August 19, 2008

Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Author: Dmitri Popov

A shift from multi-core power-gobbling monsters toward whisper-quiet systems with single-digit power consumption is rippling through the desktop market. This trend plays right into the hands of a Paris-based company called Linutop, which offers a miniature Linux-based desktop system. The latest version of the machine appeals to customers who are in the market for a machine with green credentials and low maintenance costs. After testing one myself, I found the tiny desktop has a lot going for it.

Linutop arrived in a tiny box that is even smaller than the Mac mini packaging. The contents of the box are refreshingly minimal: a Linutop unit, a power supply, and a power cord. There are no printed manuals, quick start guides, backup DVDs, or other paraphernalia. But you probably won't miss that stuff anyway: the information necessary for setting up and configuring the machine is available on Linutop's Web site, and if you want to back up your system software, you can do it using Linutop's own software utility.

Despite its minute size (the machine measures 14x14x3.5cm or about 5.5x5.5x1.4in and weighs only 580g), Linutop is built like a tank. Its case is made of aluminum and feels like it could withstand a drop from a skyscraper. While Linutop's design won't win any awards, it's highly functional, and the aluminum case painted black gives it a bit of industrial chic. The front panel sports four USB ports, a teensy speaker, plus microphone and audio-out jacks. On the back of the machine you'll find another audio-out jack, an Ethernet port, and a VGA connector.

Underneath Linutop's aluminum skin beats an AMD Geode LX800 processor running at 500MHz. According to the manufacturer, its performance is roughly comparable to a 800MHz Pentium III. The use of this low-voltage embedded processor means that Linutop consumes only 8W of power, making it one of the greenest desktop machines on the market. The processor is backed by 512MB RAM, which can be upgraded to 1GB. Instead of a conventional hard disk, Linutop sports 1GB of flash memory, 600MB of which is used for the system software. This leaves only 400MB for user-installed applications. That's not a lot, but Linutop is designed to perform just a few specific tasks, such as Web browsing, light word processing, and media playback. Since the machine doesn't contain any moving parts (the processor is cooled passively) it makes no noise at all, which makes it a perfect choice for noise-sensitive environments like living rooms, libraries, and museums.

The machine runs its own Linutop OS, which is essentially a slightly tweaked version of Xubuntu 8.04. The main addition is a video driver for the on-board video module of the Geode LX processor. The system also includes the custom Linutop Setup utility, which pops up when you start the machine for the first time and lets you configure the system. You can use the utility to choose the desired language and keyboard layout, configure network settings, and back up the system software. The latter utility allows you to create a bootable USB stick with the system software, and you can use it to run Linutop off it. Linutop doesn't have a built-in wireless card, but it had no problems detecting the D-Link DWL-G122 wireless USB dongle without any manual tweaking. If Linutop fails to detect an external wireless device, the Windows Wireless Drivers utility under the Applications -> System menu provides an easy way to enable the device using its Windows driver.

By default, Linutop OS acts as a single-user system with root access. You can, however, switch the system to an unprivileged mode using the Linutop Lock feature accessible through the Linutop Setup tool. If you don't fancy the default OS, you can use another Linux distro on the machine; for me, Linutop had no problem running the latest release of Puppy Linux.

The system comes with a few key productivity applications preinstalled, such as Firefox 3.0, OpenOffice.org 2.4 (sans Java Runtime Environment and the Base application), the VLC media player, and the Pidgin messaging application. In the Applications menu, you'll also find the Orage calendar utility, the GQview graphics viewer, and the Adobe Flash Player. Firefox comes with the Flash plugin preinstalled, and while surfing the Web on Linutop is not particularly fast, the unit played YouTube movies without a hitch.

Linutop has a lot going for it: solid build quality, adequate software bundle, extremely low power consumption, and the easy-to-use configuration utility. With its €280 (approx. $435) price tag, Linutop is not the cheapest machine out there, but the money buys you one of the smallest and greenest computers on the market.

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