Review: $300 PC Running Linux Makes A Good Starter System

The Systemax hardware running the Linspire operating system will be a yawner for Linux veterans, but it's a good deal for bargain-seakers and newbies.



A new, built-to-order PC with a pre-installed Linux distro may not sound like much fun to a hard-core, do-it-yourself Linux geek. But if you want a quick, easy, inexpensive way to get started with Linux, Systemax and Linspire have just the ticket.

I recently took a hands-on look at the the companies' then-current offering: the Systemax Venture L335 Linspire PC. The system, which is available from Systemax subsidiary Tiger Direct carries a list price of $299.99, plus shipping and handling, in its basic configuration (see box). The system I ordered for review included some significant upgrades (see box), giving me a solid all-purpose PC for around $500, not including shipping charges.

Can Linspire and Systemax live up to their goal of delivering a system that won't make new Linux users wish they had paid their Windows tax? I think so, although there's still some room for improvement.

Configuring Your Dream Machine

My experience started just like any other buyer: with a visit to the Tiger Direct Web site, one of two Systemax subsidiaries that sells the L335. Once you're there, you can buy a pre-configured system or choose from a set of optional hardware upgrades.

As you configure your system, a running total keeps track of just how much each of your changes adds to the final price. Some options, such as upgrading the 40GB disk to 160GB for $50, were reasonably priced; others, such as 256MB of extra RAM for the same price, seemed quite expensive compared to buying extra memory elsewhere and installing it yourself. The PC comes with audio, graphics, and 10/100MB networking integrated into the motherboard, so you cannot alter these items (the system has both an AGP slot and extra PCI slots if you decide to upgrade the video and audio or want to add an internal Wi-Fi adapter).

Once you have the system you want, the checkout process is clear and simple. After selecting a shipping method, the system tallies a final total; payment requires a major credit card or PayPal. Our review system, shipped via UPS ground, arrived within a week.

What’s In The Box

Our shipment included a single box containing the CPU, PS/2 keyboard and scroll mouse, and a power cord. It also included a CD-ROM with diagnostic software, a quick-start pamphlet, and a thin manual on basic PC operations.

The system provided a complete copy of its Linspire Five-0 operating system on CD-ROM -- something that rarely happens with pre-installed Windows PCs. Like most PCs sold these days, however, most of the useful documentation is in electronic form, not in a printed manual.

Product Summary

Systemax Venture L335 Linspire Desktop PC

Base Configuration:
2.8 GHz Intel Celeron-D Processor
256 MB RAM
40 GB HDD
52X CD-ROM Drive
Linspire Five-0
4 USB 2.0 ports (2 front, 2 back)
Integrated AGP graphics
1 8x AGP, 3 PCI slots
Price: Approx. $300

Review Configuration:
512 MB RAM
160 GB Hard Drive
DVD-RW Dual Layer
Price: Approx. $500

Tiger Direct
www.tigerdirect.com

Linspire
www.linspire.com

Systemax covers its systems under a two year basic warranty, including one year of onsite service -- a very generous plan compared to some major direct-sale PC makers whose warranties are as short as 90 days. When I tried to find the customer support phone number, however, I could not find it anywhere in the bare-bones printed documentation. Although I finally found the number buried in the small print of the warranty card, Systemax should print it in a more obvious spot; anyone who needs help is unlikely to appreciate being forced to hunt for it.

What’s In The PC

The PC consists of mini-tower case with a 250W power supply that should get the job done, assuming very few users who buy this system will burden it with a power-hungry video card or multiple internal storage devices. The front panel of the case includes two 5.25 inch bays, including one holding the CDRW drive I selected; along with a 3.5 inch floppy disk drive (still essential hardware for recovering after system crashes). A second, 3.5 inch bay is suitable for use either with removable storage, such as a Zip drive, or with a second hard disk (our pre-installed, 160GB IDE drive is mounted in another, internal bay).

