September 8, 2006

Review: Linspire Mini Koobox

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

A few weeks ago, I finally got my hands on a Linux-based Koobox Mini PCs. The Mini is a full PC in a very small, quiet package, and well worth a look.

Linspire sent me the top-of-the-line Koobox, which includes a Pentium M 725 1.6GHz CPU, 512MB of RAM, slot-loading DVD/CD-RW drive, two USB 2.0 ports, one IEEE 1394 (FireWire) port, a 60GB hard drive, DVI video out, and 10/100 Ethernet. The video and chipset is an Intel 915GM that uses 8MB of shared memory, so you actually have 504MB of dedicated system memory. The sound chipset is also from Intel, and the system has one line-in and one line-out port for audio -- so the system sound is OK, but you're not going to have surround sound or anything like that.

The system itself is 6.5 inches square and about 2.25 inches in height -- about the size of a very fat greeting card -- and it's very, very quiet. I couldn't hear the unit at all, except when inserting or ejecting a CD or DVD; the slot-loading drive is a bit noisy when kicking out discs, though not when playing discs or burning CDs.

The CD-RW drive is a Matshita UJ-845S, which is detected by the system as a DVD-R drive. From what I've found on Google, it's actually a DVD-RAM drive -- a category that isn't widely used anymore. It burns CDs just fine, but it doesn't seem to actually handle DVD-Rs, even though it's labeled as such on the desktop.

The system doesn't include a monitor, though you can purchase a monitor through the Koobox site as well.

Using the Mini

I covered the Linspire OS pretty thoroughly when I wrote about the Multimedia Koobox back in March, so I won't spend too much time going over the advantages and disadvantages of the operating system. However, I ran into a few issues while testing the machine's performance that I think are worth mentioning.

To test the FireWire port, I plugged in an HFS+ formatted external FireWire drive that I used to store MP3s from my iMac. I've used it before with an Ubuntu machine, and Ubuntu read it just fine, but Linspire doesn't seem to have HFS+ support compiled into the kernel. The Mini could "see" the drive, but couldn't do anything with it.

I was also disappointed to note that the Linspire folks don't have anything set up to handle iPods. When I connect my iPod to my Ubuntu laptop, Rhythmbox pops up and I can listen to the MP3s stored on the player. No dice on Linspire, though.

Since the system includes a DVI out connector, the first monitor I tried to use with Linspire was a Dell FPW2005, 20.1-inch widescreen monitor capable of 1680x1050 resolution. I had no luck getting Linsprire to recognize the monitor, and it kept defaulting to a much lower resolution. I had better luck with a 17-inch LCD monitor, which runs at 1280x1024, using the DVI-VGA adapter included with the system.

Finally, I installed Ogle using CNR to see how well this system plays DVDs. Since I didn't feel like paying for the privilege of watching encrypted DVDs with PowerDVD, I tested the DVD playback using an unencrypted DVD with The Power of Nightmares, which I was given at LinuxWorld. Every time I tried to play the DVD using Ogle, it would load the DVD menu fine, then promptly crash when I tried to start the movie. I thought it might be a problem with the DVD, but it plays fine in my home DVD player, in Kaffeine on my Ubuntu machine -- and even works fine using the MPlayer-based KPlayer on Linspire. Once I finally got the DVD playing, I was pleased with the quality of playback on the Mini. When I tested DVD playback on the Multimedia Koobox, it was very choppy -- but the playback on the Mini was smooth and watchable.

In fact, I was pretty pleased with the Mini's performance overall. I installed a couple of games using CNR -- Quake II and Armagetron -- and they ran quite well. Granted, both games are a lot more lightweight than some more current popular games, such as Quake 4 and Doom 3, but this isn't really meant to be a gaming system. For basic desktop use and light games that run on Linux, the Mini should be fine.

I also tested the performance of productivity apps such as OpenOffice.org and the Mozilla Suite, and they're also acceptable. OpenOffice.org does take a while to load, but that's not unusual; OpenOffice.org is slow to load on my Athlon 64 system as well.

The Koobox Mini line is priced from $499 to $649, with a $100 mail-in rebate available. Of course, the pricing is shown with the rebate already applied on the Koobox site, which is a bit deceptive. Since the rebate has to be processed by mail, you can assume it will be weeks to months before you actually get the $100 back -- and that's assuming you actually follow through with processing the rebate and nothing is lost in the mail.

At $649, the high-end Mini is a bit more expensive than Apple's comparable Mac mini, which runs $599 and includes built-in Bluetooth 2.0 and an AirPort card -- but whether those features work under Linux is another story.

If you want a mini-PC form factor that's Linux-compatible, the Mini Koobox seems to be one of the best values on the market. It's small and quiet, and its performance is fine for normal desktop use. I might recommend ditching Linspire and installing a different distro once it's in your hands, but if small is your thing, I'd recommend picking up a Mini.

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