Ubuntu on Dell: Good and Evil
My dad had originally hoped to buy a machine with Ubuntu pre-installed. Unfortunately, getting Dell to actually sell you a computer with Ubuntu is more or less impossible. My dad isn't the only one to come to this conclusion. HP and IBM have a similar approach; they make a big deal of offering Linux pre-installed on their hardware, but it's only offered on a tiny and undesirable subset of their products, and the sales department will do everything possible short of hanging up on you to prevent you from buying one. So, he gave up and bought the machine he wanted, figuring he'd postpone his switch to Ubuntu.
After a failed attempt to restore his Windows XP installation from backups on is old computer, reinstalling XP from the provided CD turned out to be a neigh impossible task. With no drivers for any of the hardware (even the USB bus), once the OS was loaded, we couldn't think of a way of getting the drivers onto the disk so they might be installed. The machine uses a USB CD drive, so without the USB bus drivers, you can't even burn a CD with the drivers. The needed drivers are probably somewhere on the XP install CD, but there's no way of getting them.
So, we figured we'd give Ubuntu a shot after all. The process could hardly have been more painless. The only shortcomings of the Ubuntu install process are legally imposed and have easy workarounds -- fetching the Broadcom firmware for the wireless card, for example. After completing those chores, the machine Just Works.
My dad is a smart guy, so I wasn't worried about the "normal" sorts of troubles in switching to Linux. When you switch to a new OS, there is a reasonable expectation of effort required to learn the new environment. He'll figure out how to use the the software and OS features on his own. I was worried about poor hardware support. My dad can figure out how to install software and use it without my help, but it'll be a while (if ever) before he would consider compiling his own kernel to fix a hardware issue. It's not reasonable to expect someone who is switching to a new OS to repair it and learn it simultaneously.
Fortunately, all of the headaches I was fearing seem to have been addressed. It suspends and resumes without complaint, you can join wireless networks (including encrypted ones) from a nice little drop down menu. The network menu lets you switch between an ethernet connection and a WiFi connection if both are available. The Add/Remove Software application is intuitive and easy to use. No indoctrination into kernel compilation and command line tools is immediately necessary.
So, our assessment is that Ubuntu is, so far, much more user friendly than Windows. An inexperienced computer user would have a better chance of getting Ubuntu installed correctly than Windows. On this hardware, it wouldn't be all smooth sailing, but it's pretty close. If you're experienced enough to know the definition of words like "partition" and "firmware," then it's a piece of cake.
It's a shame, really, that Dell won't sell Ubuntu on this machine. Ubuntu is slick, snappy, easy to use, and it makes their hardware look good.
My dad's only complaint so far has been, "Yuck. This brown color is ugly. How do I change the color scheme?"