General disclaimer 1: In what follows, I never use the word "free" to mean gratis. If I need to say gratis, I will explicitly use that word, but otherwise free is all about liberty.

General disclaimer 2: I'm long-winded. I really had to get a lot of things off my chest here, so I wrote at length. Feel free to exercise your reader's right to skip around or skim my text. I really don't want to shorten this or break it up into several interlinked writeups.

On May, 2007, hardware vendor Dell announced that they would be selling systems with Ubuntu preinstalled. On January 2008, I bought one such laptop from them.

Why the Ubuntu lappy is such a big deal

I'm convinced that the biggest obstacle to free software adoption nowadays is not ease of use (although ease of use also is admittedly an obstacle at times), but rather ease of installation and general accessibility of the software. It is unfortunately extremely likely that an installation of even the friendliest of GNU/Linux distributions will involve hurdles that will frustrate all but the most dedicated of computer users. Usually the biggest problems are that hardware components will not work to their full functionality, wireless and 3d acceleration being the biggest culprits of these problems. Other times the problems with installation are more severe, such as basic functionality of the OS not being available at all.

There is a historical reason why free software is so hard to install and set up, and it goes along with the history of Unix-like systems. Traditionally, Unix is a multi-user system with a paternalistic sysadmin who takes care of all the users. Although it is true that traditionally Unix users were more in tune with the computer than the modern computer user who now is potentially every human regardless of degree of computer affinity, the traditional Unix sysadmin was supposed to be several levels of expertise above even the best Unix users. Because free software originated as an alternative to what at the time was the most widespread operating system, free software originally inherited a lot of the practices of Unix, one of which was the assumption of a highly expert sysadmin.

Modern computers, users, and sysadmins are not like that anymore for the most part. Most users now are also sysadmins, so they expect sysadminning their personal computer to be as easy as using it. Operating systems are not primarily command-line driven anymore. It's not a multi-user system anymore either, except maybe some family members might want to use the same desktop computer at home, but the days of the gargantuan mainframes serving hundreds or thousands of users in a corporate or educational environment are largely a thing of the past. The momentum that free software has had over the past couple of decades, however, is built around precisely those outdated modes of computer interaction. Free software is slowly changing and adapting to modern times, however, with Ubuntu undeniably at the forefront of this adoption.

Part of this modernisation is having free software preinstalled on computers. The job of the old paternalistic sysadmin can be delegated to the hardware vendor who will configure the equipment before it's sold and will make sure that it will require little to no administration once it's in the hands of the user. If this goal is attained, I'm sure that we'll finally see more widespread adoption of free software by average users.

Experiencing the Ubuntu lappy

When I first heard that Dell was selling Ubuntu preloaded, I said to myself in fanboyish delight "OMG I MUST HAVE ONE!!". So I did once I had the money, I shall momentarily begin sharing my experience. Before I begin, I must say a little about how my review of the Ubuntu lappy will proceed. First of all, I am aware that due to my supreme comfort with text and a command line interface and some basic knowledge of the inner workings of the GNU/Linux operating system, I am not an average user. Thus, I will split my review into two sections: my experience with the laptop without the benefit of my uncommon computer skills, and later I will talk about things from the perspective of such specialised knowledge.

I ordered a high-end Dell Inspiron 1420n (the "n" in the model number is the so-called n-series of Dell laptops and desktops that comes without preinstalled Windows), with the following specs:

  • Processor: Intel(R) Core 2 Duo T7500 (2.2GHz/800Mhz FSB/4MB cache)
  • Operating System: Ubuntu version 7.10
  • RAM:4GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667MHz
  • LCD Panel:High Resolution, glossy widescreen 14.1 inch display (1440x900)
  • Hard Drive: Speed: 160GB SATA Hard Drive (7200RPM)
  • Video Card: Intel Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
  • Integrated NIC and Modem: Integrated 10/100 Network Card and Modem
  • Optical Drive 8X CD/DVD Burner (DVD+/-RW) with double-layer DVD+R write
  • Wireless Networking Cards Intel(R) 3945 802.11a/g Mini-card
  • Primary Battery 9-cell Primary Battery and 9-cell additional Lithium Ion Battery

