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Sam's joins $300 Linux PC club

Sam's Club is mimicking parent company Wal-Mart by selling budget PCs that run on Red Hat's version of the open-source operating system.

Sam's Club, the members-only branch of retail giant Wal-Mart, has entered the budget PC race with a $299 system running Red Hat's version of the Linux operating system.

The Sam's Club PCs are built by CPUBuilders, a division of Wichita, Kan.-based hardware maker Stratitec specializing in budget PCs. The Sam's Club offerings, sold only through the retailer's Web site, mirror similar moves by Wal-Mart, which offers a number of low-cost Linux PCs through its Web site.

The $299 "starter system" sold by Sam's Club runs on a 1.1GHz Duron processor from Advanced Micro Devices and includes a 20GB hard drive, built-in Ethernet and modem, and an integrated graphics processor. The current version has 128MB of memory, but CPUBuilders plans to upgrade the configuration soon to 256MB. A 17-inch monitor is available for another $100.

A $399 version will use AMD's 1.67GHz Athlon XP processor. CPUBuilders expects to offer several other configurations through the discount retailer.

The Wal-Mart PCs have used Linux distributions from Lindows and Lycoris, designed to look and act like Windows and thus be less intimidating to consumers. But David Ginskey, vice president of engineering for CPUBuilders, said the company prefers to stick with Linux leader Red Hat.

"The real reason we like Red it's really robust, and there's a lot of depth to it," he said. "It makes our systems more flexible, because you've got the tools for more complex stuff down the road."

The Sam's Club PCs will include a wealth of open-source software ready to run, including the OpenOffice productivity package, Mozilla Web browser, and Evolution personal information manager.

Robert Barger, president of CPUBuilders, said he expects the PCs to appeal to consumers and small businesses looking to control costs.

"It gives small business a way to easily afford a reliable, functional PC," he said. "People will really start to think, 'Do I really need that $99 Windows license and $400 for (Microsoft) Office?'"