If you've been curious about Linux but fearful of installing the open-source OS on a laptop, then Ubuntu 7.10 will eliminate all excuses. This graphical and very friendly version of the OS is free, looks and plays very much like Mac/Windows, and runs a surprisingly vast array of programs from the open-source community.
Easy to Install
After downloading Ubuntu, tire kickers can create a bootable CD to load the OS without installing it, but the built-in installation routines can also use a free partition to make a dual-boot Windows/Ubuntu system. Much of the user interface resembles Mac's OS X: The file navigation system uses a familiar tree structure, and we love the Bookmark feature that embeds the same shortcuts into every file explorer window.
Ubuntu Apps Aplenty
OpenOffice is compatible with most Microsoft Office files, and the Evolution e-mail client looks and feels like an early version of Outlook--very useful with little clutter. Open-source multimedia editors and CD rippers abound, and they worked well without ever crashing the OS. Ubuntu found our wireless router easily and worked seamlessly in our Windows Workgroup. Alas, Vista didn't return the favor, and our Windows PC couldn't see the Ubuntu laptop on the network. When you're using the bundled Firefox, there's no real difference surfing the Web using Ubuntu, Windows, or a Mac.
Multimedia on Ubuntu can be impressive with the Totem and Rhythmbox players, but good luck finding the right drivers. We never got a DVD or MPEGs to play, because Unbuntu failed to download and install the proper codecs. While the OS seemed to have the proper audio driver installed for our Dell Inspiron 1520 test laptop, we couldn't get a peep out of it. Installing drivers takes you beneath the OS' warm and fuzzy surface and into the notoriously Byzantine, command-line world that makes Linux a favorite of propeller heads. Because it's open-source, Ubuntu doesn't give dedicated support beyond some helpful FAQs and forums, which are deep and well populated with questions and responses. Nevertheless, discussions can go over a neophyte's head.
Ubuntu 7.10 Verdict
This upgrade is a solid alternative to Windows. Ubuntu 7.10 does most common tasks just as well as a Windows-powered PC, but for anything trickier, results will vary. Most laptop Windows veterans will want to try Ubuntu from a CD or a dual-boot configuration before committing to this powerful, friendly, but still pretty geeky flavor of Linux.
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Dell Inspiron 1520
Featuring a fresh new design, solid performance, and free online backup, Dell's latest mainstream notebook is a winner.