Giada Slim-N20

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I've put everything from a full-tower PC to a homemade embedded mini-ITX computer in our living room connected to our television. They've all done their jobs, but nothing has looked as sleek as the Slim-N20.
User Experience

I won't go into very much detail regarding the N20's user experience as a desktop machine. I do wish it had a few more USB ports, but apart from that, it's a surprisingly zippy little machine, especially considering it's a Nettop. Where this unit really shines, however, is in the living room.

With all major connectors in the back, the N20 hides the fact that it's a computer very well. With normal operation (and digital audio), the top panel never needs to be opened. The only thing visible from the front is the very thin (less than 1") profile and the cool LED power/activity button.

The N20 is also quiet—very quiet. Even when churning out 1080p video, the unit never was audible, even during quiet scenes in the movie. The trade-off for such quiet operation is that it does get a little warm when under a load, but even that isn't worrisome. It gets warm to the touch, but never hot.

The included remote works. It's not great, and it's basically a Windows Media Center remote, but because the MCE remotes are so popular, XBMC and other programs can deal with its awkward layout fine. The volume buttons also work with the Ubuntu desktop, which makes it possible to turn the volume up and down with a single button push, which is nice if your keyboard doesn't have multimedia keys.

One last note about the desktop experience—the unit I was shipped came with Ubuntu 10.04 installed, and it was stock. There were no strange interfaces, awkward menu systems or branded splash screens. It was just plain Ubuntu, which suits most users just fine. Giada, thank you for not forcing your logo down our throats at every boot.

The Good

The only thing about this Nettop that excited me before doing this review was that it had the ION2 video chipset. I was fairly certain it would allow programs like XBMC to play just about any video I threw at it, and my suspicions were happily confirmed. What I wasn't expecting was how nice this little computer looks. It's amazingly thin and designed with subtlety in mind. Generally, Apple does the best job of making a computer look like a fashion accessory, but I must admit, the Slim-N20 looks great next to my television.

When you add the impressive desktop performance, the N20 really did surprise me. It's not a workhorse by any means, but for a unit smaller than most thin clients, it makes for a quite tolerable user experience. If you do a lot of video rendering or hard-core compiling, I'm sure the small CPU will frustrate you. For many users who would consider a Nettop in the first place, however, the N20 is fun. Because the components are very Linux-friendly, installing a replacement distribution shouldn't be a problem either. I reviewed only the included Ubuntu install (well, I used XBMC Live for the living room), but I would expect no problems with other distros.

The Bad

The limited number of USB ports is a bit frustrating, considering a keyboard and mouse take up the only two exposed ports in the back. Flipping open the top panel to access the combo USB/eSATA port isn't the end of the world, but at least one additional port on the front would be welcomed. My unit also didn't auto-detect that I was trying to use HDMI instead of VGA. That's not a showstopper, but it was annoying when I tried to hook it to my television.

The included remote, although nice, obviously was designed for Windows Media Center. I know the Slim-N20 also ships with Windows, but the MCE remotes are so awful, I wish they would have an alternative for those of us not interested in Windows (Figure 5). The remote also feels cheap, in stark contrast to the very sturdy feeling of the computer itself. Buying an additional remote is a possibility, but there's always the chance it won't work with the infrared receiver and so on. Plus, buying an additional remote would add to the price, which brings me to my next point.

Figure 5. On the left is a standard Windows MCE remote and on the right is the remote that comes with the N20. They're very similar.

The Ugly

The Slim-N20 is expensive. There's really no way to claim it's not. It's arguable that the features and design make it worth the $450, but only if you really value asthetics. You certainly could get a more powerful desktop machine for the money, but it wouldn't be nearly as nice sitting in your living room. If things like power usage, case design, quiet performance and beauty are important to your purchase, the Slim-N20 won't let you down. If you're just looking for a Nettop device to browse the Web and e-mail your grandparents, you might be happier with a cheaper model.

______________________

Shawn Powers is an Associate Editor for Linux Journal. You might find him chatting on the IRC channel, or Twitter

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