Linux desktop lightweight – in more ways than one?
Review A whole heap of companies have started offering miniature Linux-powered PCs in the last few years, from Zonbu, Sumo and Koolu to DecTOP, that sells the device formerly known as AMD's Personal Internet Communicator. A number bear an almost suspicious resemblance to x86-powered thin clients, being based around inexpensive, low-powered but cool-running System-On-a-Chip (SOC) devices such as AMD's Geode processors, as used in the One Laptop Per Child XO-1.
The Linutop 2: so quiet only the activity lights indicate that it's in use
French vendor Linutop's original model of its eponymous machine was the size of a Nintendo DS, with no on-board storage at all – it booted from a USB stick. It's now been replaced with the Linutop 2, essentially a rebadged Ion A603 MiniPC from First Computer – but with European support. The new model is about twice as big – roughly the size of 4 stacked CD jewel cases – and now sports double the Ram (512MB), a power button and a whole gigabyte of internal storage. It has four USB 2 ports, VGA, Ethernet and sound in and out – and that's it. The processor has been bumped from a 433MHz Geode LX700 to a 500MHz Geode LX800, but state of the art PC performance, this isn't.
It delivers a Geekbench score of about 200, whereas, even a low-end netbook, such as the original Asus Eee 701 with its 630MHz Celeron, scores 485. What makes such a low-spec machine viable is Linux's frugal system requirements, even compared to Windows XP. The Linutop is supplied with Linutop OS 2.4, a custom version of Xubuntu 8.04. This is a variant of Ubuntu with the usual GNOME desktop replaced with the lightweight XFCE, making it perfectly happy in half a gig of Ram. The instal is so small that it leaves 400MB of the internal storage free for user files.
Not the fastest, but versatile
But a lightweight OS can only do so much – and the Linutop is not what you’d call fast. During tests, after whacking up the font size of the Reg homepage by pressing Ctrl-+ a couple of times, Firefox took about 20 seconds to redraw the page. Flash animations and Youtube are sluggish and jerky. Put one of these in an Internet café and on its first day an enraged impatient surfer is going to throw it through a window.
Good luck to them
I can see a few uses for these, shame its a bit lacking in ports though. I work with control systems and something like this with parallel and serial ports would be ideal for either new systems or retrofitting older setups, great for prototyping too.
If they could offer options on port configs, like the second network for a firewall mentioned above or a couple of serial ports for some point of sale kit then this could well be a winner.
As to the price, yes it is a bit steep but they are not a high volume manufacturer so they aren't getting hardware at anything like asus or dell's discounts. Considering what I've seen companies pay for similar kit, 250 euro is very reasonable.
Useless? Methinks not...
On the contrary, this is an excellent piece of kit that has a definite market. Take for instance Point Of Sale terminals... screw one of these on the back of an LCD monitor and you have a nice low cost small footprint retail sales machine. I have already done this with a Eee PC, it' s nice to see more coming on the market.
There are loads of uses, from in-vehicle computing to thin-client terminals. Office PCs could be replaced with this as well, what, you need more than 500MHz for your word-processor? It certainly would reduce the amount of support to the desktops that are deployed in most offices.
1. Home automation PC including pulling files off a server for playback on a TV or audio system. Give it a bit of web presence and the right interfaces and it can set the mood and temperature for you getting home.
2. In-car non-essential systems controller. With the right software this little thing could handle satnav, entertainment, phonecalls etc. A GPS could be a lot more if it was broken out of the little grey plastic box with the stern sounding lady inside.
3. Vulnerable people. Again with the right software this thing could act as the inexpensive hub for things like sheltered accommodation to monitor alarms and sensors detecting people moving around.
4. Animal husbandry. Say you have a hatchery or a breeding project. I'm sure this could be used to monitor various sensors and regulate various outputs accordingly.
If it were cheaper, hams would snap these up by the bucketfull!
Would make a nifty battery powered box to run digital modes like PK31, RTTY, etc. Just use a low power LCD display that can run off an inverter and you're all set for EMCOMM or Field Day...
As Apple don't seem to want to add HDMI onto their MacMini there has to be a market for machines of this size that can be turned into media hubs.
Shame this isn't one of them.