At long last after some delays I have finally received my new nettop and can now start properly experimenting with a device so quiet it can be used in the living room without the interruptions of noisy fans and overheating hardware. If you haven't heard of nettops then that might all be about to change. These are the desktop equivalent of netbooks. Small, with restricted power but good enough for internet surfing and doing your email. They typically use less electricity than their full size counterparts, and can be quite cheap to purchase if you avoid the Windows versions. The arrival of the Nvidia ION platform to these devices has meant that many new options have become possible such as building media centers or set top boxes.
One of the first nettops to be marketed was the EEE Box by Asus who also pioneered the netbook market. This class of devices typically have much less processing power than their desktop siblings so consequently can run much quieter and often are much smaller often resembling slightly resembling games consoles. This quietness and small form factor makes then an idea candidate for use as a living room device that can do things like store your music collection and pipe podcasts straight from the Internet onto your TV, the Boxee software is ideal for this. The NVidia ION platform is interesting here, as it aims to compensate for the low processing power of the device by using the graphics processor to handle such tasks as decompressing video files (if supported by the player application – one notable piece of software that does not currently support hardware decompression at the moment is Adobe Flash), a task which if done in software can be very processor intensive, but in hardware can be done much more efficiently which should avoid noisy fan activity. It also supports High Definition video formats.
One of the first systems to offer the NVidia ION platform is the Acer Aspire Revo, a small unit measuring just 18x18x3cm that features a lot of connectivity. You can can connect it to your TV through the HDMI socket which will deliver pictures at proper high definition resolutions. It also has six USB sockets, a VGA socket, an SD card reader and wireless and wired network connectivity. Once strange thing about the system though is that there is no line out socket, sound only goes through the HDMI connection or the headphones socket, which is something that might limit potential uses for the machine. I went for the Linux version, which is sold with 1GB of RAM and an 8GB solid state disc for £149 (about US $245) here in the UK. Interestingly the machine that turned up actually had a 160GB non solid state hard disc, which was unexpected but a bonus. You also get a mouse and keyboard as well. You can also get a Windows Vista version for an additional £100, but I'm not sure you would want to run that on such a platform.
It is difficult to track down hardware sometimes that comes with Linux, and when it does (with the notable exception of Dell) it tends to be a version that is difficult to upgrade and not fantastic to use (I think many of you will know what I'm referring to, if you don't it's Xandros), so I wasn't sure what I was going to get with this, but that wasn't a problem as I intended to install Ubuntu on it and use it as a Boxee box. To add to the confusion the Acer UK website (as at the time of writing) says the Linux version of the box comes with Ubuntu, but then goes on to say it comes with Linpus Linux. When it arrived it didn't have either.
Instead it came with a version of Splashtop Linux, which is meant as a restricted fast boot distribution that you would use just to do things like quickly check the Internet, make a Skype call etc. It did have Flash Player installed in the version of Firefox used, which was a pleasant surprise. However, none of this resulted in any sound through the HDMI connection to my TV for some reason so it was not a lot of use really, which is a shame. So there did not appear to be a proper operating system on it, maybe Acer were expecting that it would be bought by enthusiasts that would customise the machine to their own requirements? This may well have a lot of truth to it, but it is a shame that Ubuntu isn't supplied on such machines as a default as it could deliver a first class experience to users and allow them to make full use of the the capabilities of the machine.
The other surprise was something called the “Acer Aspire Revo Build system” which was also supplied. I should mention here that the unit didn't come with much in the way of printed documentation other than a quick start guide and one or two other bits, but no information about what was on the machine. However there was documentation in PDF format on the actual machine which explained that this was “a simple highly integrated GUI based utility to help you quick install the Microsoft Windows operating system” and went on to ask you for a Windows product key (I know, a product key, if you are mainly using free software you might have forgotten about these!). When I came to installing Ubuntu on the machine later on I noticed that there were partitions already set up, two of 2GB and one of 4GB in size and the rest was unpartitioned. This made me wonder if the Windows Vista installation files were on the disc? It would also look like the design was not adjusted for the larger disc. Fortunately this is all quite easy to sort out.
I have now installed Ubuntu and Boxee on the unit and removed all of the software that was there before. This proved to be not quite as straightforward a task as I would have hoped (as anybody following me on twitter might have noticed), probably due to how new the hardware designs are. However it can be done and I'll detail the steps needed in my next blog post. The machine itself though is excellent, it is well designed, in the shape of a parallelogram which gives it a fun and unusual look and astonishingly quiet, even when the unit is working hard. The plastic stand it comes with could be better, however it does come with a mounting bracket so you could bolt it on to the back of your TV making it an ideal unit to deliver the sound and video of the web to your living room.