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When did it get so hard to buy a Linux computer? From 2004 to 2010, every computer I bought had Linux pre-installed. I purchased from Dell and Lenovo, but HP and Asus also had them on offer. Sure, I had to make compromises, but it was possible.

I was unpleasantly surprised when in the summer of 2010 I needed to buy a new work laptop and found that the Linux options had disappeared. After much painful searching I gave up and paid the Windows tax—twice, since I needed a separate license for the work VM.

Sure, I could get Linux pre-installed through Emperor Linux, but that does not avoid the Windows tax. I couldn’t justify paying more to put on a free-OS that I was going replace anyway (I can’t help myself—I am a control freak).

What I didn’t realize is that buying a Linux machine is still possible, I just had to give up on the big vendors. In theory, going with a big vendor is supposed to provide a cheaper machine with better support. In reality I don’t think a big vendor is an asset as there are small vendors who compete well on price, and when was the last time you got decent support from any hardware vendor? Going with a small vendor holds little risk when measured against the the low bar set by the competition.

I decided to try again when I needed to buy a basic desktop for my mother-in-law. I found a long list of vendors who would pre-install Linux at the Ubuntu website.

After reading some online reviews, I spent most of my time evaluating machines from ZaReason and System76. Both seemed like reliable companies with decent equipment. The System76 Meerkat Nettop seemed like exactly what I was looking for.

I gave the Meerkat to my mother-in-law for Christmas 2010. It is an attractive machine and appeared to be built with decent components and was assembled in a tidy manner. It shipped with a recent Ubuntu which was well configured and had no crapware installed. They did add their own apt repository for some updated drivers, but everything appears to run fine even without that installed. It was so clean, I resisted the urge to replace it (though I thoroughly tweaked it). I was impressed.

Then the machine started smoking. It was less than two months old.

Let’s put this in context: according to the 2009 SquareTrade Laptop Reliability Study nearly 30% of laptops across all manufacturers fail within 3 years. Even the best manufacturers produce failures over 10% of the time. I wasn’t going to give up on a vendor over one failure. The big question was how would System76 respond.

They replaced the machine at no cost to me and with minimal fuss, though it took a little longer than I had hoped. It took four days (including a weekend) to get a response, but it came from a human. Then a few weeks to get the machine replaced. System76 felt like the problem was due to my using a faulty power strip (it was old, but had always been reliable), so I bought a new one to use with the replaced machine. The machine is now a year old and has not had a problem since.

Summary: buying from System76 is at least as good of an experience as buying from one of the big vendors, and I would say it is even better given that I get a good operating system with no crapware. On the whole, I am very happy I did business with them and I would purchase from them again. (Full disclosure: I have no relationship with System76 and doubt they will even see this blog post. I just want to see a good vendor stay in business.)

Thank you System76, may you live long and prosper!

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