Cheap Shot

Q: I read somewhere that Wal-Mart's going to start selling $199 desktops. I'm all for cheap computers, but that price sounds a little sketchy. What sort of quality are we talking about here?

You're referring to a family of PC clones that run Lindows, a geeked-down version of the Linux operating system. Wal-Mart.com's already hawking one for $299, sans monitor, and a release date for the even cheaper model should be announced shortly. Cut-rate Lindows.com aims to sock it to wallet-gouging Microsoft, a noble goal if there ever was one. After testing one of the upstart's rickety machines, however, Mr. Roboto is sad to report that the Gatesian Empire has little to fear.

Lindows.com certainly gets an A for chutzpah. Founded by MP3.com mogul Michael Robertson (who bears a striking resemblance to a creatine-pumped Conan O'Brien), the company proclaims itself the Southwest Airlines of computers, a price-slasher bent on serving the proletariat. The eponymous operating system costs less for manufacturers to install because it's based on Linux, the open-source darling that's freely available to all comers.

The other economic advantage of running Lindows is the abundance of free Linux programs. Open-source crusaders have written thousands of compatible applications, many of which can be tracked down with a Google search. Lindows.com has tried to accommodate true neophytes by setting up the Click-N-Run Warehouse, an archive of over 1600 programs. The service's $99-a-year fee is steep, however, given its patchiness. A lot of the software was woefully out of date, and about a third of my download attempts failed despite a humming DSL connection. I shudder to imagine the agony awaiting dial-up users as they log onto Click-N-Run.

The current Wal-Mart special—manufactured by scrappy Microtel Computer Systems (buymicrotel.com)—also features a simulator called WINE, which ostensibly tricks Windows-only software into running on the Lindows platform. Robertson once promised that WINE could fool most any Microsoft application, but he's recently hedged a bit. Clever man, seeing as how nearly half of Mr. Roboto's Windows software didn't get to first base with Lindows. Office standards like Word and Excel ran well, but several media titles were flummoxed. Even when programs clicked, there was something rather listless about the PC. The $299 box sports an 850 megahertz AMD Duron processor, the 98-pound weakling of microchips.

Lindows.com has done a valiant job of eliminating some of Linux's techier aspects, but it might still bewilder folks accustomed to Windows' Joe Six-Pack approach to computing. I didn't get the chance to sample the tech-support line, though hopes are low based on the system's "instruction manual"—a stapled-together pamphlet that's less informative than a Denny's place mat. And the electronic help files have obviously been written by someone whose life experience amounts to debugging compilers and surfing Star Trek: Voyager fan sites.

There's something to be said for supporting Lindows, especially since it's pissed off Microsoft so much; the software Goliath has sued Robertson's company, claiming that its name infringes on the Windows trademark. But Mr. Roboto bets that most consumers aren't nerdy enough to buy a lackluster computer solely to fight the Man. If you're wedded to the idea of a bargain PC, Wal-Mart.com's got better values on tap—a solid little HP Pavilion's going for $568 nowadays, monitor and Windows XP included. Come over to the Dark Side, at least until there's a Lindows machine that doesn't disappoint.


Determining whether the world's going to hell in a handbasket has long been the forte of pundits, which annoys Mr. Roboto to no end—my internal processors prefer quantifiable metrics to the subjective ramblings of Woody Harrelson. Bless the geniuses at Warblogging.com, then, for devising the Index of Evil, which precisely charts the planet's supply of bad vibes. Every hour, a specialized "bot" scans scores of weblogs for words like "Ashcroft," "Hussein," "Saddam," and "Osama." The results are plotted on an easy-to-read, color-coded graph. The higher the lines, the more you should consider going survivalist in Idaho. Have plenty of canned food and flashlights on hand for the day when the red line hits the 2000 threshold.


Input questions at bkoerner@villagevoice.com.

 
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