The laptop weighs about 2.5 kg or 5 lb with these specifications (the battery I ordered is a little larger than the default). In addition, I also ordered a colour-coordinated Kensington wireless mouse and a Logitech Quickcam for Notebooks, because this lappy doesn't come with an integrated webcam. All of the above options were the most high end at the time of purchase (December 2007), except for the Intel video card which I chose over the nVidia card they were also offering because I prefer to buy hardware that doesn't require blobs to function (a binary blob is a driver without source code and restrictions on its use that usually goes into kernelspace, at the core of the operating system). All expenses accounted for, the total money spent was 2,137.33 USD. After the order was completed, the laptop was delivered to my sister's doorstep in San Diego within 3 days. Even though the salesman who communicated with us over the phone told us to expect a delay of 4 weeks for shipping due to the relative rarity of orders for Ubuntu laptops, we were pleasantly surprised to see that such wait was not necessary.

My bottom line in what follows is this: the laptop works perfectly for most tasks; it looks and feels pretty; it's got a few minor snags that most users won't notice, and it's got a few freedom issues that most users won't care about.

Allow me to explain.

First impressions

I wish I could have seen the lappy as she emerged from her Dell packaging, but unfortunately Dell isn't shipping Ubuntu laptops to Mexico yet, although they do ship to some non-US locations such as the UK. Therefore, a little bit of smuggling was required in order to have the laptop delivered to me from California, and such smuggling unfortunately required opening the package and putting it into a laptop carry-on bag that my sister bought for me.

Luckily, I was still able to experience the scent of a laptop case being opened for the first time ever when I eagerly opened the laptop in the airport as soon as I had her in my hands. She smelled like fresh plastic. Her casing is smooth and sleek, in the very same Ruby Red colour I ordered and her Kensington wireless mouse in a slightly different darker shade of red. I gladly verified that save for the Windows logo on the Super key, there was no Microsoft or Windows branding anywhere on the lappy; instead an "n-series" sticker was on the front panel to the right of the touchpad where the "Windows Vista capable" stickers are seen nowadays. I couldn't resist trying to turn her on for the first time, only to be confronted by an announcement from Dell telling me that by pressing any key on my keyboard, I would be accepting the license terms set forth in one of the printed manuals that came with my laptop. Not being the kind to accept that kind of stuff without reading it, and without time to do it at the airport, I took it home to get do it later.

I decided to first read the manuals before I tried turning on Iris again, as I had already mentally christened my Debian-red Inspiron 1420n laptop. Most of the manuals spoke about the hardware itself, although some of them mentioned software configuration tasks with Windows screenshots. The license agreement in the printed manual were mostly of the sort of "you can't legally do almost anything with the software" although there were two lines acknowledging that

A portion of this CD may contain open source software, which you can use under the terms and conditions of the specific license under which open source software is distributed
followed by a warranty disclaimer in SHOUTY CAPS. Hey there. Dell acknowledges in its printed manual that free software exists. Not bad. Certainly more than can be said about Microsoft.

I was a little surprised to see that besides the Ubuntu CD, Iris also came with a Windows XP CD, supposedly for reinstall purposes. The CD's sleeve claims that I may need a license key to use it, which should be on a sticker on my laptop, but there is no such sticker on it. I assume that might mean that Dell sent me software I can't legally use. I don't plan to find out if I do need a key or not, and I fully intend to leave that CD forever sealed in its sleeve, perhaps as a coaster.

Content that Dell's threats of forcing me to accept an EULA to use its software were mostly voided by the presence of free software licenses, I turned on Iris again, hit a key on her keyboard, and said hello to the Ubuntu bootsplash screen.

It took Iris about 15 seconds to show me an Ubuntu first-time configuration screen that asked me for a timezone, a keyboard layout, a full name, username, and password, and once those preliminaries were out of the way, I was greeted with the earthy and humanly brown tones of an Ubuntu login screen.

