The name of Dell's Project Sputnik may not exactly conjure images of cutting-edge computer technology. But the laptop that the endeavor has launched is certainly no piece of outdated space junk. Targeted at developers and based on Ubuntu Linux, the machine potentially represents a new kind of direction for Dell (NASDAQ: DELL). Will the company, long derided by some open source fans, now fully enter the good graces of the Linux community?

Begun only about six months ago through the initiative of Dell employee Barton George, Project Sputnik was conceived to build an open source notebook tailored to developers--especially, according to Dell, those involved in cloud development. Last week, that machine arrived in the form of a "Developer Edition" XPS 13 laptop powered by Ubuntu 12.04.

The computer, which is priced at $1,449, sports the kind of powerful hardware geeky developers will enjoy bragging about: An third-generation Intel i7 CPU, 8GB of memory, 256GB of SSD storage and a six-cell battery. The only thing that would stop Dell from calling this a gaming PC is the absence of a high-end video card, but the Intel HD 4000 integrated graphics are nothing to sneer at.

Dell doesn't offer any hardware upgrades for the laptop beyond optional external peripherals and accessories. But it's hard to imagine wanting much more power than the system already provides.

Dell's New Open Source Colors?

Selling a laptop with Ubuntu preinstalled is nothing new for Dell, which has offered Ubuntu hardware for more than five years. But Project Sputnik could constitute a very new direction for the company by expanding its Ubuntu offerings into a novel niche.

Previously, Dell's selection of Ubuntu machines was limited to a small and inconsistent set of computers, all of them low- or midrange hardware. And while many Linux users were encouraged by the attention afforded to their operating system of choice by a big-name OEM such as Dell, complaints were common in the open source community that Dell was reluctant to market Ubuntu systems aggressively and to price them competitively.

The Ubuntu laptop produced by Project Sputnik, however, expands Dell's Ubuntu lineup to the high-end hardware market. And so far, Dell has been promoting the offering quite loudly, at least within the channels that its developer-oriented audience is likely to follow. The company has even hailed the new model as an exemplification of Dell's "core values of openness and affordability."

Perhaps more importantly, no one can complain that purchasers of the Ubuntu XPS 13 will be forced to pay the "Windows tax." Dell's Windows-based version of the same device with an identical price tag ships with a less powerful CPU, an older Intel video chipset and only half the memory of the Ubuntu equivalent. In other words, if you choose the Ubuntu version of this laptop, you get better hardware for your buck. That wasn't always the case in the past, although Dell has recently begun offering at least one other Ubuntu laptop for less money than the same model running Windows.

Granted, hard-to-please Linux users may not be totally won over. The lack of the new machine's customizability--a favorite feature in the open source world--likely will be a sticking point, as will the terribly out-of-date description of Ubuntu that users see when purchasing the machine. (It's the same banner image that, as I noted last week, says Ubuntu ships with Firefox 3.0 and OpenOffice, which hasn't been true for years.)

From here, though, it looks like Dell has put a lot of serious work into Project Sputnik. This move--combined with Dell's aggressive sales of Ubuntu PCs in emerging markets--may help to rekindle the company's lukewarm relationship with the open source community. We're set to interview Dell staff about the Sputnik initiative later this week, and will share further updates then.