I grunted when lifting Stratitec’s CPUBuilders mini-tower PC out of its shipping box — not because it was heavy — far from it. I was expecting a hefty load, only to find that the CBS324LC model must literally be the least massive system I’ve ever encountered. Yet despite the trim appearance of the chassis and the absence of leaden components inside the tower, the Athlon-based PC is no computational featherweight. In fact, it’s very well suited to the high-end of the home or small-office/ home-office (SOHO) mass market.
First, the hardware. The base system delivered to Linux Magazine consisted of the minitower chassis, an AMD Athlon XP, one 256 MB DIMM (there are two sockets), two 33 MHz 32-bit PCI slots (one containing a modem), a 10/100 Ethernet jack, four USB jacks on the back, and ports for keyboard, video, mouse, serial, parallel, and video. There was also a 1.44 MB floppy, a 40 GB IDE hard drive, and a cool, multi-function media reader that can directly accommodate four types of digital-camera memory: CompactFlash, SmartMedia, SecureDigital, and Sony Memory Stick. The system I tested had a 52X CD-ROM drive, but the company also offers versions with CD-RW drives — a must-have for everyone but the most basic user.
The CBS324LC is no high-end workstation, but the Athlon XP 2200+ microprocessor, which runs at 1.8 GHz, is right up there with Intel’s desktop Pentium 4 processors. And the price of the system, just $349.99, is exceptional.
For software, the CPUBuilders-brand PCs include their own distribution of Linux called Linux for Everyone.
The version on my test system was based on the 2.4 kernel, and included the GNOME suite and numerous applications.
Linux for Everyone also included a home-grown hardware and software configuration manager called Cognitio that can automatically update the installed applications and drivers to more recent configurations from the CPUBuilders’ web site, and also takes care of identifying and configuring USB and network devices.
The company tries to make the system friendly to novice Linux users: there’s an eight-page document explaining how to make the transition from Windows to Linux. It would have been better if they included some book recommendations or some heftier documentation.
The system proved to be quite easy to use and work with, other than an initial boot where the X server failed and I was left at the command line. Cognitio can’t help you here!
Fortunately, once past that experience, the system worked like a champ. Cognitio (sounds like a character from the X-Men, doesn’t it?) did a nice job downloading recent fixes and patches. I tried the media reader with a CompactFlash card from my Canon camera, and it mounted it without any problems whatsoever.
Bottom Line: Buy
This system — offered for sale from CPUBuilders directly and from retailers like Sam’s Club — makes a fine first home computer for someone who needs a basic PC, or serves well as a second computer for someone who already has a high-end workstation but needs another CPU for the family.
You certainly can’t beat the price for the performance.
SUMMARY: A great price for an Athlon XP-based Linux desktop. It’s easy-to-use, and has the right software and features for someone with a modicum of Linux experience, but who isn’t looking for a power-user’s computer.
PRICE: $349.99 (as tested, with Athlon XP 2200+ processor, 256 MB RAM, 40 GB IDE hard drive, and 52X CD-ROM drive).
RATING: Three penguins
PROS: Speedy Athlon XP processor is up there with the Pentium 4; good storage and expandability for the price; hardware/software configuration utilities work well; light enough that anyone can carry it around.
CONS: Who wants a PC without a CD-RW drive?; front-mounted USB ports would be nice; documention is very limited, and doesn’t handle troubleshooting X.
BOTTOM LINE: Buy
Alan Zeichick is principal analyst at Camden Associates. You can reach Alan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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