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.
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.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing