MIPS, like ARM, is a processor architecture commonly found in PDAs, computing appliances, and similar devices. Both processors are also increasingly used in netbooks, where their low cost and modest power requirements make them a great fit.

As I noted previously, Linux has also been ported to the ARM architecture. And since neither Windows XP nor Windows 7 will run on either MIPS or ARM netbooks, Microsoft isn't a player in this new, and rapidly growing, segment of the netbook market.

That's just as well, since even Intel-powered netbooks tend to suck eggs when they're saddled with the burden of running anti-virus, anti-spyware, and personal firewall tools. Besides running extremely well on less powerful hardware, Linux dispenses with all of these dubious features, leaving more system overhead available for useful applications.

I have also noted the claims some vendors make about high Linux netbook returns. Upon closer examination, it turns out that many of these issues have nothing to do with Linux and more to do with netbook return rates in general.

It's a curious revelation, since most netbooks today ship with Windows XP. As a result, some market-watchers suggest that Microsoft is the real culprit when it comes to setting unrealistic user expectations: A lot of consumers made the equation: Windows equals full capacity laptop, so these netbooks are full laptops that are cheaper just because they are smaller. Of course the netbook manufacturers made a killing with these machines: who would not buy a $400 subnotebook! The problem is that these were not subnotebooks, and when they failed to play Far Cry 2 or run software like PowerDirector or Adobe Premiere properly the returns started. Windows 7 netbooks will hide some other gotchas, as well. While Microsoft dumped the asinine three-app limit it had planned to enforce on Win 7 Starter Edition (the version sold to netbook OEMs), it will still deny Starter Edition users the ability to change their desktop wallpaper from the default setting.

Also, given the fact that Windows 7 will require up to 6GB of storage capacity, installing it on a netbook using solid-state storage may be an exercise in futility.

I'm not blindly endorsing all Linux netbooks here, either. Some vendors pair their hardware with properly customized Linux distros, up-to-date drivers, and other necessary modifications. Others clearly do not.

The fact is, some netbook vendors, especially those selling very low-cost models, see Linux as an opportunity to innovate. Others see it as an excuse to mask laziness and incompetence. If you're willing to invest some time and do your homework, however, low-cost Linux netbooks continue to be one of the IT market's most compelling bargains.

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