If you think that a desktop PC has to be big, noisy and expensive -- think again. Linutop shows that it pays to seriously diminish your size expectations with its tiny, energy-efficient Linux-based PC.
Smaller than a CD drive and selling for $440, the Linutop 2 is powered by a 500-MHz AMD Geode LX800 processor. The system comes with 512MB of system memory and 1GB of flash memory storage, of which 400MB is available for use. Without a fan, it is eerily quiet to use, but the system keeps its cool.
Minimalist in the extreme, the Linutop 2 doesn't come with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth or an optical drive. There's room to add a 2.5-in. hard drive inside, but the only item that's really meant to be upgraded is system memory; it can hold up to 1GB. The whole thing weighs just 1.25 pounds, allowing you to do something that few other PCs can: Velcro it to the back of a LCD monitor or, with Linutop's $55 adapter, screw it in place.
Don't expect anything more than basic connections. The system comes with four USB ports; microphone, headphone and line-out ports; a wired Ethernet networking port; and an external monitor port. Although the Linutop 2's graphics have neither dedicated video memory nor 3-D acceleration, the system is fine for general use and can accommodate displays up to 1,920-by-1,440 pixel resolution.
The Linutop 2 worked well with a 19-in. Dell LCD screen, and I was able to connect it to a projector, external hard drive, memory key, DVD, printer and USB hub. I also tried it successfully with two sets of wired keyboards/mice and a set of wireless ones as well.
On the downside, the system only works with three Wi-Fi devices: Linksys' Compact Wireless-G USB Adapter (model WUSB54GC), Netgear's RangeMax Wireless USB 2.0 Adapter (model WPN-111) and the TP-LINK TL-WN321G Wireless USB Adapter.
Software is Linutop 2's strongest suit. It comes with Ubuntu Linux 8.04 (a.k.a. Hardy Heron), Open Office 2.4 and enough utilities to work well out of the box. In five minutes, I was nosing around the Web, playing YouTube videos, listening to Internet radio and viewing Adobe Acrobat files. Plus, the system can use and save in Microsoft Office.doc,.xls,.ppt and other popular formats.
In two weeks of daily use, the system worked remarkably well, showing that less can be more. I could open and use as many as five applications at a time. The system was able to open an image-rich PDF file with charts and complicated formatting in 15.2 seconds -- 20% faster than it took me to open the same file with a Windows XP-based Dell Optiplex 740 PC that was twice as expensive.
For those watching the bottom line (and who isn't, these days?) the Linutop 2 consumes only 11.9 watts, about the power draw of a child's night light and one-fifth that of my Dell desktop. In other words, over the course of a year of general business or personal use, it would probably cost less than $4 in electricity, saving you about $15 a year.
Shipped from Paris, the Linutop 2 costs $440 plus $40 for delivery and arrives in about a week. Linutop 2 will never be a performance PC for video editing, CAD or gaming, but is perfect for most office and personal uses that don't require Windows software. Neither too big, nor too small, Linutop 2 is just right.
Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine. A 25-year veteran of technology journalism, his work has appeared in Popular Science, PC Magazine and Fortune.