Why Pay a Premium for Preloaded Linux?

Well, it was a relatively quiet week on the Linux blogs last week, as schools around the country wrapped up another year and everyone began the transition — even if just unofficially — into summer.

Bloggers with children were no doubt scrambling to assemble a selection of free Linux programs for kids to keep their offspring busy over the summer. Others, however, seemed to be thinking about shopping.

Perhaps it was those stimulus checks burning holes in their pockets, but the most lively discussion on Slashdot last week focused on the critical decision that any Linux geek contemplating the purchase of a new PC must face: Whether to buy it preloaded with Linux, or whether to get a Windows machine and reformat it with Linux themselves.

The Tax Man Cometh

“I have been in the market for a new computer for the past few weeks and I know that I want to run Linux on it,” began Shadow7789 at the start of the thread on Tuesday. “However, every time I look at (for example) Dell’s computers that are preloaded with Linux, the question pops into my head: ‘Why should I buy a PC preloaded with Linux?’

“They are more expensive, and it’s not hard just to reformat the PC with Linux,” Shadow7789 continued. “I hate paying the Microsoft Tax as much as anybody else, but if paying that ‘tax’ allows companies to reduce my price by bundling with my PC products that I will never use, why wouldn’t I just buy a Windows-loaded PC and reformat?”

More than 500 responses followed, as Linux aficionados far and wide hastened to add their two cents.

Windows Tax Refund

“If it’s got Linux installed on it, you know that the hardware it’s got is supported by Linux,” warned oneandoneis2. “Nothing worse than buying a new computer and finding out it’s got some chipset or other that Linux doesn’t work with yet.”

And the marketing perspective: “When people buy Windows machines, hardware makers think people will only want/need Windows drivers,” TeknoHog pointed out. “Many of those people will install some other OS, but how are the businesses supposed to know about that? In capitalism, buying decisions are the primary means of sending messages to the producers.”

Then again, how about filing for a Windows tax refund?

$50 Cash Back

“When I recently bought my Dell, I bought it with Windows instead of Linux. (It was a good $300 cheaper for better hardware!),” wrote hunteke. “Then, when the computer arrived, I rejected the on-first-boot MS Eula and got a refund for a little over $50. This way, I still got what I wanted, and I was able to send the most accurate message as well.”

Want to try that at home? Read up on how to get a Windows tax refund.

So what’s the righteous path for the good Linux citizen? LinuxInsider couldn’t resist asking around.

Labor Costs

“When you buy a PC with Linux preloaded, you’re paying the extra cost of someone else installing Linux and configuring everything to work,” Foogazi blogger Adam Kane told LinuxInsider. “I’d rather pay the cheaper cost of buying a PC with Windows and reformatting and installing myself. However, if you’re someone who has little time to install and configure a Linux system, buying a PC preloaded is a better solution.”

Then again, “This absolutely depends on why a user is going to run GNU/Linux,” countered Monochrome Mentality blogger Kevin Dean.

“My wife, for instance, is an Ubuntu user and doesn’t care about Free Software one bit,” Dean told LinuxInsider. “If she were to purchase a computer herself, to use what she’s familiar with, purchasing a pre-built Dell with Ubuntu on it would be a good idea for her.”

Best of Both Worlds

On the other hand, “for someone who cares about Free Software and has professional system administration experience, I see much more benefit in getting a system tailored specifically to me which would more or less mean it would ship Debian, which very few companies ship pre-installed systems of,” he explained.

“Of course, I personally build my own PCs from parts, both for my home and my office,” Dean added. “This is pretty much the best of every world there is — I don’t pay for a Windows license I won’t use and I build with hardware that I KNOW is GNU/Linux-compatible.”

Back to that marketing perspective, “To me, the best thing about people (individually or via corporate purchases) buying a PC preloaded with Linux is that it sends a message to the makers that, no, not everyone actually wants to have Windows by default,” Timothy Lord, an editor on Slashdot, told LinuxInsider.

