|Review: Everex gPCmini with gOS Linux
by Henry Kingman (May 16, 2008)
Everex's gPC mini is a small, quiet, powerful $500 computer with a hip Linux-based operating system designed for MySpace users and others who appreciate the entertainment value of PCs. With a few simple hardware tweaks, the gPC is sure to delight fun-loving PC users of all ages.
(Click for larger view of Everex gPC Mini)
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The Mini is part of Everex's gPC (green PC) line of energy efficient PCs, which includes the $200 WalMart desktop. My Watt meter showed the Mini pegging out at 33 Watts during startup or compiling a kernel, and hovering near 25 Watts most of the time. Completely idle, it still tends to pull 25 Watts, though that could probably be fixed by users willing to install the free powertop utility, and to customize their system based on its recommendations. The system has a fan, but runs very quiet. Based on Ubuntu 7.10 (Gutsy Gibbon), it boots quickly, too -- at least until Compiz and the Avant Window Manager start (they do start most of the time).
The Mini comes with a version of gOS called "space." The space build is based on Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon, with customization by David Liu, a 22-year old hailing from Los Angeles. Lui's contributions include cool space wallpaper, and configuring the excellent and ultra flashy Compiz framework (a Beryl fork) with lots of gratuitous yet juicy graphical effects. Liu also created a prominent AWN launch bar loaded with stacks of shortcuts to seemingly all of the very hippest websites out there -- especially if you want to use the Internet to watch movies and video shorts, discover and listen to music, and experiment with online applications such as Google Apps, SplashUP, Picnik, FauxTo, and so on.
Oh, and you want to follow entertainment industry gossip. It must be an L.A. thing (though Liu reports he now resides in an "open source" house in Berkeley, Calif.)
Asked whether gOS has revenue-sharing agreements in place with MySpace and the other sites linked in the AWN toolbar, he replied that MySpace has endorsed the system, but so far has not signed on for any "co-branding" deals. As for the many links embedded in the desktop, he said, "Right now we have some partnership agreements in place, but most of them are just links with no revenue share. We're definitely exploring that possibility with different web app companies who have asked us about paid placements and rev share."
The desktop links, if you could open them all at once, would look something like this (except curving, and springing from rotating 3D icons):
Pink is the New Blog
Myspace Music Videos
More MySpace Apps
When I booted the Mini, and started perusing the stacks of links, and playing with Compiz features, it took me back to my mid-90s days as a gung-ho dot-commie. We all used to try to outdo each other with cool Windows 95 and 98 desktop customizations. Yet, what's possible now is so far beyond anything we could do back then! Hooray for Linux! And for those who can make it shimmy and shake to beat the band.
When I showed the gPC Mini to a 14-year old neighbor kid, running through a few Compiz window manager tricks, his reaction was, "That's the coolest thing I've ever seen a computer do!" I attempted to do a screencast (800K download, Ogg Theora format), but with poor results due to memory starvation. Which brings up a good point.
The Mini is a strong performer -- very similar to a current-model consumer laptop, without the battery, display, and keyboard. Yet, it only has 512MB of RAM, of which four fifths will fill up just booting it up. Open a single Firefox window, and there's no free RAM left. Open four or five Firefox tabs, and you're starting to see some thrash. Once memory gets low, the AWN menus don't seem to work very well, folding up on you before you can click on their icons. At least, I hope memory starvation is causing this, rather than some deeper-seated bug.
Memory usage after boot-up (l) and with a single browser window open
(Click either to enlarge)
The problem is worsened because the AWN toolbar constantly reminds you that funny videos, for example, are only a click away. This is an OS that constantly invites you to fill up all four desktop workspaces on the Compiz cube... not carefully close unused apps to conserve memory.