Logging in, testing the hardware

Like I said before, the biggest point of having Ubuntu preinstalled was about having the manufacturer making sure that I wouldn't have to do anything to configure my computer's hardware. Things should just work. Out of the box, everything should do what it's supposed to do.

When I first logged in to Iris, a couple of bubbles popped up. One informed me that restricted drivers were in use in order to make my hardware work. I already knew what they were, but I was thankful that Ubuntu was informing me that my wireless and Conexant modem were using non-free software in order to function properly (I will have much to say about this later). The other bubble told me that Ubuntu needed to download some updates. I agreed, entered my password which I was told was needed for administration purposes, and without a hitch Iris connected to my wireless connection, downloaded packages, installed them, and I barely even noticed what was going by the time it finished. Let's pause a moment to record that wireless and internet were both working out of the box:

  • Wireless — check

With those preliminaries out of the way, my first hardware test involved testing the 3d acceleration. I also wanted to see how my wireless mouse would work. Much to my pleasant surprise, the mouse already had two alkaline batteries inside when I got it, although if Dell or my sister put those in there, I'm not sure. Now, I know that Nexuiz is a fun, fast-paced 3d FPS that is generally taxing of 3d cards, I thought it would be a good test of Iris's hardware. I clicked on Applications → Add/Remove Programs, then typed "Nexuiz" into a search bar, clicked on it, OK'ed the install, and within 10 minutes had in my Applications → Games menu an entry for Nexuiz.

In fifteen more seconds I was fragging the bots in the first campaign level in Nexuiz, getting framerates no lower than 45 fps. The sound worked beautifully, my wireless mouse was responsive, and I managed to play my best Nexuiz game ever managing to rack 15 frags without getting fragged once. Confident by these results, I decided to up the eye candy in Nexuiz from "normal" to "high", but then my framerates dropped to less than 5 fps and the game became unplayable. Oh well. I guess moderate 3d acceleration works fine, but not much more than that. Messing around a little more, I found that my video card could do some lighting and shading effects, but others slowed it down unacceptably.

  • 3d acceleration — check
  • Sound — check
  • Wireless mouse working under heavy bot fire — check

My curiousity satisfied for the moment, I turned to media. I already knew that my wireless internet connection worked, in fact, I barely even noticed as it connected and collected its TCP packets as they floated around in the air, so my next stop was to test the media abilities of my lappy. I plopped a Bladerunner DVD into its drive. A LinDVD window came up asking that I accept some license agreement. It looked like standard freedom-impinging stuff enumerating all the things I couldn't legally do with the software, but since I decided to evaluate this lappy from the point of view of a user who doesn't care too much about freedom, I clicked on "I Agree". A dialogue popped up saying that my DVD region would be set to 4, and when I clicked on the Play button, a few moments later Harrison Ford was having noodles in a dystopian Los Angeles. So it works.

  • DVD playback — check

Next thing was to check up on other media. I keep most of my music as Ogg Vorbis, so I borrowed some of my brother's mp3s to test it out. I slapped them on a USB pendrive, plugged in the pendrive, which immediately opened a window with the songs I had put in there. I dragged them to my desktop, then when that was done, I right-clicked on the USB icon on my desktop, "clicked unmount" volume, and had some mp3s on my desktop to play with. While I was at it, I also burned a few of them to a DVD by clicking on them and dragging them to the DVD icon that appeared on my desktop when I inserted a blank DVD. No problems here either.

  • Using external USB and CD drives painlessly — check

I noticed that the front panel had some multimedia keys. One looks like a house, so I wondered. Pushed it, and some music player opened (Rhythmbox, in fact). I dragged the music folder from the desktop to the player, and all of my songs loaded in the player. I pushed the multimedia keys on Iris's panel, the physical keys. I got a dialogue box saying something about downloading some codecs with legal problems, but I clicked yes, ok, go ahead, and after automatically downloading and installing the codecs, my brother's music began playing. I pushed the pause, volume up, volume down, forward, stop buttons, and they all worked as expected. I downloaded some .wmv and .mov movies online to see about interoperability with the big non-free software distributors. I was expecting to be asked about more playback codecs, but no, it looks like once you say yes to some of them, you say yes to all of them.