Opening the case to look inside was much harder than it needs to be. I required a Phillips-head screwdriver to remove two screws securing the case and then had to give it a couple of good bangs to pop it open. A tool-free case, with thumbscrews, an easy to remove cover, and some markings to tell users which side to open, would be far more convenient and cost little or nothing to add.

Once I got the case open, I found the system well laid out; it was especially easy to access the memory slots, one of the most common do-it-yourself PC upgrades. There are also a total of four open AGP and PCI slots, giving users more room to expand than most PCs at this price level.



Start It Up

To test the Systemax/Linspire system, I commandeered a run-of-the-mill CRT monitor and keyboard from an existing Windows-based PC. The system booted and loaded its BIOS fine, but when Linspire opened, all I saw was static.

Systemax handles its own tech support, and I found them prompt and courteous, if not entirely accurate. After dialing the number and moving quickly through a phone menu with just two options, the technician came on the line, gathered some information, and quickly offered a possible solution: the memory modules might have been disturbed during shipping. He asked me to open the case and reseat the modules -- something I had no problem doing, although a less experienced user might have felt intimidated even before they tackled the job of opening the case.

Nor was any of that necessary: a simple troubleshooting exercise showed that the memory wasn't the problem. When we connected the machine to a newer NEC flat-panel monitor, the video problem went away. Linspire apparently lacked the correct drivers to support the older CRT monitor. To avoid similar problems, we suggest checking in advance with Tiger Direct or Systemax if you plan to use an older display with your system.

Incidentally, the only part of the Systemax support call I disliked was the company's request for my computer's serial number, located on the back of the machine. Even though I was required to enter the number at the start of the call, I was still asked to repeat it again to the technician. Why force callers to give it twice?

Taking Linspire for a Spin

If you are new to Linux, Linspire Five-O is a great way to get started. It includes all the tools you need to perform just about any type of computer work, including thee OpenOffice software suite, a Mozilla Web browser and email client, an IM client, the NVU open-source Web development tool, and the LSong music player. Users can also access CNR: Linspire's open-source library, including hundreds of Linux programs that provide alternatives to just about any Windows application you're likely to need.

On the minus side, when I first booted the computer, the startup process was extremely slow, even compared to Windows' typical snails-pace startup. After viewing the Linspire splash screen and enduring another long wait for the system services to start, the Linspire desktop finally loaded for the first time.

Most users accustomed to Microsoft Windows will have little trouble navigating the Linspire desktop. There is a familiar look and feel; with some hunting and pecking, you should be able to find everything you need. Nevertheless, to their credit, the folks at Linspire have also included a series of detailed Flash tutorials on different features of the operating system, such as networking and setting up an email account.

Linspire's hardware support was also trouble-free: Aside from the monitor problem, my other peripherals worked without a hitch, and I set up Internet access by simply plugging an Ethernet cable from my cable modem into the system's network port. An extra keyboard, USB scroll mouse and external speakers also worked fine. The system's graphics quality was average; since it does include an open AGP slot, you may want to install an upgraded video card, especially if you work with graphics or intend to play games.

As I mentioned before, when you purchase the system, you also get access to CNR, Linspire’s online software store. For a yearly subscription, you get easy access to a host of new software and automatic updates to your existing software. It's a safe, extremely easy way to find, install, and update, and software, making it a great deal for non-technical users. Much (if not all) of the software is also available for free elsewhere, however, so more experienced users can probably save themselves the money with a do-it-yourself approach.

On the whole, Systemax and Linspire have put together a reasonable system for a decent price. Just keep realistic expectations: You can't expect top-notch components, such as high-end video hardware, in a machine at this price level. What you will get is a serviceable machine and user-friendly Linux and open-source software, all at a price that puts Linux within reach of just about anyone who wants a PC. Old hands might get annoyed and frustrated, but Linspire Five-0 is a great starting point for folks just getting started with Linux, and it's hard to go wrong at this price.

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