‘Chicken-and-Egg Problem’

“There’s a big chicken-and-egg problem which can only be resolved *if* people buy Linux machines preloaded,” Lord added. “The big PC makers like Dell and HP have so far made what seem to me pretty tepid Linux offerings outside of servers, so it wouldn’t surprise me if internally they analyze the results and think, ‘Gee, there’s not much demand for preloaded Linux’ — so the offerings *stay* tepid.”

Indeed, “I generally prefer not to buy Windows if the price is close, and in some cases the Linux machine may have better hardware,” Gerhard Mack, a Montreal-based consultant and Slashdot blogger, agreed. “Right now for servers and desktops I just buy the machine with no OS, but with laptops I’m still stuck with buying Windows and reformatting.”

Different Hardware

Speaking of hardware: “From what I saw when looking at the Dell computers preloaded with Ubuntu, they were generally cheaper on identical hardware, but often the Ubuntu system would have different hardware than the Windows systems,” Slashdot blogger mhall119 told LinuxInsider.

“For example, for high-end video the Windows system used ATI cards, whereas the Linux systems used Nvidia,” he pointed out. “Similar situations arise for wireless, where you’re better off with Intel chipsets than Broadcom, even if the Intel ones may be more expensive.”

In such cases, “you’re not paying extra for Linux to be pre-installed, you’re paying extra for Linux-compatible hardware,” mhall119 added. “You get what you pay for, and I’d rather pay $50 more for hardware that will work with my OS, regardless of whether I have that OS pre-loaded or install it myself.”


Finally, costs are a way of communicating value, as has been noted in these pages before. (For more on that, see “Should Linux Cost More?”)

“People associate value with cost when they have no other way to evaluate something,” Slashdot blogger yagu told LinuxInsider. “When people pay more for something, they assume it’s worth more. This may be good for Linux. It gives Linux the commercial stamp of ‘I’m worth something’ approval.”

The fact that a PC “loaded with an OS (and lots of excellent software) that is totally free costs more than the same machine with the not-free Microsoft OS is a bit insulting to the technical crowd, but we must factor in that vendors actually have a niche channel when they’re selling Linux boxes,” yagu added. “While it may appear that the box should cost less, vendors must jump through extra hoops to configure and install a Linux box.

“Ultimately this too is a stamp of approval from the vending world that it’s worthwhile to consider Linux as an offering to the general consumers,” he said.

“This may not wash with the religiously Linux crowd, but I think it’s a great stepping stone into the marketplace for Linux,” yagu concluded. “Linux needs to look like it’s worthy and valuable. One way to do that is to sell computers ‘off-the-shelf’ with Linux installed.”


  • is what it costs to get the greatest functionality. For example, if a future valedictorian from a local high school offers to work for me for minimum wage, I would remind the student that he/she is better than the average at whatever he/she does so the price should be higher (thank Goodness I AM not in business!). XP/Vista do no more than GNU/Linux or MacOS, so the value should be comparable. The cost of production of XP/Vista is actually quite small per copy. Take a few billion dollars and divide by a few hundred million copies and see what I mean. The replacement cost of XP/Vista is tiny in comparison to what M$ charges retail or to OEMs. That is why M$ is so profitable. They are over-charging by any measure.

    To accept a PC with GNU/Linux when XP/Vista installed sells at a lower price on identical hardware with GNU/Linux installed is very poor purchasing. Tell Dell that. I notice that no OEM sells exactly the same hardware with XP as they do GNU/Linux. Where I come from that is an anti-competitive act, preventing competition on price. Fortunately the tiny machines work better with GNU/Linux so that may not work to maintain the monopoly much longer.

  • One thing I disagree with is on the labor you are NOT being charged for labor over installing linux over windows. Also you might mention that Windows gets subsidies by being preloaded ie all the crap trial software like aol msn etc that get installed they pay a fee to dell to do so to relieve the price a bit.

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