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Cheap Laptops Bad for Vista, Good for Linux


The good news for everyone is that you can get a good, solid laptop for under a grand these days. The bad news for Vista users is that many of those laptops, even though theyre sold with Vista, have nothing like enough resources to run Vista decently.

This year, from everything Ive seen, has lived up to the Merrill Lynch prediction that 2007 would be the year that notebooks overtook desktops to become the bigger revenue generator for PC makers. For some companies, like Hewlett-Packard, laptops have become the single most important revenue source.

There are a couple of reasons for this and they’re closely tied together. First, a PC vendor can make more profit on an under-$1,000 laptop than it would on a PC at the same price. At the same time, with Wi-Fi being available essentially everywhere and laptop prices falling below the magic $1,000 mark, more and more customers, both consumer and business, are turning to laptops.

Theres only one little problem with this if your company name is Microsoft. Those under-$1,000 laptops cant run Vista worth a darn. In addition, Vista has become a bigger and bigger part of a laptops cost. So, if youre a PC vendor, you could either upgrade your hardware—and there goes your sweet price point; put Vista Home Basic on the system—which even Vista lovers admit is trash; or continue to sell Windows XP and give adventurous customers a Linux option.

Whats happened is that people arent upgrading their basic laptops. Computer price margins are razor-thin. If people want top-of-the-line laptop, vendors are happy to provide them at an appropriate price point. But Dell, HP, Acer, et al. know darn well that they sell more of their cheaper systems than premium ones.

When you see a cheap laptop, youre seeing one that almost certainly has a gigabyte or less RAM and some kind of embedded graphics chip like an Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 950 with 8MB to 64MB dynamically allocated shared graphics memory. Vista really requires 2GB before it becomes usable, and theres no point in even trying to run Vistas Aero interface with that low level of graphical horsepower, or perhaps I should say ponypower.

So, what were seeing now is that some companies are actually selling systems with Vista Home Basic. For example, my wife was briefly tempted this weekend by an under-$500 Toshiba laptop with Home Basic. Dont bother to look for it, by the way, theyre all sold out.

Heres the point, though: Home Basic offers nothing, zilch, that you cant already get with XP Home. It doesnt even give you Aero as an option. You could argue that Vista is inherently better than XP—I dont know that youll find anyone whod believe you, but you could try.

It doesnt come to any surprise to me that Acer and Dell would both rather have you buy XP than Vista. Oh, I know, youll find those “Acer recommends Windows Vista Business for Business Computing” labels and the like on their Web pages. But talk to the salespeople. Youll find it fascinating how happy they are to direct you to XP.

After all, its in their best interests to point you toward XP. XP is more stable and works with more software and equipment than Vista does, so it costs the companies less in technical support. In addition, they make a bit more money if they sell you XP.

And, Dell and some smaller companies, like Asus with its tiny Eee PC 4G UMPC (ultramobile PC), are also selling Linux-powered laptops. Here, the vendors make even more upfront profit per unit and by pushing technical support to the Linux community or vendors.

For example, that under-$500 Toshiba laptop with Home Basic? With 512MB of RAM and embedded Intel graphics, even the already mediocre Home Basic is still going to suck dead snakes through rusty tailpipes. Stick any Linux distribution on it, say Fedora 8, gOS 1.02 or OpenSUSE 10.3, and youve got a really useful laptop.

Total additional cost? About a buck for the burnable DVD for the Linux distribution. Its not a matter of “if,” its a matter of when were going to see more Linux-powered laptops.

Do the math. Vista doesnt work for todays laptop market. XP and Linux do. Its really that simple.

A version of this story first appeared in eWEEK.

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