Monday, November 24, 2008

Review: Dell Inspiron 530N With Ubuntu 8.04 LTS


A couple of months ago I purchased a new desktop system for my office, a Dell Inspiron 530N with Ubuntu 8.04 LTS pre-installed by Dell. For those of you unfamiliar with the "N" series, these systems are sold without Microsoft Windows installed. They are available with either Ubuntu Linux pre-installed or with no operating system installed and a copy of FreeDOS (an open source MS-DOS work-alike) installation media in the box.

My previous computer, another Dell N Series (a Dimension 2400 from 2004) still works but since it's Celeron powered, it's a bit slow for my contemporary tastes.

Ordering from the Dell website was very straightforward and I configured my system with the optional Intel Core2 Duo E4600 processor, 2GB RAM, Integrated Intel 3100 Graphics (I'm not a gamer), and a 22 -inch E228WFP wide-screen flat panel monitor. The total system price was $703 including $35 shipping charge.

After it arrived (it only took about three days even with ground shipping), I got it out of the box and set it up. The only interesting thing of note was that no manual for the computer was included in the box. I don't know if this was a shipping mistake or if Dell omits it because the manual is Windows specific. I later went to the Dell support site and downloaded a PDF version.

Physically, the machine is a pretty typical desktop computer. It features an attractive silver and white case with front audio and USB sockets behind a sliding cover and it has a glowing blue power button. When the system powers up, all of its fans turn on (loudly) for about three seconds and then turn off. Besides that, I would rate the system as very quiet. The standard keyboard is on the smallish side, with no excess around the keys themselves and I had concerns at first about using a keyboard that had no wrist rest, but after having used it for a while, I like the small size. It leaves plenty of room on my desk for even more junk.

The Ubuntu installation on the system is pretty good. Dell adds two icons to the desktop, one linked to a folder named "Dell" which contains a single PDF file of technical support contact information, and a second icon that links to a program that generates a DVD recovery image for performing a full system restore to original factory condition. A recovery partition is also included on the hard disk which can be selected at boot up. What is missing is a document that describes how Dell integrated the OS. Such a document is useful if you later decide to switch to another Linux distribution and need to know if any special tweaks are required to support the hardware.

After the system was attached to the Internet, it set about updating itself from the Ubuntu and Dell repositories. Amazingly, there were over 900 updates available, virtually all of them from Ubuntu. One thing to note about the Dell repositories, packages from there will always display "not authenticated" warnings when you attempt to update them. I looked into this (as the warning you receive is pretty dire) and it seems to be an Ubuntu problem in that only packages from the official Ubuntu repositories can be authenticated.

All of the hardware on the machine appears well-supported by Ubuntu. Dell also includes the closed-source LinDVD program from Corel for DVD (and other multimedia) playback. While the program could be said to work, it has two annoying features, first it always sets the volume level (system-wide) to maximum each time it's started. Second, its user interface is visually ugly, looking like a 1998 version of XMMS. This is the inevitable result of it being closed-source. No one in the GNOME or Ubuntu communities is able to properly integrate it into the desktop. Since receiving the system, I have installed all of the usual multimedia packages from the Ubuntu repositories and reserve LinDVD for DVD watching only and use totem for everything else. The integrated Intel graphics system is fast enough to display 720p video playback without problems. This system is also the first system that I have owned that can run compiz-based visual effects on the desktop and it works pretty well.

Overall, I am very pleased with the system. Dell did a good (though not perfect) job with the Ubuntu setup and the hardware performs well. The 22-inch monitor combined with the compiz visual effects is a delight. For the money, I think this is a very good system. I've enjoyed it every day so far.

You can find out more about Dell's Ubuntu systems at:

http://www.dell.com/ubuntu

Also check out Dell's other Linux resources:

http://linux.dell.com

http://www.dell.com/linux