MicroCenter: The Hunt for Working Computers

I was at MicroCenter in Cambridge, Massachusetts yesterday. I was helping one of my students find a new laptop that would work well with Ubuntu. Of course this needed my personal assistance because the staff are not trained with anything other than Windows. But that’s an easily remedied problem in my eyes.

The sales staff did kindly let us test Ubuntu Karmic CDs in computers, to see how they worked. I got to see some of the problems in up and coming hardware and what we still have to work on.

One of the big problems was getting machines with Intel HD graphics chipsets to function at all. After grub the screen would go black and stay that way, the CD would be doing things but that’s about all it would do. Other laptops with nVidia and ATI hardware all booted up fine, but had no 3D support.

WiFi was a bugbare for most of the machines with Realtek and Broadcom devices featured heavily. Both requiring extra firmware which is easy to get when your online, but not easy to get when testing on a tied down machine with no Ethernet.

It’s was very hard to test webcam support, I couldn’t find anything in the karmic default install that could grab an image and since most of the wifi chipsets didn’t work, I couldn’t grab a copy of cheese. The sane scanner plugin for webcams still detects a device but fails to grab images (long standing bug). I settled for looking for /dev/video0 which is a good sign that there is something there. Surprisingly every webcam looked like it worked (or was detected at least).

These problems and more are why I strongly advise people to buy machines from vendors that sell pre-installed Ubuntu machines and not buy Windows 7 machines and hope for the best.

The story at Microcenter about why they have such bad consideration towards Ubuntu is mostly an upper management issue. Like a lot of computer sellers they’ve heard the promise of the FOSS ultimate control and ultimate customisation that you get and ran with it. They did try and sell a machine with “Linux” on it, but apparently it was an in-house effort with their cheapest components and their own distro.

Nothing about making your own distro and packing it with the cheapest desktop box is going to sell well. In order to sell Ubuntu (and FDs in general) you need to upsell it on expensive hardware, nice looking laptops and lovely looking cases. It needs to be “wow! what’s that” not “Oh god I have to put up with that”. MicroCenter would be better placed to think of Free Software as materially better software written by professionals and not just an cheap knock-off of substandard coding by volunteers.

As for people wandering around Microcenter: I did a test of leaving the Ubuntu LiveCD booted on a couple of machines and stood from a distance watching people’s attention and what they were looking at. Very rarely did anyone ever become interested in the Ubuntu machine, and why should they when the Windows 7 machines sitting right next to them have all their whiz bang crazy bubble effects, strong contrast backgrounds that shift from one amazing photo to the next and nice looking widgets. In comparison the Ubuntu computer looked like a reasonable but drab office computer, something that the staff were using but that wasn’t very attractive to anyone hunting for a computer.

Perhaps we need a point of sales design, something so outlandish that you wouldn’t want to use it on your desktop, but that would certainly catch the customer’s shallow eye and drag them in to see what it actually was.


13 thoughts on “MicroCenter: The Hunt for Working Computers

  1. *Almost* agreed, if it wasn’t for a bunch of Australians (I think) running around telling showing “Windows 7” which was actually KDE 4.something!

    As always, KDE has laid the gauntlet to Gnome, when Gnome catches up, it will lay the gauntlet to KDE.

    What a battle! We all win!

  2. I have to agree that Kubuntu (KDE4) off the Live CD is much sexier than Ubuntu. I think Gnome could be spruced up to look nice, but right now the ultimate “wow” seems to come from Compiz, unfortunately.

  3. I hate MicroCenter with a passion. Luckily for me I have Tiger Direct, 2 of them within 10 minutes of my house. 1 is a store front which they now call CompUSA (again) and the other is the warehouse where everyone orders from which also has a store front on it. And Tiger Direct does sell Linux machines, most of them are netbooks, and they are all pretty much SuSE based. Though when I walk in wearing my Ubuntu hat, everyone in there is like “UBUNTU ROCKS!” Tiger Direct also allows me to carry Ubuntu CDs at their registers, as they aren’t tied down to Apple and Microsoft products, and another lucky point, is most of the people who work at both locations, are anti-Microsoft and use mostly Mac but quite a few also use Linux.

    Down with MicroCenter! 🙂 I could put on a tin foil hat and say, “They have Micro in their name, evil! evil! evil!”

  4. Global menu bars make desktops so elegant it’s eye catching.

    ..but Firefox and OpenOffice are barely more native than Windows apps running in WINE, and doing anything truly innovative will make this very, very obvious.. As long as the gnome desktop relies heavily on non-native applications it cannot do what is necessary to compete with KDE and OS X.

  5. ..The other thing a competing platform has (Windows Vista/7) that Ubuntu doesn’t is aRGB translucency, which has been implemented in gtk and is being ignored, again, because of non-native applications like OpenOffice and Firefox.

    ..so get an Ubuntu install, wipe OO.o and Firefox for Abiword, Epiphany, and Gnumeric, install and enable aRGB translucency and a global menu bar, and you’ll see something that can hold it’s own, easily.

  6. The fault is in the test parameters from where I’m sitting.

    You used a live CD that you admit does not have the proper drivers to make the most of the hardware available.

    You have a desktop in Windows 7 that has the whizbang features enabled and then a live CD that gets the video to a working state but not much beyond that. Then on top of that you’re using Ubuntu with Gnome (from the way I read the article) which is not as pretty as Windows 7 anyway imho.

    I’ve found if I want to impress people with the looks of Linux I’m better off with a KDE 4 based distro even without effects turned on.

    Or am I missing something here?

  7. @nixternal: Unfortunately MicroCenter is by far the best big computer store left in New England, that I know of. Other than that we’ve pretty much just got Best Buys.
    Actually, I never knew TigerDirect had B&M stores.

  8. Im using Dell D630 now , everything works out of the box.
    Dell E6400 with camera , everything works out of the box. So did my hp nx7400.

  9. Just a quick tip. You can test camera in gstreamer-properties. It’s in default install.

  10. I think a large part of it is that people are just too trained by Microsoft to use Windows. They have had the OEM market for so long that most people know/assume that every new PC comes with Windows….and if a PC doesn’t run Windows, then it must be a Mac.

    Add onto this the comfort zone out of which few people wish to leave.

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