Buying a cheap laptop without Windows: Is it worth it?

Published - January 09, 2011 09:15 am IST - Berlin

Laptops are shown at a pavilion in New York. File Photo

Laptops are shown at a pavilion in New York. File Photo

A cheap laptop with a reasonable level of hardware, but no Windows operating system: bargain hunters can often find offers of this type on the internet. They are definitely worth checking out -- presuming you have the patience to work with alternative operating systems such as Linux and have time to perform installation.

The decision to forego Windows is the reason for the noticeably low prices of these offers. Manufacturers can save themselves the license fees that they otherwise must pay to Microsoft for each installation of Windows.

“The low-end laptop market in particular is so hard fought that manufacturers will grab for any dollars they can save,” explains Elmar Geese, chairman of the Linux association in Berlin. In place of Windows, the laptops come either without an operating system or use a pre-installed variant of the typically no-cost alternative operating system Linux.

For the user, that means a bit of extra work and acclimation.

Simply installing Windows from the old computer is generally not an option. Most Windows installations are tied by license to the computer with which they were sold.

Axel Pols from the German IT industry association Bitkom views devices without operating systems with some skepticism. Laptops have come to be so affordable that there’s no real need to go without an operating system, he says.

It’s important to look at more than just the price. “You should give careful consideration before making a purchase about how big your laptop should be and what it should be able to do,” says Pols.

Those considerations then form the basis of a purchase decision.

Does it absolutely have to be a Windows computer? No, says Geese.

“Mature Linux distributions like Ubuntu can now completely replace Windows.” Given that certain conventions have established themselves in recent years across all operating systems, there’s not even a great deal of acclimation needed. Macs, Windows, computers and even smartphones are all remarkably similar to use in many ways. “Linux distributions aren’t reinventing the wheel in this regard,” Geese says.

The decisive point for Linux laptops is finding the right “distribution.” To say a computer “works with Linux” is a misnomer, since there’s no such thing as a straight Linux version to be installed. Instead you have to opt between different software packages based on Linux, known as distributions.

Popular variants include for example Ubuntu, Open-Suse, Debian and Mandriva. All contain a variety of software to accompany their graphical user interface: a browser, an email program, a multimedia player and office packages are all on board from the start. Many distributions can be downloaded for free off the internet.

Many providers make it difficult for users to determine which distribution is actually installed on the laptop. For Thorsten Leemhuis, editor at Germany’s c’t computer magazine, this is an important weakness in these offers: “Just stating ‘Linux’ doesn’t help you at all,” he says.

Many devices come with a version of the Linux OS that doesn’t work on the device at all. One example is the Linpus distribution, a stripped-down variant that is primarily intended for the Asian market.

Normal users should probably stay away from those offers, Leemhuis recommends. “The interplay between computer and software has grown very complex. If they’re not optimally attuned to one another, you’ll quickly have problem.” Regardless of whether you’re using a Windows or Linux distribution, the key is a stable and sensible installation. If you are just looking for a machine that works, then it’s a better idea to avoid devices that still need a real operating system installed onto them.

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