  • Media playback once you agree to teh 1ll3g4l c0decz — check

So some of the multimedia keys work. I looked down at my keyboard and saw some more promising keys. One seemed to adjust brightness on my sleek and glossy display. It worked. The other showed me a battery indicator. Also worked.

  • Multimedia keys — check

I should speak about the monitor itself. It's large, glossy, high-resolution, and overall beautiful.

  • Pretty monitor in good working order — check

While thinking about monitors, I spied another multimedia key on my keyboard. It says "CRT/LCD". I presumed it would redirect output to an external CRT monitor from my LCD one, so I tried it out. I plugged in an external monitor. Nothing happened. I pushed that multimedia key. My LCD's resolution flipped around a little, and adjusted itself to a resolution that would display on the external monitor. The external monitor now was displaying the exact same contents of my LCD monitor, albeit at a lower resolution. I unplugged it, hit CRT/LCD again, and everything was back to the way it was.

Hah. So it works. This will be useful for when I take Iris for presentations or for showing off stuff to my students that could complement my lessons.

  • Easy external monitor plugin support — check

The final thing I tested hardware-wise was suspend and shutdown. Both options are available from either the System menu at the top of my desktop or with a big red shutdown button on the top right of my screen. Both work fine. Minor snag: my wireless won't revive after a suspend.

  • Suspend and hibernate work ok — check;
  • Suspend and hibernate work without problems — FULL OF FAIL

Advanced (mis)-features

I think I have been fair so far in my review that all of the above things worked without any special knowledge on my part. I'm not sure that this means that this laptop will be usable by everyone's granny, but certainly a user who is comfortable clicking on things and reading at least the text on the button that is about to be clicked should be ok. I shall now talk about features that involved opening a command line, editing scripts and configuration files, and researching online.

If you're terrified beyond remedy of a command line, you can skip or skim this section.

No webcam driver

The first thing to mention is the webcam that Dell sold me along with this laptop. While I was quite specific about requesting a webcam that would work with Ubuntu, Dell seemed to have managed to pick one of the few Logitech webcams that doesn't yet have perfectly good free drivers. I researched the issue online, and it turns out that Logitech actually sponsors a division of developers to create free drivers for its products, so it seems that at least Dell was on the right track when they sold me this webcam. Turns out that there is a driver on the works that is already half-usable, has a few bugs, and has to be built manually by the user, as I understand from reading the forums.

I haven't gotten around to building my webcam's driver. They've only been working on releasing a free driver for it for 3 months or so, so I'll give them a couple more to polish it further. As I understand it, it's a relatively simple job to port an existing free driver for a similar webcam to my own particular webcam. The problem is kinda compounded because although my webcam is sold under the exact same name as other Logitech webcams, in fact it uses a different chipset that needs a slightly modified driver.

I'm eagerly awaiting this issue to be fixed.

No Compiz out of the box

I was surprised to see that Compiz , the 3d desktop effects window manager, wasn't enabled. All Intel cards I've ever used have managed to enable Compiz without a hitch (yay, free drivers!). When I opened a terminal to enable it and see about error messages, I was astounded to see that my Intel video chipset was blacklisted! This means that the Compiz developers think that there is a problem with my video chipset, or that Compiz isn't stable enough for my card.

I investigated the problem. It involved learning a little about how X works, the GNU/Linux GUI infrastructure. It turns out that Xv, the X video extension, is some X output mechanism for getting video playback working properly. It also turns out that this Xv thing is giving Compiz and my video chipset some problems. My chipset, which the Compiz developers refer to as "Intel GM965/GL960" and Intel refers to as "X3100", uses two different acceleration methods (I never can figure out these names; Linux/BSD users always seem to refer to the internal chipset of the card, while the vendors seem to refer to a more generic marketing term). From reading the manpage for my Intel driver, I discovered that one of those methods, the older one, is called XAA, and the newer one is EXA. The Compiz developers claim that Xv on this card borks with the XAA acceleration method.

