ZaReason: a computer company with freedom built in

For the past couple of months, I've been playing with a laptop from ZaReason, a small, GNU/Linux-based system builder founded in Oakland, CA (though it has expanded to New Zealand). ZaReason's deal is that they build computers themselves, using components that are guaranteed to have free and open drivers, and pre-install your favorite free/open operating system at the factory. They offer full support for the hardware and the software, and promise that they'll never say, "Sorry, that component just doesn't work right under Linux." So unlike buying a ThinkPad or other commercial laptop and installing a free operating system on it (which can be a bit of a gamble, and will shortly become more of one, see below), ZaReason's machines arrive ready to run. And unlike buying a commercial laptop from a freedom-friendly vendor like Emperor Linux (who'll sometimes warn you that certain features of your hardware aren't supported), ZaReason can promise you that every single capability of every single component in your system will just work.

ZaReason sent me their Alto 3880, "Long battery life, HD graphics, light and lean = everything a laptop should be." I found it to be a very snappy, responsive machine that, as promised, "just worked" out of the box. The machine's styling is pretty generic — it looks like your basic, silvery OEM laptop, albeit one where they've opted for the top-spec option for the pointing surface, keyboard, etc. It's rather heavier than the machine I carry for daily use, a Lenovo ThinkPad X220, which shaves its ounces by omitting the optical drive and shrinking the screen to 12" (the Alto has a 14" screen). My machine came loaded with Mint, a Linux flavor forked off of Ubuntu, the OS I use on my ThinkPad. Mint seems to me to be what you'd get if you kept on developing the venerable (and somewhat fuggly) Gnome desktop, which looks a lot like various flavors of Windows. Ubuntu, meanwhile, is driving full-on for a more "modern" (and more constrained) desktop environment called Unity, which I've come to tolerate and even like with the latest release, which came out in April. I found the Mint/Alto combination slightly more stable than the ThinkPad/Ubuntu combo, though both of them are easily as stable as any commercial OS I've ever used, and rarely, if ever, crash or require a reboot. If you prefer Ubuntu to Mint, ZaReason will happily install it at the factory — other choices include Kubuntu, Edubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or whatever you specify (I assume there are some limits to this).

The ZaReason laptop prices compare well to other PC vendors' machines, within a few points up or down when compared with a comparably equipped Dell. They work well. But working well is easy — when it comes to my computers, the question I always ask is "How well does it fail?" I live and die by my laptop and even a day's downtime is unacceptable.

My experience — both personal and as a former CIO — with the major vendors, from Dell to Apple, is that none of them are terrific when it comes to hardware support. There's a lot of queuing up, a lot of being deprived of your machine for unpredictable periods, and a lot of arguing about whether the warranty covers whatever has gone wrong. On the plus side, Dell has an enormous, bottomless well of replacement parts, and a titanic staff of service techs. Apple, of course, has its ubiquitous stores, where you can drop off machines for service.

ZaReason can't compete head-on with this. Instead, the company offers a highly personalized tech support service from named technicians who treat you like a person, not a trouble-ticket. And the company is willing to go the extra mile for service when it can — they told me about a South African customer whose machine had some bad RAM; rather than have the machine shipped back to them for service, they diagnosed the problem remotely, found a local South African PC store that had the required part, and had it couriered directly to the customer.

I have been a very, very happy ThinkPad user for some years now. They generally support Linux very well (though there were some bobbles when I moved from 32 bit machines to 64 bit machines), and the company has a whole product line devoted to serious travellers — machines that cut their weight by leaving out the CD/DVD drive, and come with a variety of batteries, in varying degrees of heaviness/long life, meaning you can go featherweight for short trips, or add an extra 500g with a snap-on, two-day Slice battery that covers the whole underside of the machine, depending on your needs.

More importantly, ThinkPad has an extended on-site hardware replacement warranty that is fulfilled by IBM Global Services, the gold standard in worldwide tech support. For about the same price as AppleCare, Lenovo will give you a warranty whereby any faulty hardware parts are overnighted to you, anywhere in the world, and a few hours later, a technician will show up at your door and fix your computer right there, on your own desk. IBM Global Services are genuinely global, and I've had service in several countries.

ZaReason doesn't really do a laptop for road warriors (yet) — their offerings fall into the "good-spec/low-price" bucket, or the "massive, blazing gamer/graphics pro laptop," both of which are important categories, but they're not my category. I'm a guy who's on the road about a third of the time, and whose chronic back pain means that every gram of extra weight is a big deal.

But I'm awfully glad that ZaReason exists. As a company, I get the impression that they are as motivated by the cause of freedom as they are by profit. This is especially important today, as a new PC "security" feature called UEFI is making it increasingly hard to install non-commercial OSes on your own computers: free OSes like Fedora and Ubuntu are having to pay blood money to Microsoft so that their users can install and boot their OSes without having to lift the lid off their machines and change the inner workings. This is a trend that I see getting (much) worse before it gets better — although the right to freely choose and modify your kernel is highly esoteric and technical, it is the wellspring from which all other technological freedoms arise. ZaReason's mission isn't just to make free/open hardware: it's to ensure that there is always a free-as-in-free-speech option for your computing needs. This is a vital role, and they deserve kudos for stepping up to it.

ZaReason's machines work — and fail — as well or better as comparably priced systems from much bigger vendors. They promise to support both hardware and software and will never punt support calls on the grounds that "the hardware isn't performing as it's supposed to, we do the software" or "that's a software problem, we only supply the software." They offer limited support for peripherals (external drives, scanners, printers, etc), though in truth, I find that these devices work better in Linux-land than they do for Macs and Windows machines.

Though I thoroughly support ZaReason's mission, I regret to say that I'm not their target market. The Alto they sent me to try was as nice a machine as any other in its weight/price class, but it's not the kind of machine I need. It'll be interesting to see what they come up with, when and if they decide to try it. And in the meantime, they have my endorsement and gratitude for keeping freedom alive, and putting ethics ahead of profit.