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Fit-PC2: Ubuntu Desktop In A Tiny Box

I have been working with the Plug Computer for a while now and have first hand experience with the diminutive size of the current crop of nano Linux machines. The latest Compulab Fit-PC2 offering carries on that fine tradition of micro-miniaturization.

The Fit-PC2 has an Intel Atom Z530 processor running at 1.6 GHz, 1 GB of RAM, an Intel GMA500 graphics chipset with hardware acceleration and a 160 GB SATA drive. It also sports Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11g wifi, 6 USB 2.0 ports, and runs on 12 volts at 1.5 amps. Physical dimensions (without the little power brick) are 1 1/8" (27 mm) x 4 1/2" (115 mm) x 4" (101mm). See Figure 1 for a typical desktop configuration.

Saying the unit is compact is an understatement. The outside of the box states that the Fit-PC2 is ideal as a home theater PC, for security and home automation, as a desktop replacement, as a thin client, as a 24/7 server, or as a car PC. That's good, but would the tiny machine measure up?

Let's take a look.

What You Get Out Of The Box

All the essential goodies were included and the whole works (including most cables) came in a box about the size of a hard-bound paperback. Interestingly, the company shipped the thing in a plastic FedEx shipping envelope. They must think it is a pretty solid product.

The front panel has the usual power button, a mini SD slot, an infra-red port, two mini USB connectors and several LED indicators. The back panel has the power connector, wifi antenna & LAN connectors, audio jacks, four USB slots, and the DVI connector.

Yes... I said DVI connector. That fact held me up for a couple of days, as I pondered how I could get around paying $30 for a three-foot long DVI to DVI cable. Ouch! Now that I'm freelancing again, I'm back to being notoriously cheap. Best Buy had a special on six-foot lengths, for the same price. It was also a good thing that I just purchased a new 22" LG LCD TV this last Christmas, because otherwise, I wouldn't have had a monitor to use for testing.

There is also a small power brick, power cord, a DVI to HDMI cable, a rubber ducky wifi antenna, and a couple of mini USB to regular USB cables. A three page instruction sheet rounds out the package. The instructions covered how to hook up the cables, Ubuntu log-in information, and specs. It certainly wasn't comprehensive, but anyone with basic knowledge of Linux can get it running. You can also boot into Windows XP, if you so desire. If you want to attach the Fit-PC2 to the back of your monitor, an aluminum bracket is included for that purpose.

How Does It Work?

A keyboard and mouse need to be installed before boot-up. I thought it might be cool to use the old wireless Gyromouse and keyboard, so that's what I hooked up. Wireless combinations work well with this setup because you can use them from your couch or a table across the room.

The familiar Gnome desktop appeared on the TV/monitor roughly 30 seconds after boot up. The monitor could only support 1440 x 900 resolution, but was very crisp and clear. The Fit's maximum resolution is 1920 x 1080, but I couldn't test it to that level. Make sure your monitor is set for HDMI input. You can get audio from the TV speakers by running a 1/8" stereo to 1/8" stereo cable between the Fit-PC headphone jack and the TV/monitor DVI/audio jack. Don't forget to switch back to component or tuner input if you want to watch a DVD or cable TV.

Since this machine has a full Ubuntu desktop installation, thumbing through the menus was easy, I found all the usual productivity tools. Version 3.0.8 Firefox and Thunderbird (v. 2.0.0.21) were there. OpenOffice.org Writer, Calc, Impress, and Draw were available, albeit version 2.4.1. I also found one rev back versions of the Gimp, the F-Spot photo gallery, and a host of multimedia applications.

DHCP is on by default and the Fit-PC was able to connect to my wifi network, after a little RF magic. The router was about 50 feet away from the Fit-PC, with four or five walls in between. I had to run the power up to maximum on the router. I also used a couple of reflectors behind the antennas. With these tricks I was able to get a good connection and the default network connection app worked fine. Figure 2 shows the Fit-PC2 sitting on my VCR/DVD player with the makeshift aluminum antenna reflector and Gyromouse receiver.

Performance with OpenOffice was good even with several other applications running at once. Definitely usable for creating resumes, articles, spreadsheets, or presentations, with a minimum of waiting.

Originally I had the Fit-PC sitting next to the monitor, in a normal desktop configuration. I noticed after moving the TV/monitor back to it's spot (in an entertainment center) near the VCR/DVD player, that even with a 22" monitor, using the setup as a normal desktop was a little difficult, especially when I was more than five feet away. The text and icons, on the desktop and task bar are small and hard to make out. Now if you were to use a 42" big screen, I think Web browsing, email, and regular letter writing would be much easier, from across the room. You can also just sit closer, when using the smaller TV/monitor.

My kids and I watched a few YouTube videos both in the normal size and full-screen. Normal, as you would expect was usually very clear. Full screen was pretty good, with occasional pixelization and skips. In all fairness, I think the lower quality video was a result of streaming over wifi, rather than performance issues with the processor or graphics chip.

To check the video capabilities further, I downloaded a couple of test files from the Mediacollege Web site. The Shuttle launch video measured 80 MB in size and a 1920x1080i resolution at 29.97 fps. The Shuttle flip video was 10 MB in size with 1280x720p resolution at 29.97 fps. Both played via streaming over wifi, but as you would guess, there were stops, gaps, and starts. After saving both files on the hard disk, I watched the files using MPlayer, VLC, and Totem. Mplayer worked flawlessly, with smooth action and no pixelizing. VLC was second and skipped in a spot or two. Sadly, Totem looked like a slide show. Figure #3 shows a shot of the Shuttle launch using MPLayer and the file on the hard drive. Pretty clear I'd say. Now if you have a nice movie/image/audio server sitting on your home Gigabit network, streaming videos might work pretty well. I don't have that kind of setup right now.

I hooked up an Arduino microcontroller to the Fit-PC2 to see if the serial-USB port and driver were working. You might not want to use this little box strictly as a microcontroller to Web/Internet interface because the $350 estimated price is expensive for that application. Integrating a microcontroller, along with normal desktop functions, might be useful if you wanted to build a cool motor-controlled entertainment center or some type of an animated display device. Push a button and the big screen descends from the ceiling, while your power recliners adjust to your preset specs. Or, perhaps, if you permanently installed a Fit-PC in your car, you could control all the doors, lights, engine, and car status data, through a Web link served up by Apache and PHP. You could even log into your car, when it's parked in the driveway, through SSH. Just some silly thoughts.

Now What?

The Fit-PC2 has an awful lot of potential. It seems like a solid product, that pretty much delivers the goods.

A few things had to be glossed over in this story. Things I tried were installing files via apt-get install and using SSH to remotely log into the box from my ASUS laptop. Apache, PHP, and some audio recording/processing were on the list, but I just couldn't get to them. Judging from everything else I saw, I have every confidence that they would work, as expected.

It is an innovative product with a good combination of size, horsepower, and cost. I'm anxious to see where Compulab takes this market.

This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it is a consultant and freelance technology writer. He is always interested in starting new projects, supporting conferences, and delivering value to his clients. Visit his Web site at http://home.earthlink.net/~robreilly.

 

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