First I had to make some changes to the /usr/bin/compiz script in order to unblacklist my driver. In the same script, I also chose indirect rendering as default, since direct rendering was borking up. I also had to disable all checks in that script. Lo, Compiz finally worked, but Xv didn't, and I couldn't playback video while Compiz was enabled. Any application that tried playing video crashed, but I had a 3d desktop,

Reading the manpage, I discovered that XAA was the default acceleration method for the Intel driver, so I attempted to change it to EXA, but that was even worse: Compiz would crash my X server when I attempted that.

The solution so far, then, seems to use Compiz for most tasks, but switch to the default non-3d window manager (dubbed Metacity) if I want to play video. Seeing how inelegant this is, I understand why Dell might have decided that video playback was more important than 3d effects and left my card blacklisted for Compiz.

There's some hope that in the near future the Compiz developers can fix this issue, but I'm not holding my breath, and I would first expect my webcam to get drivers than this Compiz issue to get sorted out.

Keyboard layout issues

This is really a very minor issue. Since I'm a very heavy Emacs and LaTeX user, the keyboard layout was very important for me. Specifically, I need two ctrl keys at both sides of the keyboard, which are absolutely essential for the Emacs touch-typist, and I also need a comfortable backslash above the enter key (it seems that every non-US keyboard layout I've ever seen uses an L-shaped enter key). The latter requirement is necessary because every LaTeX command begins with a backslash, and having it in an uncomfortable position or as a smaller key buried amongst other small keys really slows down my LaTeX typing.

Thankfully, my requirements were almost satisfied except that the right ctrl key and the context menu key were next to each other and at swapped positions on the right side of the keyboard. I had to use xkeycaps to help me write an xmodmap file for swapping around those two keys.

Wireless not reviving from a suspend

Like I said in my hardware examination section, the wireless would not come back from a suspend. After getting help from the internet, I tried a quick fix which was to kill and restart the network manager. I guess you could do this from the GUI, but I prefer to kill dash nine it from a command line. This fixed it, but it involved doing something non-obvious. It also doesn't speak too well of the network manager, but by its own admission, it's still beta software (its version number is lower than 1.0.0).

At least there's a fix for it, but it's a non-obvious fix that would certainly scare your granny away.

Freedom issues

Let's think for a moment about why you would want to order Ubuntu preinstalled on a computer to begin with. Most people think, "duh, it's free", by which they mean gratis, but that's really the least of its advantages. Yes, the price of a Dell Ubuntu laptop is a little less than the price of the same laptop with Windows installed, but it's such a small percentage of the price that the benefit of Ubuntu being gratis is hardly there. Windows usually is gratis anyways, either because customers don't ever see the actual price tag, either because a friend let them copy it, or because it came bundled with the machine. In fact, I dare you to find a price tag for Windows in Microsoft's website. It's not there! Nobody even knows how much they're paying for Windows.

I spent over 2,000 USD on this laptop. I may have saved between 50-100 USD by ordering Ubuntu instead of Windows, but I spent a lot more getting more memory, the fastest processor, a good battery, a large hard drive, and other miscellaneous accessories. I may have also made a symbolic gesture to not support Microsoft with my money by instead promoting Dell's decision to sell a laptop with Ubuntu on it, but this is mostly symbolic. I did my own insignificant part to tell Microsoft that their software is Defective by Design, but I'm sure nobody cared. Money is not the issue. Money is never the issue.

