Hardware Review: Lini Desktop
I occasionally read that one of the major PC vendors, such as Dell or HP, is coming out with some sort of Linux box. Similarly, I read statements from Linux enthusiasts hoping for such an event, so that Linux on the desktop really will take off. My bias is slightly different. I note the vendors such as SW Technology Los Alamos Computers, Open Sense Computing and many others who have thrown in their lot with Linux and subscribe to some sort of open-source philosophy. These are the sorts of vendors from whom I prefer to buy. I would be sorry to see the giants in the industry overwhelm these little guys, who are much more likely to share my Linux enthusiasm.
In fact, over the years I have ordered product from each of the three vendors mentioned above and was quite satisfied. This particular review concerns the relatively new Lini computer from Open Sense Solutions. My purchase occurred early enough that my system was considered something of a beta unit. The vendor was not informed that I would write a review, so product configuration and customer support were not skewed.
The Lini is a small form factor (SFF) computer, with a reasonable selection of standard features, including:
AMD Athlon 64 800MHz FSB Processor
Socket 754 VIA K8M800 Micro ATX Motherboard
PC 3200 400 MHz 184-Pin DDR SDRAM
Western Digital 80GB SATA hard drive
NEC DVD+-R/W drives
Integrated Flash card reader
Realtek Ethernet controller, RTL-8139/8139C/8139C+
On-board S3 graphics
On-board AC97 sound
I ordered the basic unit with two enhancements, a memory upgrade to 1GB of RAM and an Atheros wireless 802.11abg card. Expectedly, sound and graphics upgrades are available, as well as other upgrades and options, but my needs in those areas were met with the basic unit.
The Lini comes in a 7.9" (H) x 10.6" (W) x 13.2" Aria case made by Antec. Among the most attractive selling points of the Lini are these:
SFF, allowing some efficient rearrangement of my tiny office space
Wireless card, avoiding some wire clutter in that same office space
Micro ATX Motherboard, suggesting an available path for upgrade that is somewhat vendor neutral, unlike many slightly smaller SFF boxes
Supposed quiet operation
I already had a decent LCD flat panel and therefore needed no monitor. The price for all this was $749, with no shipping charge for a beta release.
The Lini comes with the Ubuntu distribution installed. I prefer KDE to GNOME and was told by the vendor that KDE would be available at boot. I asked that Ubuntu be installed in a partition of about 20GB, leaving about 60GB of space in which I could install other distributions.
Ubuntu is provided as either a 64-bit compilation or a 32-bit compilation. The latter is more mature in terms of supported applications, so I chose the 32-bit version to avoid any extraneous issues. I can install a 64-bit version at some later point.
The box appeared at my home in a timely manner. Unpacking revealed only one minor quality control glitch--the top of the case was not seated properly. Loosening a convenient knurled nut allowed me to slide the top out and reseat it easily. The package also included various manuals, CDs and the install/live DVD for Ubuntu 5.04. The latter is accessed by the Debian package manager GUI, synaptic, for the addition of further software.
Upon boot, the X configuration failed to accommodate my LCD monitor, leaving me in console mode. I didn't address this problem directly, but went on to install my current favorite Linux distribution, Libranet 3.0. Like Ubuntu, Libranet is derived from Debian. The hard drive was partitioned per my request, so there was space to give Libranet its own 20GB partition. Libranet installed fine except for its inability to deal with the Atheros 802.11abg wireless card.
Next, I copied /etc/xorg.conf from the Libranet partition to the Ubuntu partition and rebooted. Ubuntu's X configuration now was happy, so I got a login screen. However, there was no KDE choice--another quality control glitch--and I was presented with the GNOME desktop instead. This was easily rectified by firing up synaptic and installing the KDE desktop.
At this point, it was time to start investigating the hardware. I tried the following components:
USB headphones (for VOIP)
USB Kangaru hard drive
SD card reader slot of integrated Flash card reader
Wired and wireless Ethernet
and everything I tried worked fine. I have yet to try absolutely everything, but nearly so.
I had some problems configuring my remote printer, but that's a well-known upstream problem with the CUPS configuration interface, seemingly intended for experts. I'm sure the CUPS developers find the interface to be intuitive, but I do not. Configuration choices made successfully on earlier CUPS releases were no longer viable, but eventually I stumbled upon a configuration such that remote printing worked.
Another upstream problem is that OpenOffice.org uses A4 paper as the default option, and how to change that to US letter is not readily apparent. A little Googling, however, led me to a simple, albeit hidden, solution.
I next wanted to get the wireless going under Libranet. The Atheros works with the madwifi driver, which is not provided with the kernel. Plenty of information for the driver is available on the Web, perhaps some that provides clear instructions for driver installation. However, because the Ubuntu installation as configured by the Lini vendor worked fine, I decided to test customer service at Open Sense Solutions. I fired off an e-mail and received an answer the same day. The instructions referenced in that answer were clear and they worked. Now I can boot into two fully functional alternatives, Ubuntu--essentially Kubunutu now--or Libranet.
Remember, my system was something of a beta release, purchased in late May and arriving, as promised, on June 9. The few quality control issues were minor and easily rectified. I've used the Lini more or less daily since it arrived. I would say that my satisfaction would be 100% except for one issue. It's not as quiet as hoped. In fact, it's louder than my machine at work. I should not that I typically get to work before 6:30 AM, so there is no ambient noise to mask the noise level of that work machine. I mentioned this to the vendor, and it's an area the company may address in the future with a more expensive and quieter CPU cooling fan. Other than the above caveat, I recommend both this machine and this vendor.
Richard Sevenich is a Professor of Computer Science at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, WA.