Review: The World's Cheapest Business PC?

At just $200, Wal-Mart's Linux-based PC might be a pleasant surprise for Windows-weary business users.
There are times when only top-of-the-line, brand-name computers are acceptable for business use. But opportunities for substantial savings on computer purchases make a compelling argument to consider alternatives. Wal-Mart's entry into the extreme low end of the PC market may be an opportunity for your business to save some cash if you're willing to break away from the Microsoft Windows operating system in favor of Xandros, a Linux-based operating system.

Wal-Mart markets the Microtel PC in four different configurations, all excluding monitors. The basic unit sells for $200 and comes equipped with a 1.5GHz AMD processor, 128Mb of memory, a 20Gb drive, a CD-ROM drive, and the Standard Edition of the Xandros Desktop operating system. The top-of-the-line unit sells for $500 and includes a 2.0GHz AMD processor, 256Mb of memory, a 40Gb drive, a CD-RW/DVD combo drive, and the deluxe version of the Xandros Desktop operating system. At this time, these systems are available only from Wal-Mart's online catalog.

I looked at the basic model to determine if it would be suitable in an office environment. In short, the answer is a qualified "yes."

The Microtel PC is a standard desktop computer, and even by itself is worth its $200 price tag. The real cost savings come with the Xandros operating system and its bundled software. The good news is that for most office tasks, you may not need to shell out any additional dollars, because the most popular office applications are already installed and ready for use. The only reason this system would not work in your office is if you require some very specific applications that run only on Windows...but there's even a possible solution for that. Read on.

I was impressed with the ease of setting up this unit. I unboxed it, plugged in the included mouse, multimedia keyboard, and speakers. Then I attached my own monitor, Ethernet cable, and power cord, and booted it up. A start-up wizard guided me through assigning an administrator account and user account, then automatically connected to the Internet. I was ready to go in less than 10 minutes.

Xandros Desktop
If you haven't seen a current implementation of Linux, you're in for a treat. Xandros is a full-fledged windowed environment, and anyone who has used Microsoft Windows will easily find their way around the interface. The PC was smooth and responsive, and menus and windows performed exactly as a Windows user would expect.

The Applications
In a standard office environment, the price of the basic PC is only the start of its cost. Adding Microsoft Office, an accounting application, a project manager, Adobe Photoshop, and Adobe Acrobat can add several hundred dollars to the cost of the computer. Xandros' implementation of Linux includes equivalents to these applications and more at no additional charge. is functionally equivalent to Microsoft Office in that it includes word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation software, plus a Web page editor and a drawing program. All OpenOffice applications are interoperable with Microsoft office apps: they can read Microsoft files and save to Microsoft format. Missing is one of the most frequently used Microsoft programs, Outlook, but its equivalent, Ximian Evolution, can be downloaded from Xandros' software store at no charge. I installed Evolution and was surprised at how closely it matches Outlook in both features and functions, with e-mail, calendar, tasks, and even the ability to create e-mail rules.

Xandros' software store makes selecting and installing software simple and fast. Titles are listed by categories like Business and Finance, Graphics, and Multimedia, and many of the titles are available for download at no charge. I selected GnuCash, a personal finance program; MrProject, a project manager similar to Microsoft Project; and Scribus, a page layout program similar to Adobe PageMaker. All three free programs were automatically downloaded through my broadband Internet connection and installed in about 5 minutes.

The list of programs includes other titles that can be purchased or are available at no extra charge for members of the Xandros Premium Network, which is available for $39 per year.

Still Need To Run Windows Apps?
Even though there are many Linux applications that offer equivalent functionality to Windows apps, there are thousands of special-purpose programs that don't have Linux versions. Xandros accommodates those needs in two ways.

NeTraverse Win4Lin is available as a free download and allows you to install your own copy of Windows on your Xandros computer. This may work for you depending on the specific Windows application you need to run. You are limited to installing Windows 95, 98, and ME. It doesn't support Windows 2000 or XP. But if your application can run in those earlier versions of Windows, this solution provides 100% compatibility.

CodeWeavers CrossOver Office is available for $39 and offers compatibility for a specific set of Windows applications including Microsoft Office, Access, Visio, Lotus Notes, Intuit Quicken, and several other popular applications. Client applications are available for Citrix, SAP, and IBM System 3270 and 5250 terminal emulations, all available at no charge.

The Bottom Line
In my testing, I found the PC's performance to be excellent -- Linux/Xandros is kind to hardware. I also found numerous pleasant surprises like remote desktop sharing a la Windows XP, multiple desktops, fast user login switching, and most pleasantly of all, no noticeable viruses, spyware, or pop-ups. Of course, it's only a matter of time before the developers of these scourges find their way to the Linux world, but for now it's a nice experience to see only what you want to see on your screen.

An investment of $200 may be a worthwhile experiment. You may find you can operate your office without any Microsoft applications at all.

Wal-Mart Microtel PC with Xandros Desktop operating system

Basic System: $199.98
1.5GHz AMD Sempron 2200+ Processor

Editor's Choice
Brandon Taylor, Digital Editorial Program Manager
Jessica Davis, Senior Editor
Terry White, Associate Chief Analyst, Omdia
Richard Pallardy, Freelance Writer
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Pam Baker, Contributing Writer