So money isn't the issue. Perhaps usability is? Maybe. I've heard some terrible usability stories from users of Windows Vista, but perhaps Microsoft will manage to fix that with its soon-to-be-released Service Pack 1 for Windows Vista. A lot of those issues are inexistent in Ubuntu. First of all, viruses are unheard of, and almost technically unfeasible. GNU and Linux are just built as a naturally hostile environment for malware. Further, I did have some usability issues with Ubuntu that may have not existed with Windows or Mac OS X where the hardware manufacturers work much more closely with the software developers. Free software is mostly playing at a disadvantage when it creates hardware drivers, since most hardware manufacturers keep their hardware specs as tightly guarded secrets and will not cooperate with free developers. Intel is a bit of an exception in that they do release free drivers, but without sufficient documentation to understand how the drivers work. ATI has recently followed an opposite path by releasing specs for its video cards but letting the community write its own drivers. Nevertheless, today these two manufacturers are the exception rather then the rule.

It's not money, it may be marginally about usability, so why would anyone choose Ubuntu? Freedom, baby. It's all about freedom. Let me quote my favourite free thinker here:

Freedom, Sancho, is one of the most precious gifts that heaven has bestowed upon men; no treasures that the earth holds buried or the sea conceals can compare with it; for freedom, as for honour, life may and should be ventured; and on the other hand, captivity is the greatest evil that can fall to the lot of man.

So what freedom did Ubuntu give me? There is the symbolic gesture of not supporting proprietary software companies. There's access to thousands of software packages, many with a high degree of functionality, much more than I could easily access if I had chosen a proprietary OS. There is a greater degree of security and privacy in knowing that because my software's source is open, there's no way that anyone could eavesdrop on my conversations like the German government is doing again with Skype despite its supposedly encrypted protocol. There's no way that special encryption keys for the use of government agencies will be in my software like the infamous NSA key in Windows.

Things may break, but at least it's theoretically possible to legally fix them without reverse engineering anything, or find someone who can do it for me. The Compiz example above illustrates this: with free software, I can actually look at the guts of my applications. I can see how it works, what internal checks it's doing, modify those checks and default settings with a higher degree of configurability than any dialogue box or registry key would ever give me. If I am ever motivated enough, I can study and modify the source of any of the software in Ubuntu's main repositories.

I can legally distribute and share this software with anyone. I can recommend the software without reservations of problems they may have for legally obtaining it, without thinking that it could harm their economy in any way. If I use free formats like OpenOffice.org's Open Document Format or Xiph.org's Ogg codecs, I can ensure that my data will be forever available regardless of what proprietary and undisclosed modifications to the format a corporation may choose to make.

Despite all these freedom advantages, there are unfortunately still freedom restraints in Dell's Ubuntu laptop. I'm not sure how much I fault Dell for them, since Dell itself has its hands legally tied up to an extent by other external forces. I found several issues. Let's examine them in turn.

Traces of Windowness

Dell has put a very Windowsy function on this laptop: a rescue partition that will wipe your Ubuntu partition and supposedly restore it to the state it was in when you first bought it. How very ctrl+alt+del. An operating system that needs to be periodically reinstalled to function properly is a broken operating system in my opinion, and Ubuntu certainly isn't one of those.

The rescue partition runs some stripped-down version of Windows. This isn't really a freedom issue, since I probably didn't pay for it, although I may have agreed to the Windows license agreement when I hit a key as I first turned on my laptop. At any rate, I certainly will never use it, and I plan to wipe my hard drive completely in order to encrypt it anyways. It's not too big of an issue, but a weird quirk of Dell due to their long history of administrating operating systems by reinstalling them. How would a Mac OS X user feel if Apple had a "rescue" partition whose sole job was to wipe clean your hard drive? Periodical reinstallation of the OS is a purely Windowsy feature, which Ubuntu does not need.

Non-free drivers for the Intel wireless and Conexant modem

I don't know too much about Conexant, since I don't think I'll ever use their modem anyways, but the Intel wireless is a bigger issue.

Non-free drivers, also known as binary blobs, are one of the worst things that happen to our free software community. They usually have to run in kernel space, at the very core of the operating system, so they can and have introduced security problems, and because they run with escalated privileges, there is much more damage they can do if they break, as they often do.

