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Feature: Desktop Hardware

Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

By Dmitri Popov on August 19, 2008 (9:00:00 AM)

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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.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, US, German, and Danish computer magazines.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 98.115.64.66] on August 19, 2008 01:08 PM
What is greener, pulling a Pentium III out of the garbage and reusing it, or manufacturing a new one? Also, what is up with this tread from distros and manufactures of enabling root privileges? Lets take one of the best things Linux has (security), and give it the flaws of Windows!!!

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Re: Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 192.168.40.186] on August 25, 2008 03:32 AM
I compeltely agree. "Green PC" is nonsense. Rather than keep existing technology running (where the investment has already been made to manufacture), we toss it into landfills, then expend MUCH MORE energy to build yet another future landfil candidate simply because it uses a little less power during operation? You don't see the energy expended into building the thing in the first place, to mine the minerals out, to manufacture the plastics, the hardware, transport, shipping, which is why the companies doing that can con people into thinking it is a real green alternative. The energy saving would never compensate for the energy expended to make it, if you stick by the standard of upgrading every 2 years or so. Green computing comes from writing new software in a way which doesn't force people to dump perfectly working Pentium III's because they need to buy a new PC to send e-mails and write letters and work on spreadsheets. Hats off to LTSP, now THAT is environmentally friendly computing. Writing software to make old pentiums and even 486's perfectly useful in a modern computing environment, thereby saving them from filling our dumps and leaking all sorts of chemicals and saving us from the necessity of expending more resources to build a brand new system.

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Nearly, but ..

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.192.250.149] on August 19, 2008 01:52 PM
Pity it has only one Ethernet port. If it had 2, it would be a good basis for a firewall machine.

I agree with the earlier post pointing out that making root access the default for a desktop machine is REALLY stupid.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.66.142.60] on August 19, 2008 02:15 PM
Having root rights by default with Linutop is not a problem as only user data (read the home dir) is saved when shutting the Linutop down, a clean system is loaded every time the Linutop boots. This default behaviour can be changed using the configuratio tool.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 71.215.68.25] on August 19, 2008 02:21 PM
Eh. Invest a few dollars more and you get an iMac. I'm not sure I see much value in this, green or no green.

Get a system like this under the $200 price point and I think you might have something on your hands.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.219.2.99] on August 19, 2008 04:11 PM
The Sidewinder returns!

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 75.49.220.27] on August 19, 2008 05:22 PM
The price point is just not there. $485 + lcd + keyboard + mouse + wireless card > $600 which buys a decent lower tier laptop with vastly better specs which can suspend to ram when not in active use, thus saving energy.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 209.217.122.41] on August 19, 2008 06:28 PM
My [relatively inexpensive] laptop has a Core 2 Duo, 2GB of ram, 160GB disk, 13" LCD, full size keyboard, wifi, cdrom, etc, etc. It takes 14W at idle (according to ACPI as read by intel's powertop).

How exactly is an underfeatured, headless, woefully underpowered computer where the CPU alone takes 8W a "green" idea? I could see if the entire box took less than a Watt to get all excited. But honestly, you can drop $500 on this, or $900 [with tax, in Ontario...] on a laptop that is actually a complete computer as opposed to a headless box.

Oh and I run Ubuntu. :-)

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 137.229.96.201] on August 19, 2008 07:26 PM
I agree with most of the rest of the posts -- I don't see what's the attraction. For one, why so expensive for such a low end machine? 1 GB Hard drive space!? 500 Mhz processor!? Why not just buy an eee pc?

And why didn't they put in a wireless card? It would seem like they central purpose of this machine would be to check e-mail and browse the web on the go.

Oh, and I run Mandriva. :-)

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 66.27.181.106] on August 19, 2008 08:59 PM
I'll answer a couple of comments about the CPU - The AMD Geode LS series is a S.o.C System on a chip. That 8 watts they're talking is for the entire system, not just the CPU. Far better Power consumption and performance wise the Geode LX800 is equal to an Athlon Tbird 800 (same CPU design yet far more power efficient).

Now if they boosted flash to 4GB and system ram to 1GB it would be sufficient to run Gentoo (far more configurable).

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 77.49.106.10] on August 20, 2008 06:20 PM
as much i want to like it,it's really too expensive for what it offers..like other guys said,why not just get an eee pc??

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 60.234.206.1] on August 21, 2008 01:18 AM
I like it, a LOT. This is a perfect little system for people who want something VERY lightweight, just need to be able to browse their webmail or access a USB stick etc while travelling and at the same time it uses bugger all power, can never be a broken system unless you break the flash memory and on top of that isn't all that expensive either.

Instead of looking at this as something designed to appeal to everyone look at it as what it is. A VERY small, VERY light, VERY Green system that quite a few people will probably love!

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.252.2.44] on August 21, 2008 11:59 AM
After checking out their website, I was disappointed to see (or more correctly not see) something.

Where is the link for the SOURCE CODE?

This "omission" (and possible GPL violation) is becoming increasingly common with commercial Linux offerings.

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Linutop 2.2: A desktop where smaller is better

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.213.218.195] on August 25, 2008 07:30 PM
I think it needs a little more or less.

More Ram
More HD space
Less price

I could make computer like that at fifty bucks myself. Why over four hundred?

Good idea, bad end result.

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