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Buying A Netbook? Think Linux

Many netbook computer buyers are still reluctant to "take a chance" on Linux rather than Windows XP. But which operating system is really the riskier choice for a netbook buyer?
Many netbook computer buyers are still reluctant to "take a chance" on Linux rather than Windows XP. But which operating system is really the riskier choice for a netbook buyer?As a rule, netbook vendors will pre-install and support either Windows XP or Linux. While many netbook buyers will stick with Windows XP since it's the most familiar choice, that doesn't mean it's the best choice.

First, consider the cost of the netbook compared to the cost of the software running on it. In particular, consider Microsoft Office, which currently retails for a little over $300.

Does it really make sense, given any possible alternative, to double the price of a new netbook simply to run one software package?

The vast majority of business users today will find that OpenOffice.org gives them all of the features they need in a business productivity suite, and it offers excellent interoperability with existing Microsoft Office document formats. In fact, the only thing that keeps many users from switching is force of habit -- a habit that most small-business owners simply cannot afford to indulge, since OpenOffice.org won't cost them a penny to install and use.

What does this have to do with Windows XP, which supports OpenOffice.org just as well as Linux does? Quite a bit, since support for Microsoft Office was for years one of the key issues that left Linux at a disadvantage on the small-business desktop. (One of the others, Adobe Photoshop support, will be a non-issue for most netbook users...or at least for those who value their eyesight!)

Eliminate the software support issues, and you're left with a straight-up comarison between the relative merits of Windows XP and Linux as netbook operating systems. In my opinion, Linux comes out on top here -- and it's not even a close contest.

First, consider the upgrade options available for each operating system. It's safe to say that no sane human being wants to run Windows Vista on a netbook -- if such a feat is even possible. That's why Microsoft still licenses Windows XP to netbook vendors.

But there's a catch, or rather two catches. First, Microsoft only licenses Windows XP Home Edition to netbook vendors. Second, the upgrade path for any version of Windows XP running on a netbook looks pretty clear: There isn't one.

Compare this to Ubuntu Linux, which ships on Dell's Inspiron Mini 9 netbooks, among others. Ubuntu issues a major update every six months, and it guarantees support for each of these releases for at least 18 months. And unlike the XP-Vista upgrade path, it's safe to assume that an Ubuntu update won't instantly turn a perfectly serviceable PC into an overpriced space heater.

In addition, many of the latest netbooks offer solid-state disks, rather than traditional hard disks, for persistent data storage. Here, too, Linux holds a key advantage: It runs extremely well on netbooks using SSD technology, while the same systems running any version of Windows XP are likely to suffer unacceptable I/O performance.

(This, by the way, is the reason why netbooks such as Acer's Aspire One offer separate Linux models with SSD storage and Windows XP models with traditional disk-based storage. As blogger Kevin Tofel notes, if you need Windows XP, then be sure to get the XP model, because the differences do matter.)

There are always exceptions to the rule; other software compatibility issues, for example, could make Windows XP a must-have item on a particular user's netbook. Clearly, however, Linux is in the driver's seat on the netbook platform, and it is likely to stay there for a very long time.

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