|Itty-bitty, teeny-weeny Linux PCs
Oct. 30, 2007
Analysis -- Over at our sister site LinuxDevices, we're always looking at small, embedded-Linux systems. While reviewing Freespire recently on a Mini koobox, an Apple Mini-sized system, I began to wonder, Just how small do full-featured, Linux-powered PCs come?
When I say full-featured, don't mean Internet tablets, like the Nokia N800, or PDAs (personal digital assistants), such as Palm's Foleo mobile companion. No, what I wanted to see were real desktops or laptops that I could fit into a coat pocket. Here's what I found.
The Mini koobox comes in at 6.5 by 6.5 by 2 inches and weighs 3.0 pounds. Mine sits right next to my older-model 1.42GHz PowerPC Mac mini, and while the color schemes are different, they could otherwise be identical twins.
The koobox has an Intel Celeron-M 370 1.5GHz processor and 512MB of DDR2 RAM. To store data, it has a 5,400-rpm 40GB hard drive and a slip-in slot for the combo CD/RW and DVD drive.
The box also includes on-board 10/100M-bps Ethernet, a pair of USB 2.0 ports and a single IEEE 1394 (Firewire) port. For audio it includes standard RCA speaker-out and microphone-in ports.
Its video selection is a bit unusual. Instead of a standard video port, it gives you the choice of an S-Video port, suitable for driving standard 480i television, and a DVI-D (Digital Video Interface Digital) port. DVI can be used for HDTV (high-definition TV), but in that market it's being replaced by HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface). The koobox includes a VGA adapter, since only some high-end monitors include DVI ports. While I'd tend to use the koobox as an easy-to-place Linux PC, I can see how a homebrew techie might want to use it as an Apple TV or other media-extender replacement.
The koobox comes in a variety of configurations, with prices ranging from $399 to $799.
When you look at a koobox, you can easily figure out that you're looking at a PC. The decTOP is another matter. In fact, chances are you'd be hard-pressed at first glance to figure out exactly what the decTOP is.
The decTOP started life in 2004 when Advanced Micro Devices introduced it as the Personal Internet Communicator. AMD tried to sell it as an Internet appliance, but it never went much of anywhere. So AMD killed that line, but then along came Data Evolution Corp., a mobile computing vendor, which rebranded it as the decTOP. Under the new name, the device can run either Linux or Windows CE 5.0. However, DEC said it is "committed to enabling open-source development for the decTOP."
Today, you can run decTOP as a stand-alone Linux PC or as a thin client. It is a fan-less design with a tightly sealed, rugged, two-piece aluminum case. Data Evolution claims the device is "virtually impermeable to dust and rugged enough to be used in environments normally found in developing regions of the world but which would be inhospitable to other computing devices." The two-piece enclosure can be opened and snapped together easily, facilitating assembly and maintenance.
While it's no OLPC (One Laptop per Child), it just might be what you need if your job calls for you to rough it. With dimensions of 8.5 by 5.5 by 2.5 inches, it's bigger than the Mini koobox, but it weighs about the same. The lack of a fan and its tiny power consumption—8 watts—make it a good choice for carrying out into the field.
The decTOP uses a 366MHz AMD Geode GX processor and 128MB of SDRAM. For storage it uses a 10GB 3.5-inch hard drive. To talk to the outside world it includes 10/100M-bps Ethernet and a 56K-bps fax/modem.
The decTOP comes with four USB 1.1 ports (two in the front and two in the rear), a standard VGA port and video that can support resolutions up to 1,600 by 1,200 at pixels at 85Hz, and AC'97 audio with stereo in/out jacks.
If you're handy, you can upgrade the system on your own to a bigger hard drive and up to 512MB of RAM. Thanks to the USB ports, you can also install your own Linux of choice. For example, here's a solid description of how to install Ubuntu 6.06 on the system.
For $99 plus shipping, the decTOP might be just the tiny PC, or even baby server, that you need.
