I took a walk through Circuit City today to see where consumer PCs stood. We'll be back to school in a matter of weeks and parents are already asking about laptops for their high school and college-bound students. The good news is that for $700 you can pick up a laptop with more horsepower than your high-schooler will ever need. I saw a $900 Toshiba with 4GB of RAM.
The bad news is that most of these machines are loaded with crapware, trialware, and intrusive anti-malware software that slows down the computers and is only marginally effective against everything floating around the Net. They are also all running various flavors of Vista. Most, fortunately, included Home Premium, at least, rather than Vista Basic, but I can't help but wonder if most of these computers wouldn't be better served with a fresh install of Ubuntu, wiping out the crapware and Vista in one fell swoop. Dual booting is certainly an option, too, but it's still not an especially easy process with Vista for the average consumer.
This isn't just my anti-Vista bias (although that remains alive and well). Rather, installing any of the mainstream Linux distros gives students immediate access to a full office suite, general lack of malware (inherent security aside, no one is writing Linux adware), and a huge library of cool, fun, and/or useful software. It also eliminates the need for rather laborious removal of the crapware loaded up on most consumer PCs.
For the low end models especially (most running with 1-2GB of RAM and AMD Turion processors), a clean install of any OS would be welcome. Ubuntu just happens to be free, mature, and will meet the needs of 99% of middle and high school students. College students may very well need more specialized, proprietary software; however, most high school grads won't be shopping for the cheapest of the cheap at Circuit City.
Cheap is good, however, for a kids' first laptop. Notice I haven't even mentioned desktop computers. They do still exist, but occupy a single aisle in my local Circuit City, versus four aisles of laptops. Desktop models tend towards family-centered multimedia machines with features that are fairly meaningless for a student researching a paper or creating a presentation for class the next day. As far as I'm concerned, the desktop is dead.
Cheap laptops (even full-featured, non-netbook laptops) rule and, IMHO, they rule a heck of a lot more with a fresh install of Ubuntu or OpenSUSE.