So, you have two options. One, of course, is to buy a modern gaming rig and simply install gOS space on it. You'll be a happy camper. But maybe you really like the idea of a small, quiet, unobtrusive PC. A system smaller even than a DIY miniITX box (see photo below). It's time to crack the Mini's case and do some serious upgrading.
gPC Mini, next to fanless 1.5GHz miniITX box
(Click to enlarge)
Here's the view that awaits after loosening three screws on the back panel, and sliding the lid forward and up.
gPC Mini, topless
(Click to enlarge)
Hm, no RAM modules visible yet. Time to unscrew the four screws holding down the combo optical drive/hard drive bracket, and the two black screws holding down two unused wireless antennas, and fold the drive bracket assembly backwards, using the connector wires as a hinge.
gPC Mini, with drive bracket folded back
(Click to enlarge)
Ah, we're in luck! The SODIMM slot is a double decker! That means you could buy another SODIMM of the same type (667MHz DDR2, 512MB), and still use the stick that came with the system. Another option would be to ditch the 512MB stick, and go for something like a matched set of 1GB sticks. Note that the MiniPC maxes out at 2GB of RAM, though, so hold off on the temptation to install more than that.
Our Mini came with a 512MB DDR2 (200 pin) SODIMM from A-Data
(Click to enlarge)
While you're in there, did you happen to notice all of the onboard expansion this little board has? There's miniPCI, microPCI, and another ribbon cable expansion connector I did not recognize (a serial port, maybe?). Next to each expansion slot can be found a pigtail connector leading to a built-in wireless antenna. I feel another upgrade coming on!
A quick rifle through the parts bin turned up alas no Bluetooth or WiMax cards, but I did find a mini-PCI card with a 400mW Atheros radio on it, so in it went!
gPC Mini, with 400mW Atheros card
(Click to enlarge)
Then, I put things back together and started up the system. The card was detected and Ubuntu's "restricted drivers" utility loaded the correct driver for it. I then used the Network Mangler to set my WEP key, and was on the 'net in no time.
So, what else did I try? I tried out World of Warcraft on Wine, and that seemed to work, although not being a WoW player, I didn't really have a character to try out. But the high-definition introductory video was spectacular!
Next, I tried GLXgears, a program that tests 3D acceleration. At its default VGA resolution, it ran nicely at 854fps. Fullscreen on a 1680x1050 display, it chugged along at close to 60fps. Certainly not bad for an IGP (integrated graphics processor)! One quibble with the Intel-supplied Linux driver -- no support for virtual resolutions larger than the physical display.
Here are a few other pseudo-benchmarks and sundry specs to please the Linux geeks among you:Now for some fun facts to know and tell. The gPC mini is based on Intel's Calistoga 945gm, a mainstream (as opposed to high-performance) laptop chipset wedded here with the T2130 Core 2 Duo processor clocked at 1.86GHz. Everex is the U.S. PC subsidiary of First International Computer (FIC), a Taiwanese company in the top tier of electronics manufacturers worldwide. In business since the 80s, Everex is usually near the top five in U.S. PC sales. It puts its 24x7 phone support number on the bottom of the unit, and you choose Linux or Windows before your call is routed. I experienced wait times between zero and 10 minutes, and found staff knowledgable, articulate, and pleasant (thanks, Craig!).
So, what's the conclusion? The gPC mini has a cutting edge hardware design that squeezes plenty of power into a very small, unobtrusive, yet still relatively expandable package. It's quiet, sleek, and, with a memory upgrade, should be pretty fast. The software is even more on the cutting edge, boldly including some of the most advanced graphical interface features available for any operating system. For what you get, this is a very high-value system!
Mind you, the Compiz and AWN projects are still evolving rapidly, with gOS really the first Linux distribution we've seen to include them by default on a production device. The fun and flash factor is very high, but users may experience some seams between the joins at times, especially when figuring out how to customize and tune the system to their liking. (Take a look at the Compiz config screen. Doesn't that look fun?) For another example, woe betide the unwary user who accepts the Update utility's recommendation to "upgrade" to Ubuntu 8.04 (Hardy Heron), as things will break, David Liu told us.
Still, it's great to see an older, well-established PC vendor like Everex willing to take a walk on the wilder side of Linux. Final verdict -- recommended for adventurous types who don't expect perfection, and get a jolt out of having what has to be simply the coolest PC around.
-- Henry Kingman
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