Linux is free and free, but that doesn't mean it's cheap. Sure, you can download a GNU based operating system and put it on your computer without paying a dime. However, if you want to buy a PC that has a free, open source desktop pre-installed on it, it will be expensive and likely to cost a lot.
Why is this? Let's look at six reasons why preinstalled Linux hardware isn't cheap.
1. Linux desktops and phones are niches
Linux is the dominant operating system on servers. It is spreading rapidly among Internet of Things devices and hardware designed for tinkerers.
Linux isn't that popular on the desktop. That said, if you want to buy a computer with Linux pre-installed, you are one of the few to do it.
An even smaller number of people have a strong desire to run a Linux powered phone with GNU software (as opposed to Android phones that run on the Linux kernel but have practically nothing in common with the Linux desktop). Because of this, efforts to ship such phones have not yet been successful.
2. Economies of scale are not in favor of Linux
The manufacturers of processors, storage drives, graphics cards and other PC components prefer to ship large quantities. When someone assembling a laptop orders millions of components, they get a discount. If they order a small number of items, they have to pay a premium, if the manufacturer does business with them at all.
Linux PC distributors are typically small businesses with a handful of employees. They generate relatively small sales compared to large multinational corporations like Samsung and Dell. As a result, they cannot approach Intel or NVIDIA with the same leverage. And unlike Samsung, they don't make their own components like hard drives and LCD displays.
Linux phone manufacturers face an even tougher battle. You can't expect to sell millions of units unless there is consumer demand already. Even desktop Linux users don't know what a free and open phone has to offer. Crowdfunding provides a way for companies to address this uncertainty, which is why so many open hardware efforts are taking this approach.
3. Linux PC manufacturers often only sell computers
Multinational corporations like Samsung have their hands in many baskets. In addition to PCs and PC parts, Samsung sells phones, smart home products, televisions, washing machines and the list goes on. Samsung can subsidize one division that is doing poorly with the profits of another that is doing very well.
In contrast, System76 sells laptops, desktops and servers. That's it. They need to price their products in a way that allows them to stay in business because the success of another department, venture capital, or big money from data collection cannot be drawn on.
When the difference between spending on parts and labor and the price they can sell a product for is too small, the lights go out.
4. Research and development is not cheap
Companies that want to sell Linux computers usually have to invest time and money to make this happen.
System76 has created its own Linux distribution called Pop! _OS. This gives the company a better opportunity to promise customers a certain type of experience and to troubleshoot any issues that may arise.
Then there is Purism, which took a step forward by trying to ship modern hardware without proprietary firmware or other closed source code. To achieve this, the company is investing in the development of alternatives and reverse engineering.
Purism extended this vision of software freedom to the Librem 5, a phone that already took significant work to create the apps required and customize the GNOME desktop environment to fit a 5-inch screen.
The work that Purism does benefits the broader open source community, but that doesn't mean funds will flow back in the same way. So the price of the phone is way higher than the cost of the parts inside.
5. Adapting the hardware requires effort
Some companies buy old machines and upgrade them with Linux. This can be a tricky job, especially if you're trying to remove proprietary BIOS like many of the vendors the Free Software Foundation endorses.
Some may ship new hardware but give you a choice between Linux and Windows. This is TUXEDO Computers' approach. When placing an order all you have to do is select your preference from a drop down menu. Someone on their side has to manage the installation. Or the company has to keep a separate inventory.
Installing Linux isn't hard work, but you need people with a specific knowledge and you need to consider the time it takes to configure each order. If a company allows you to choose your own distribution, it can't have units on a shelf waiting to be shipped.
6. Linux distributions don't have the money to help
Microsoft wants people to use Windows. The company put money into advertising to convince people to buy a copy of the operating system or, more likely, a PC with Windows pre-installed. PC makers like Dell and HP compete against each other, but they don't have to go to great lengths to convince people to use Windows themselves.
Linux hardware vendors don't have that luxury. Even when System76 only sold Ubuntu PCs, Canonical didn't exactly have marketing dollars to get people to buy those machines (or Ubuntu-powered machines from Dell). Making money developing open source desktops can be a challenge.
Most projects simply lack the funds.
Huge open source companies tend to spend their advertising money on attracting corporate customers. When companies decide to sell Linux hardware for everyday desktop use, they are largely going it alone.
But things are starting to change
Cheaper Linux-powered hardware is emerging, in large part due to the advent of single-board computers. The Raspberry Pi, starting at around $ 35, has brought Linux to many who have no particular desire to leave Windows or macOS.
With every new version of the Raspberry Pi, it makes more sense to use a Pi as the primary computer.
Pine64 put similar hardware into a laptop case and released a product called the Pinebook, which sells for just $ 100.
A more powerful successor, the Pinebook Pro, only costs twice as much. The company also launched a Linux-powered phone that cost a third of Purism's Librem 5. Unlike Purism, Pine64 doesn't remove proprietary firmware, leaving it to other teams to manage the software for profit. Pine64 has also set up a tablet, smartwatch, and e-ink tablet.
How does it all work cheaply? Well, parent company Pine Microsystems built every project with a minimum of overhead. With no staff and hardware to sell at almost cost, the devices are incredibly affordable.
Intel NUC alternatives like the System76 Meerkat and the Purism Librem Mini offer fully functional desktops for a premium compared to what Intel NUCs generally cost great.
What's the cheapest way to use Linux?
No matter how cheap these devices are, the cheapest option is to install Linux on a PC you already own. Again, that's one of the reasons Linux computers cost so much. Most of the people who are interested in Linux choose to install it themselves. If you enjoy flashing a USB drive and following a few instructions, this really is a great way to give Linux a try.
How to Install Linux on Any PC or Laptop
Do you want to install Linux but think it could be a disaster? Installing Linux on a PC or laptop is easier than you think – here's what you need to know.
About the author
(331 published articles)
Bertel is a digital minimalist who writes from a laptop with physical privacy switches and an operating system recommended by the Free Software Foundation. He values ethics over functions and helps others take control of their digital lives.
From Bertel King
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