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.