September 24, 2004

HP's NX5000 Linux notebook: A breach of the Windows wall?

Author: Joe Barr

This article is supposed to be a review of the first PC with a Linux distribution preloaded offered by a tier-one OEM to the general public. As announced during the Linux World Conference and Expo in August, the NX5000 is available -- only online at HP -- preloaded with your choice of a custom version of SUSE 9.1 or Windows XP. You can purchase the NX5000 at other online resellers, but only with Windows installed. This isn't quite the review I hoped for, but it's as close as we could get.

I've waited years to write such a review. I thought I was going to write it this time last year, when we looked at the HP D220, but that turned out to be a false alarm. The D220 can be ordered with Mandrakelinux, but it's not preloaded; you have to install it yourself. Not so with the NX5000.

Now begin the caveats. The NX5000 is not a desktop box, it's a "business notebook." Unlike earlier half-hearted efforts from Dell, HP is actually offering the NX5000 with SUSE Linux 9.1 preloaded for less money than the identical machine with Windows XP. But don't get overly excited. HP's effort still appears to be something less than wholehearted. The page on the HP Web site where the laptop is offered for sale, for example, prominently proclaims "HP recommends Microsoft Windows XP Professional."

But wait, there's more. The laptop HP supplied NewsForge for review is not what a consumer would receive if they configured and purchased a new HP NX5000 laptop from HP or other vendors online. Instead, HP provided us with what was originally a Windows XP version of the NX5000 that they had wiped Windows from and installed SUSE in its place. My first clue was the "Designed for Windows XP" logo just to the right of the keyboard on the system case. My second was the fact that it arrived without any Linux-specific documentation at all.

After some discussion with HP's NX5000 product marketing manager, David Conrad, I learned that customers ordering the Linux version receive detailed documentation for setting up and using their new laptop. In fact, he emailed me a PDF copy of that documentation, and it does provide exactly the information a new user would need: from setting the root password to user account creation to using the built-in Ethernet, wireless card, or 56Kbps modem.

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The NX5000 is a sleek and attractive notebook. I especially like its stylish black color scheme. The model we received to review has a 15-inch TFT XGA display with a maximum resolution of 1024 x 768. Horsepower is provided by a 1.6GHz Pentium M processor 725 with 2M L2 cache and a 400MHz FSB. This particular NX5000 also includes a 40GB disk drive spinning at 4,200rpm, 256MB of SDRAM, and a MultiBay 24X DVD/CD-RW drive. For communications, it has a 56Kbps modem and both a wired and a wireless NIC: all built-in.

List price shown this week for the configuration above was $1,480 for the Linux version and $1,505 for Windows. Taking the least expensive alternative -- including simply excluding some items -- I was able to get the price down to $1,120 with Linux preloaded.

There are a few differences between NX5000 models configured for Linux and those configured for Windows. From a hardware point of view, writable DVD drives are an option only for Windows, not for Linux. Also in hardware, the Linux version uses a different internal modem and wireless NIC than does the Windows model.

I mentioned HP is using a custom version of SUSE 9.1. It includes proprietary drivers for the wireless card and the modem. David Conrad told me that open source versions of those drivers will be coming from SUSE in the future. We've asked Novell when that will happen, but haven't received a reply. One thing the custom SUSE distro does not yet include is a driver for the Secure Digital -- sorry, I can't type that name without rolling my eyes -- memory card reader. HP told me a Linux driver is being written and will be available for download from SUSE in the next few months.

Software included

I didn't receive any CDs with the unit I received, but a purchaser will get four of them: two filled with binaries and two more with souce code. I can't tell you everything that's included, but I can tell you from my study of the KDE menu tree that a wide range of software is included in the selections pre-installed. If you're happy with the standard KDE/SUSE offerings for browser, news, email, chat, and such, you'll be pretty well set from the get-go. If not, more than likely you'll find what you want on the CDs, just as if you had purchased a retail version of SUSE 9.1

Here are a few software highlights from the menu tree. Developers have not been overlooked; the DDD (Data Display Debugger) debugger is included. Strangely, gcc is not on the tree but is installed. Internet selections include Kopete for chat, OpenOffice.org for HTML editing, gFTP for data exchange, KInternet for dial-up chores, KMail for email, KNode for a news reader, and Konqueror for a browser.

Multimedia is another well-stocked menu section. It contains XMMS for a music player, KsCD for CDs, K3B for burning CDs, LinDVD for playing DVDs, RealPlayer for video streams, KRecord for sound recording, KDETv for watching TV, and Kaffeine for another streaming video player.

Ease of use

The laptop I received had already been set up for Internet access via the Ethernet NIC. All I had to do to use it was connect the cable from my router to the built-in RJ-45 connector on laptop.

Wireless networking setup was almost that easy. After disconnecting the cable, I used YAST to go into Network Devices, selected the wireless device to be configured, and clicked Finish. Once again, I had immediate Internet access via my Belkin wireless router.

Next, I tried the modem. Once again I started YAST, Network Devices, and selected the on-board modem to configure. It asked for things like the ISP, phone number, user name, and password, and then the modem too, was ready for use.

Where's the sizzle?

I asked HP if the Windows XP logo on the Web site and the "Designed For" sticker on the notebook itself prevented them from advertising the Linux-nature of the beast. HP said that the "Designed For" sticker does not appear on NX5000s purchased and configured with Linux, and that the Windows recommendation on the site did not prevent them from advertising the availability of the Linux preload option. Conrad said they had done some advertising already, and had more planned. Be that as it may, unless you know beforehand that you can buy the NX5000 with Linux preloaded, you are unlikely to notice the option when buying one.

Let there be publicity

HP is definitely doing a better job than Dell did a couple of years ago, but there is still a lot of room for improvement in actually trying to sell them. How much of that is due to HP's advertising choices or its dealings with the monopoly probably won't be known for sure until the next antitrust suit.

I asked Conrad how they were preloading SUSE: Were they buying hard drives with SUSE preloaded or manually installing it on each unit sold? He said it was an automated manufacturing process which was part of the online configuration processing.
That alone probably explains why HP is selling the Linux version for less than the Windows version of a similarly equipped model, while Dell had to charge a premium for the extra effort. And to pay for the Windows that wasn't installed, of course.

The process Conrad described for preloading SUSE Linux on the NX5000 -- as part of an automated configuration and assembly -- could easily be expanded to other HP products. Whether that happens, of course, depends on sales of the NX5000 with Linux selected.

Conclusion

After reviewing the HP D220 desktop machine last year, and being disappointed then to learn that HP wasn't actually preloading Linux as its marketing-speak suggested, I am pleased and relieved to see HP actually walking the walk with the NX5000.

It's not the big leap forward I hoped for, but it is another step in the right direction. HP promised earlier this year that ordinary consumers would be able to purchase desktop or laptop machines with Linux preloaded during the second half of 2004. The NX5000 means they are keeping that promise.

It's a real treat to be able to buy a laptop and have all the connectivity "just work" in Linux right out of the box, with no more effort required than to use YAST to configure the device. That's especially handy for a journalist needing a laptop for trade shows and such, where you never know what type of connectivity will be available.

When we reviewed the D220 about this time last year, I wrote, "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." Now I'm saving my pennies for an NX5000. HP kept their word. I'm going to do the same.

The NX5000 with Linux may not represent a breach of the wall protecting Microsoft's desktop monopoly, but it's the biggest crack in that wall so far.

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