Intel's wireless driver as shipped with this laptop by Dell only has a binary component as a daemon, a background process that runs in userspace, not kernel space. Intel claims that they need to put that binary there in order to enforce certain broadcast restrictions that the US's FCC demands they obey. I'm unconvinced by this argument, since the legal waters here are a little muddy, and it's conceivable that Intel or Dell could get away without imposing this restriction on its users, trivial as it may seem.

I researched this more online, and it looks like a complex issues with many sides. I'm not exactly sure what's going on here, but I am pretty certain that "security through obscurity" and Intel enforcing FCC regulations by not providing source to one of its drivers are both ultimately dumb ideas. In my research, I found that Intel has a newer driver that does away with the binary daemon, and I don't understand why they suddenly decided that they could offer a free driver after all, or if it really is free. Like I said, it's a complex issue.

There is hope, however, that within a few months or perhaps already there will be a free wireless driver for Intel's PRO/Wireless 3945 chipset. This makes me glad, but for now it's a freedom-impinging issue. I bought the hardware; I should be able to use it however I wish, and it's the government's job to make sure I don't use the hardware illegally, not Intel who can't even be an effective enforcer anyways.

For the record, I blame the FCC more than Intel for this one, especially since Intel seems to have found a way to release free drivers. Still, a freedom-impinging situation that seems to have gotten resolved.

Non-free software bundled for playing DVDs

This one is tricky too. Dell had to include LinDVD for legal DVD playback. In reviews of earlier versions of this Ubuntu lappy, I read complaints about how DVD playback wasn't enabled, so Dell seems to have fixed this the only legal way they could.

That was unfortunate. There are free ways to get DVD playback on GNU/Linux systems, but they all involve using libdvdcss, a software library for breaking the Content Scrambling System DRM mechanism of DVDs. Needless to say, libdvdcss is illegal under most interpretations of the law in the US and the European Union (some nonsense about "intellectual property" or something), although it's legal in places like Canada. I probably paid something extra in order to get legal DVD playback with LinDVD, but again, that's really not the issue here. DRM is a nasty, nasty technology, even more when it comes bundled with non-free software, and although I sympathise with Dell for being forced to do what it did, this is in the end a sad situation.

The only thing we can do about this nonsense is send it back and protest as much as we can region lockout and further DRM measures taken by big media companies. Already it looks like the industry is taking note of this, and perhaps not with this DVD technology but the upcoming Blueray or HD-DVD technology, we'll be able to send back that DRM crippleware.

In the meantime, I'm uninstalling LinDVD and installing a free player that uses libdvdcss, while I make a rude hand gesture to the MPAA.

A few last words

I have a final confession to make here. I bought this lappy with the full intention of wiping Ubuntu from it and installing Debian instead. My reasons are that the freedom issues I mentioned above are things I shouldn't have to live with, and that I can distance myself from them by using Debian, which is a bit more dedicated to software freedom than Ubuntu. Also, Debian right now encrypts the hard drive with greater ease than Ubuntu does, and privacy is a big concern to me. I deserve encryption, as we all do. Privacy is a citizen's right that we must be prepared to exercise and defend. There are other less ethical and philosophical reasons, such as Debian feeling more comfortable for developing software, which was my main motive behind buying this laptop: productivity.

I begun this review of the Ubuntu laptop on usability grounds because despite my mostly uncompromising free software advocacy, I know that most users will want to know, does it work? Yes, by almost all accounts, it works perfectly. You may want to give it a spin too. This laptop is a big first step towards giving users more software freedom, which we will likely need more and more for various reasons as times goes by.

In fact, I know that the road ahead for me with the Debian install is bound to be a rocky one as I get back all the hardware functionality that I have right now with Ubuntu. All of the things I checked in the first section where I tested the lappy's hardware have been things that I have seen have given problem to users during GNU/Linux installs. However, if Dell could get it all working, so can I. I must proceed. It's not really your own box unless you install and configure the operating system from the start to suit your own personal needs. :-)

This is true! This is my belief! At least for now...

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