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CPUBuilders by Stratitec Linux Computer System

Linux PCs Made Easy

Colleagues and friends often ask me about Linux since they see it referenced everywhere from Business Week to quirky IBM and Dell commercials during football games. I am always eager to share my experiences - I say that it takes a bit of time to get up to speed, but it's worth it in the end, especially for those people who have been victims of the latest computer virus. The biggest hurdle for them is usually installing Linux. However, recent home-user PCs are making it even more practical to take the first step into Linux.

Wichita, Kansas-based PC builders Stratitec announced a PC shipping with their Linux for Everyone OS in February 2003 under their CPUBuilders brand. They've recently refreshed their product line with version 3.0 of their CPUBuilders Linux and upgraded their product line. I got the opportunity to evaluate their Linux PC for the frugal computer user.

Stratitec has been in business since 2000 forging a strong partnership with value-oriented retailer Sam's Club. Stratitec is a small private company but ships thousands of low-cost, high-value PCs every year. They have shipped bare-bones systems since 2001 with Linux installation media, and with the demand for full-featured, low-cost PCs growing they made the decision to ship preinstalled Linux systems late last year. According to Stratitec's vice president of engineering, David Ginskey, "Our goal is to offer the best operating system that's fully featured and easy to use. We have done everything we could to include everything you would need on the PC right out of the box."

The Configuration
Upon receipt of the CPUBuilders Linux Computer System I was immediately impressed. I had expected a non-OS specific white box with Linux materials in the carton. However, the PC was clearly labeled as Linux Computer System and had complete documentation for both users and administrators via separate User Guides. I was also pleasantly surprised to see a Windows to Linux Quick Reference Guide. I quickly plugged in my monitor and attached the CPUBuilders branded keyboard and wheel mouse and began my installation and evaluation.

The PC I received had good features, including what I expect from most consumer PCs today sans CD writer. However, after checking the Sam's Club (www.samsclub.com) Web site, CPUBuilders' primary retail vendor, I found out they offer multiple configurations, and some do include a CD-RW writer (albeit at a higher price). After doing some comparison-shopping at Walmart.com for equivalently equipped PCs I had to hand it to CPUBuilders - they offer a very good value in comparison to similar Linux PCs in the mass market. I tried looking at Dell (www.dell.com) and Gateway (www.gateway.com) and was hard pressed to find an equivalently equipped computer at a price point even close to CPUBuilders. All options I found also offered Windows installs by default, except for Dell's high-end workstation, the Dell Precision, which offers a Linux (Red Hat 9.0) option preinstalled.

Installation Notes
Upon initial install I plugged in the PC and it booted without a hitch. I was prompted to walk through a brief setup that included testing the audio setup, which worked fine. It also asked for my time-zone settings, which I chose along with the option to synch via NTP (Network Time Protocol). I then booted into the CPUBuilders Desktop. The time from powering on to using the operating system was less than five minutes. I can't ever remember having such an easy install on any system at any time with any OS. One notable thing was that there was no setup for an individual user; the CPUBuilders install automatically sets up the default user with a default password - a practice I don't recommend for the office user, but this product seems to me to be targeted at the home user who may not have this concern. Speaking of security, any time a task requiring root authentication comes up, a message is displayed announcing that root access is needed to perform the task and the default root password is "xxxxx". From a security standpoint I was a little shocked, but as the tech support person for friends and family, I spend as much time reminding them of their passwords as I do fixing their problems. If you care to, it's easy enough to add the security features, but for the novice it may be one of many hurdles that has kept him or her from trying Linux. Also, there is nothing to prevent you from creating additional user accounts and changing the root password to enhance security.

As I embarked on my review I decided to try to write my article on the PC as I was evaluating it. I fired up the word processor link from the GNOME tool bar, which spawned OpenOffice Writer 1.1.0. I was happy to see that the version was current. I also wanted to check out the CPUBuilders Web site (www.cpubuilders.com) and the Web icon spawned Mozilla 1.4, another pleasant surprise. In the interest of documenting everything, I looked under the graphics menu and saw the GIMP, my favorite Linux graphics package, and I started to take screenshots.

