September 3, 2003

First look at HP's first US all-Linux PC

Author:

- by Joe Barr -

I've been itching to get my hands on an HP Compaq d220 ever since I saw it announced in early July. The d220 appeared to be the first preloaded Linux desktop made available in the US by a tier-one OEM since Dell's half-hearted attempt was taken off the market. Alas, from my hands-on testing I learned that HP is not preloading Linux on the d220, nor on any other desktops sold in the U.S. Instead, if ordered with the Linux option, the d220 is shipped with an empty hard drive and two CDs containing Mandrake 9.1 Light. Updated

The d220 I reviewed was slightly different than what I would have received had I purchased it. It came with a combo CD-RW/DVD drive that is not available on the Linux model at present, although HP says it will be shortly. The other thing that was different was that HP had installed Mandrake on it before I received it.

This HP Compaq d220 desktop box came with an Intel 845GV chipset, 2GHz Intel Celeron with 128KB of L2 cache, 256MB of PC2700 DDR RAM, 400MHz front side bus, integrated Intel Enhanced Extreme Graphics, 40GB IDE hard drive spinning at 7200 RPM, 48X Combo Drive (CD-RW & DVD-ROM), integrated audio and internal speaker, integrated 10/100 Broadcom 10/100 network card, 3.5" floppy drive, PS/2 keyboard, and a 2-button PS/2 scroll mouse. All d220s come with a standard one-year onsite warranty for parts and labor.

HP told me that an identical unit to the one I reviewed -- except for substituting either a 48X CD-ROM or CD-RW for the combo drive -- would cost $467 with Linux, $519 with Windows XP Home, or $589 for Windows XP Professional. I selected various options for d220 configuration on the HP Web site and found it was possible to get the price for a Linux d220 as low as $377 and as high as just over $900.

The system unit, keyboard, and mouse are all done in my favorite shade of black. The box itself -- HP calls it a microtower - is approximately 14" high by 7" wide by 16" deep. Setting it up was easy. The standard cable connections for monitor, keyboard, and mouse are clearly marked on the back of the unit.

The HP keyboard was of medium weight, with a not-quite-squishy touch. There was audible feedback from the keyboard unless I typed very lightly. The reassuring click which many of us who learned to type on typewriters like to hear sounds only when you press the key all the way to the bottom.

Once I had everything connected, I pressed the power button and booted Mandrake 9.1. However, to emulate a real customer's experience, I decided to install the operating system again using HP's CDs. Mandrake 9.1, by the way, is certified by HP to run across its entire desktop line. HP tells me that SuSE and Red Hat will also be certified soon.

It was a typical Mandrake install: fast and easy. The entire process took less than 20 minutes, not counting the time I spent resolving what I believed to be an issue with the software update process at the end of the install. That issue proved to be nothing more than Mandrake's FTP mirrors being swamped with folks downloading RC1 of Mandrake 9.2. When I tried again I was able to apply all relevant security fixes in less than 5 minutes.

I believe that Mandrake Light got its name from the fact that the source code and certain commercial binaries which are normally part of a retail Mandrake installation are not included, and not because you're not getting a full range of software. I certainly didn't see any missing applications when the installation completed.

Just as you would expect for a business system, Mandrake Light includes an abundance of office tools and productivity software. OpenOffice.org and KOffice were there in entirety. The choice of spreadsheets included my personal favorite, gnumeric. There were also amusements like Frozen Bubble, a raft of browsers and email clients, and several IM clients.

Neither HP nor Mandrake provides any free support for Linux. You can, however, purchase Mandrake email or telephone support as an option when you buy or from MandrakeSoft directly.

The DVD drive made a noticable whirring noise during installation, but as I explored the system software after the install I was impressed with its silent running. I decided to have a peek inside the case and see if I could figure out why it was so quiet.

I loosened and removed the two thumbscrews at the back and slid the side of the case out.
A large black baffle covered the CPU and attached to the exhaust outlet on the back of the case. I could make out the lettering on it: it said Cooler Master. I was impressed. I asked HP if the Cooler Master was standard on the d220. They assured me that it was.

Now that the case was opened up, I was curious how quiet it was inside while it was running. I plugged the system back in and powered it up without replacing the side. If I held my head close to the open box, I could hear a little noise from the hard drive, but nothing from the CPU or power supply fans.

The performance of the d220 with the 2GHz Celeron with 256MB DDR memory was more than adequate. However, if you need more speed or more memory, both are available. You can go all the way up to a 2.80GHz Pentium 4 processor with 533MHz front side bus and 512MB of DDR memory.

Since the video, LAN, and sound are all integrated into the mainboard, all three PCI slots are still available.

Update: As a sharp-eyed reader pointed out, I neglected to mention modems. Since the d220 is aimed at business users instead of home users, I didn't think it important enough to comment on. The Linux version of the d220 does not include a modem offering. The Windows version of the d220 does include a modem option, but it is a Winmodem. HP tells me there is a Linux driver available for it on the Internet. If you need dialup on your Linux d220, you'll need to provide your own modem.

As far as the preload situation goes, it appears we will have to wait a little longer for a preloaded Linux desktop from a major vendor. Following a conference call with HP about the d220, HP spokesperson Tim Constance commented in a follow-up email that "Because of the many flavors and geographical preferences for Linux, HP offers the customer a choice of installing the included Mandrake Linux operating system, or a system of their choice at first boot-up. As always, we will continue to evaluate this method of installation to ensure we are meeting the needs of our customers, and will implement alternative installation programs as our customer needs dictate."

The bottom line is that the d220 is a good value, and it's quiet and well built, especially for the price. I would seriously consider buying one for my own use except for one thing: I'm saving my love for an OEM who preloads Linux.

Joe Barr has been writing about technology for 10 years, and about Linux for five. His work has appeared in IBM Personal Systems Journal, LinuxGazette, LinuxWorld, Newsforge, phrack, SecurityFocus, and VARLinux.org. He is the founder of The Dweebspeak Primer, the official newsletter of the Linux Liberation Army.

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