Proving that Linux is not just for servers, Linux's premiere hardware vendor offers a solid desktop -- for under $1,000.
|Start Me Up: VA’s new Linux desktop.|
VA Linux Systems’ StartX SP Desktop
$917 ($1,027 with Monitor: $1,257 with 128 MB RAM)
Though Linux has received a lot of attention as a server operating system, people are now beginning to think of it as a strong choice for inexpensive desktop systems and Internet appliances as well. In this spirit, longtime Linux vendor VA Linux Systems recently threw its hat in the sub-$1,000 ring with its StartX SP desktop machine.
The machine VA sent us for review was their least expensive model — a $917 400 MHz Celeron processor with 64 MB RAM and a 6.4 GB Quantum Fireball CI hard disk. If you add a 17-inch monitor, the machine just crests the $1,000 mark, costing $1,027.
VA bills the StartX SP as an ideal entry-level configuration for developers and students. And as a first-time Linux desktop, it will fit the bill. The StartX SP is a solid offering from the best-known Linux systems vendor.
One of the nicest features of this box is that most of the ports are identified clearly. Opening it up does require a screwdriver rather than thumbscrews. The layout inside is very clean, with cables tied together well. The motherboard is a custom mini-ATX form factor made for VA. All the serial and other ports are directly attached to the motherboard,unlike the clumsy cable-attached ones in other machines.
We found that the machine’s on/off switch could have been placed in a better location. It’s below the eject button for the CD-ROM and to the right of the eject button for the floppy. If you keep the machine beneath a desk, you may find yourself accidentally switching off the computer as you reach for the CD eject button.
Once plugged in and started up, the system asks for basic information about the network identity of the host and which services to start. Right out of the box it took all of six minutes — at a steady pace — to put it together, set it up, and get it running.
Starting the StartX
By default, the StartX launches into the K Desktop Environment. However, the first application that autostarts is a help window that explains the window environment and how to switch it to GNOME or something else. We decided to stick to KDE and see how well it worked.
VA does a decent job of filling out the software on the system for you. It came preinstalled with not just the KDE applications (kwrite, korganizer, kpackager, kcalendar, killustrator, etc.), but also other useful ones like Emacs, Netscape Communicator, the Gimp and other image editors and viewers, a selection of games, and the X11amp MP3 player. We downloaded StarOffice from Sun and installed it on the machine to fill out the office-productivity applications. Everything here took up less than 2 GB on the 6 GB drive, leaving plenty of room for user files and other applications.
The default installation from VA puts almost everything on a single partition, with separate boot,swap, floppy-drive, and CD-ROM partitions, of course. Some folks tend to keep at least the /home directory on a separate partition so that users don’t fill up the system volumes, but for the purposes of this review, we did not repartition the disk.
VA is also positioning this box as suitable for gamers. To test this, we installed Railroad Tycoon II Gold Edition from Loki Software and Poptop Software and played it out for several hours continuously. The game sucks up about 54 MB across three processes and has some MPEG movies in it that when played can bring the machine to a crawl. It is a graphically intensive game, and although not a 3D one, has constantly moving elements on the screen.
Overall the game plays great on the machine, and although there are small delays when switching the map view within the game, this does not interrupt gameplay noticeably.
*Good price for a complete system
* Knowledgeable and quick technical support
* Power users may want more RAM
* Unfriendly power button
We ran the system in our labs without anything even close to a crash for about a month, as one expects from a Linux box. To simulate a support situation, we moved the libc file out of its proper place (never, ever do this to your own system, by the way). With this core system file missing, just about 99.9 percent of all system commands and all applications will fail to work, including such basic ones as cp, ls, and mv. It took one support call to get a capable VA support technician. The nature of the problem, on the other hand, was unusual, and they had to check and then call back later. All in all, it took about 18 minutes (six minutes first call, five minutes wait, seven minutes second call) to get this major problem fixed. Not bad.
One thing to note is that VA does not automatically include service and support with these models. The hardware is under warranty, but if you need help fixing a problem with the operating system, a three-year Return to Depot costs an additional $175, and one-year on-site service runs $182. If you are new to Linux or do not want to deal with fixing the machine, we suggest getting a support-and-service contract with it.
Our test unit came with an ATI Xpert 90 with 8 MB, a Netgear 10/100 Mbps Ethernet card, a generic 44x CD-ROM, and a Sony 1.44 MB floppy drive — all in a mini-tower case 12 inches tall, 14.5 inches long, and 7.5 inches wide. It had the 440FX chipset for the Celeron processor, with four PCI slots, two of which were occupied by the graphics card and the network card. The sound chip was an ESS1800 series embedded on the motherboard, without ports for speakers, microphone, and second input. The ports on the back panel featured mini-DIN ports for keyboard and mouse, two serial ports, two USB ports, one 15-pin DIN game port, and one parallel port.
The system we reviewed works well for limited duties. If you plan generally to do compute-intensive work, you’ll probably want more RAM. In the 128 MB RAM configuration, the StartX SP will fill the needs of all but the most demanding users. Adding 64 MB of RAM would cost an extra $230, according to VA, so getting this configuration does boost the price significantly above $1,000. But these machines should serve you well for several years to come.
Rawn Shah is freelance writer and technologist who has covered multi-platform networks since 1993. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.