Upon viewing my CPUBuilders desktop for the first time I thought it was very intuitive (see Figure 1). The Start menu had the CPUBuilders wrench logo and listed everything I had come to expect under GNOME with one addition: the CPUBuilders Control Panel (Cognitio), a customized control panel that handles two areas of Linux installation and maintenance:

 
  • Installing hardware including internal HDD, CD/CD-RW, USB Storage, and USB scanners
  • Updates to both the Cognitio System Control Panel and the CPUBuilders OS (see Figure 2).
 

Media Reader
One area I was interested in addressing was the Media Reader. I have a digital camera that uses compact flash for storage and I had never used a Linux CF reader under Linux. I was anxious to see how this worked for me. So I stuck my card into Media Reader and almost instantly the usbCF icon popped onto my desktop. I clicked onto the storage device and Nautilus opened up, displaying thumbnails of all my pictures from my August trip to LinuxWorld Expo in San Francisco. I easily dragged one of my pictures of Alcatraz to my desktop and double-clicked; Gqview, an image viewer application, opened displaying my picture size and date and a pane that let me zoom in and out to view the picture. It was almost identical to the experience I have under Windows.

The Environment
The CPU Builders OS is obviously based on Red Hat 9.0, which is the distribution I normally run. All in all, as a Linux user I was extremely comfortable and felt confident in recommending the setup to my friends from the Windows world. The environment was tweaked with links to Users Guides for Internet setup and Windows to Linux migration. Everything I tried worked without a hitch. The Local Network icon on the desktop let me browse the Windows machines on my network without configuring anything other than usernames and passwords.

Stress Testing
My final step was to stress test the PC in the way that I knew many home users might. So I started double-clicking icons, pounding on the keyboard and doing whatever I thought a frustrated PC user might do. After a considerable effort the machine stopped responding. I tried CTRL-ALT-Backspace to see what might happen, nothing in 30 seconds. So I powered down and on, which yielded a reboot to the GNOME login manager. This might be confusing to some users who haven't seen this before, but there was a message that said, "Logon or Wait 30 seconds for Auto Login." Like the other 4.9% of all other PC users, I had read the manual. I knew my login and password and logged right in. I found no abnormal behavior after this. I felt even better about my recommendations to colleagues earlier in the week. I even started thinking about who would receive a Linux PC for Christmas instead of a bad tie or donation to Linux International in their name.

Summary
Overall I think CPUBuilders has put together a good quality, value-oriented product for the home user or small business. The installation and use of this particular PC would pass most "Grandma tests" where putting this PC in front of my minimally skilled grandmother would yield acceptable or better results. I think that the launch of products like this are great compared to my earlier days of downloading floppy images from the Internet to install Linux on pre-Pentium class hardware that was no longer adequate to run Windows. I also liked the update service included in the Cognito control panel; while this feature isn't innovative, it is extremely convenient and is included with the PC from the start - there's no setting up accounts and additional services that may be required with other distributions. This feature for me was a considerable value in addition to the PC. For a seasoned PC user and Linux regular this isn't a dream system, but with the price point and the ease of use it would make a more than adequate workstation for many. At worst it would be an excellent candidate for a spouse, child, or friend you want to introduce to Linux for the first time. For more information on the CPUBuilders PC you can visit their Web site at www.cpubuilders.com or call them at 888-336-4418.

More Stories By Mark R. Hinkle

Mark Hinkle is the Senior Director, Open Soure Solutions at Citrix. He also is along-time open source expert and advocate. He is a co-founder of both the Open Source Management Consortium and the Desktop Linux Consortium. He has served as Editor-in-Chief for both LinuxWorld Magazine and Enterprise Open Source Magazine. Hinkle is also the author of the book, "Windows to Linux Business Desktop Migration" (Thomson, 2006). His blog on open source, technology, and new media can be found at http://www.socializedsoftware.com.

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