Dell Dimension E520 With Ubuntu Linux Review

25 Jun 2007

I finally broke down and ordered a Dell Dimension E520 with Ubuntu Linux to replace my doddering primary workstation which is four years old at this point. Rather than writing a review right after opening the box, I thought I'd use the new rig for a few weeks and kick it around a bit before summarizing my experiences with the new machine. Although I've read a couple of reviews of the XPS system here and there, I thought I'd go ahead and post my experiences with the least expensive Dell Ubuntu workstation, the Dell Dimension E520.

The Aesthetics

One thing I noticed as soon as I took the machine out of the box-- it's actually built quite well for an inexpensive workstation. The sides are made from fairly sturdy metal panels, and the general fit and feel was much better than I expected. This is not a machine I would be afraid to put in a car and move across the country with, or use as a doorstop when it gets old.

At the same time I think the majority of Dell's system designs for the past year or so have been terribly corny and gaudy ripoffs of Apple. I think the only brand identity that Dell has with their hardware is to use a bunch of different colors and grades of material, and then top it off by making sure it says DELL. YES, ITS A MOTHERFUCKING DELL. HEY, LOOK, I'M STILL A DELL everywhere. For the price I can't complain, but I think Dell could certainly stand to continue to try and make their machines look less like IM IN UR HOUSE LOOKING LIKE UR COMPUTRON, and more like something you don't mind having on display. I think recent designs of LCD TV's are a good example of this.

I'd take some photos of the new machine, but with 3 other machines on my desk (a server, my old workstation, and my work laptop) there's just too much chaos on my desk for such things.

Ubuntu Installation & Configuration

There's really not much to report here, though it was certainly pretty painless compared to the recent experience I had installing Ubuntu Feisty on a Lenovo T60. When I booted-up the machine some sort of Dell looking screen appeared that I had to agree to, and then the Ubuntu installation started. Admittedly it's been awhile so I can't remember every exact detail, but essentially there were only 4 install screens which let me set things such as time zone, keyboard layout, currency, and language preference, and it was pretty much done.

Once it rebooted I was somewhat disappointed-- the display did not account for the Dell 2007WFP 20" widescreen monitor I ordered and would only display in 1024x768. This would be a complete show-stopper for the average computer user, and I couldn't believe that this wasn't something which was accounted for in the installation process.

Also missing was the restricted driver for the Nvidia video card. This oversight is certainly debatable, but it also goes to show that there wasn't much time put into tweaking the shipped version of Ubuntu to be Dell friendly (at least on the Dimension E520). I ended-up having to do the dreadful task of poking around in xorg.conf to get the monitor and video card to play nicely with each other, and now I'm using it in 1680x1050 glory.

After finally getting the resolution tweaked, I got all of the multimedia foo in working order by installing various codecs and applications using Automatix. I also installed VMWare Server and created a Windows XP virtual machine just because I could and also attempt to push the new hardware a bit, but I have yet to really do anything in the Virtual Machine other than get updates installed.

I'm still waiting for the whole Compiz / Beryl merger to happen with an actual release, so I haven't played with the window effects at all. I did install Synergy which was quite painless and can now use the same mouse and keyboard as well as copy and paste across two other machines. Very nice!

Life With Ubuntu**

Being that I switched to using Ubuntu as my primary operating system at home last year, and use it on my work laptop for writing software, I pretty much already knew what to expect. For the most part Ubuntu provides you with ways do do almost everything you can already do with Windows, including:

  • Surfing the internet and using various instant messaging protocols

  • An office suite for Word Processing, Spreadsheets, etc

  • Support for removable media such as USB drives or Flash Memory cards from digital cameras

  • Image editing and photo management

  • Managing your iPod and music library

  • Support for video, music, flash, and more via Automatix

  • The ability to burn CD's and DVD's

  • Built-in support for printers and other devices

About the only thing I can't do with it at the moment is manage my Samsung Blackjack smartphone. I'll probably keep my old Windows XP box around specifically for this purpose. Otherwise, Ubuntu has been a really great choice for me. In fact, one thing that surprised me is that it automatically installed a driver for and supported an old 3Com HomeConnect webcam I have which is about 7 years old now and almost impossible to find Windows drivers for.

Conclusion

I'm at a point in life where I just don't have time to build machines from scratch and troubleshoot their idiosyncrasies, so I prefer to buy pre-assembeled machines. I seem to be a repeat Dell customer because their machines are reasonably priced, run quietly, and are generally built fairly well for the money. Also, because they are such a popular platform, it's fairly easy to find people who have had similar issues as you (especially in regards to Linux issues) by a well crafted Google search.

For a price just a bit North of $1,000 including a nice monitor and free shipping, I'm very happy with my Dell Dimension E520 system and would recommend it to others interested in getting a new Ubuntu system. Just make sure you customize the machine with more than the base options so you'll be happier with it in the long run, and search online for Dell coupons and try several different ones for the best deal before placing your order. Granted you might want to order a minimum amount of RAM and install your own as it's quite a bit cheaper to do so.

At the same time, I don't think Dell did a very good job of integrating Dell specific needs into the install process. I think that Ubuntu Linux is good enough once configured correctly by someone who knows what they are doing for 80% of computer users, and Dell missed a chance to show the general populace that there are choices beyond Windows DRM Dogfood and Mac OS. However, give Ubuntu a couple more years at the pace they've been innovating and maybe they'll take care of it themselves.

Et Cetera

If it's of any comfort, I have no association with Dell and just wanted to present my honest experience. If you liked the article or also have a Dell E520 and are a new visitor, please come back as I'll be posting tips and how-to's for a few configuration issues I came across along the way with this machine and will do my best to keep this post updated. You can also subscribe to my RSS Feed.