Of course, when it comes to small Linux laptops, it's hard to beat Asus' forthcoming Eee PC, or 3ePC. This sub-subnotebook measures 6 by 6.5 by 1.3 inches and hits the scales at 2 pounds. The 3ePC has a 7-inch, 800-by-480-pixel display.
After those details, things get a little foggy. Linux fans have been chomping at the bit to get their hands on it, but its shipping date has slipped, and no one really knows even now what its hardware specifications are. We think it will be based on an Intel "Dothan" Celeron M, clocked at 900MHz, have 256MB or 512MB of RAM, and 2GB or 4GB of flash storage instead of a hard drive.
Its I/O (input/output) includes 10/100 Ethernet, a 56K-bps modem, 802.11b/g Wi-Fi and "hi-definition" audio I/O. In addition, the device has built-in stereo speakers and a 300K-pixel video camera. A four-cell, 2s2p (two-in-series, two-in-parallel) 5200mAh battery will provide a claimed 3 hours of battery life.
For its operating system, the 3ePC will be running Xandros with a KDE interface. Xandros can run on systems with as little as 128MB of RAM, so it would seem to be a good pick for this tiny laptop.
Its maker still hasn't given us a final price. It appears nearly certain now though that it will run around $250 instead of less than $200.
But, as small as these PCs are, the current tiniest of the tiny would seem to be fit-PC. Made by CompuLab, an Israeli company, the fit-PC is based on the company's CM-iGLX computer-on-module. The company claims it's the smallest LX800-based single-board computer around. With dimensions of 4.7 by 4.6 by 1.6 inches—think paperback book--they may be right.
The fit-PC uses a 500MHz AMD Geode LX800 processor and is equipped with 256MB of DDR RAM and up to 512MB of flash memory. It also has a 40GB hard drive, two USB 2.0 ports, a VGA connector, audio jacks and an RJ-11 jack. There's no modem behind the RJ-11 port, but you could use it as an RS-232 port for a terminal. The PC also has two audio jacks. Somehow, they manage to stuff all this in there without a fan.
The company officially sells the system with Gentoo Linux. Friends of mine who have gotten them recently, however, report that the fit-PC is now coming with Ubuntu Linux. At a cost of $285, this is a steal for an Ubuntu system.
You might be wondering, considering how slow these processors are and their minimal amounts of RAM, if you can really run Linux on them. The answer is yes, you sure can.
I own a koobox, and I've used a decTOP and fit-PC. Each is more than capable of running Linux, Firefox, Thunderbird for e-mail and OpenOffice all at the same time. I wouldn't try running more than four or five applications at once on these systems, but I think most users will that find any of them works extremely well for day-in, day-out home and office use. They really are remarkable.
Is this as small as PCs can get? No, they're going to get smaller still. Tolapai, Intel's forthcoming Pentium M-powered SOC (system-on-chip), will make even matchbox-sized PCs possible.
With a Pentium M core clocked between 600MHz and 1.2GHz, the first Tolapai chips integrate components traditionally found in PC Northbridges and Southbridges--a GPU (graphics processing unit), external memory and storage controllers, and peripheral interfaces such as USB and Ethernet. With literally everything you need for a PC on a single SOC, how small could a PC get?
The new tiny PCs probably won't be a lot smaller than the fit-PC, simply because you need room for the ports, but shirt-pocket computers and full-powered laptops no bigger than the remarkable NEC Ultralites of the late '80s are coming.
Since I, for one, would kill to have a 21st century Ultralite with Linux, I'm looking forward to the day when I can have as many computers on my desk as I currently have in my entire office and lab: 24. Sound impossible? It's not only possible, it's coming.
Today's minitowers are going to be replaced by hardback-book-sized PCs. By 2010, we're going to be looking at today's 6- and 7-pound laptops with the same amazement as we now look at the KayPro II, the Osborne and the other first-generation luggable computers. The day of the mini-Linux desktop is coming, and it's coming soon.
—Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
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