Part 2: Shuttle KPC

As I noted in my review of the ASUS Eee PC, there's a not-so-subtle change that's sweeping across the PC industry. After years of pushing ever-more-powerful PCs at consumers, PC makers are waking up to a new trend in low-cost, small form factor PCs. And these PCs--which come in both portable and traditional desktop form factors--don't just ignore the high-end of the hardware landscape. They've also been skipping out on Microsoft's latest and greatest operating system--Windows Vista--and bundling much lower-end OSes, usually based on Linux.

But before Linux enthusiasts can get too excited over this development, we should at least admit to some harsh realities. First, PC makers are skipping Windows Vista because that OS, obviously, has much higher resource requirements than are available in ultra-low-cost PCs (ULCPCs). Responding to this need--and, more important, to the requests of customers--PC makers began looking into, and then began shipping, Windows XP on these machines as well. Not surprisingly, XP has proven a lot more popular with users than Linux, even though XP-based machines are a bit more expensive. And even the trend-settings Eee PC is offering an XP option this year: ASUS now expects to ship far more XP-based Eee PCs than Linux-based ones.

Second, Microsoft, too, has responded to this trend. The company extended the life of Windows XP Home Edition only, and only when sold on ULCPCs, past the previously announced June 30, 2008 expiration date. (Other versions of XP will be discontinued at that time, however.) So it's possible now and in the future to purchase low-end computers running a supported version of Windows XP, even though that's not the latest Windows version. For Microsoft, the issue is simply pragmatic: From its perspective, even an older version of Windows is better than Linux.

Shuttle KPC

Because I examined a notebook computer last time around, I thought it might make sense to check out a desktop PC this time. I originally had my sights on the amazing Lenovo ThinkCentre M-series. I'll still review this machine in the future, but suffice to say its powerful enough for Vista and is thus in a different league from so-called ULCPCs. But then enthusiast PC maker Shuttle saved the day: The company is now selling a low-end, Linux-based box called the KPC that can be had for as little as $229.

Shuttle had previewed the KPC at CES 2008 in January and then formally announced the machine in February. From a form factor perspective, the KPC is classic Shuttle, with a small, toaster-sized enclosure that's even smaller than the company's now-classic XPC line. Described by the company as an "Internet-ready cube," the KPC looked like the ultimate cloud computing machine and could even be upgraded to Windows XP or Vista. Your choice.

I just had to check it out. In early April, I ordered a mid-line Shuttle KPC with upgraded processor and RAM. Like the Mac mini with which it competes, the KPC comes sans display, keyboard, and mouse, but as you might expect I've got plenty of those. (You would also need speakers for sound, of course.)

What comes in the box

In keeping with its low-ball pricing, the Shuttle KPC doesn't ship with a ton of extras. Even the box it comes in is utilitarian, and it contains just the PC itself (which is the size of a small toaster, roughly, and wrapped in protective wrap), the power cord, and a small baggie containing a folded-up setup poster, a "green" brochure, two discs (a Foresight Linux setup DVD and a CD containing Linux drivers for the KPC), and a smaller baggie with some screws and an L-shaped allen wrench. And that's all she wrote.

Frankly, that's just fine. Plug in a USB keyboard and mouse, and connect it to a monitor--even, incidentally, the massive 24-inch HP w2408h that I use for day-to-day work--and the Shuttle springs to life pretty quickly. The box-to-usage experience is even quicker than it is, say, for the Apple Mac mini.

The hardware

While you can choose from a variety of KPC models, ranging from the low-end (and half-built) K45 "barebone" model with no processor for $99 to a SYK-4500 model with an Intel Core 2 Duo processor and Windows Vista Home Basic, I went for an upgraded version of the mid-level SLK-4500, which features an 1.8 GHz Intel Pentium dual-core CPU, 1 GB of RAM (I had Shuttle upgrade this to 2 GB for next-to-nothing), and a 160 GB hard drive, which costs $299 (or $314 with the RAM upgrade).

All KPCs share a few specs: an Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chipset, an Ethernet port, 4 USB ports, onboard audio, and support for up to two internal hard drives and 2 GB of RAM. (That's right, you can't upgrade the box to 4 GB of RAM.) Curiously, there are no ports at all on the front of the machine. Even a single USB port there would have been appreciated.

The KPC also features a customizable front panel. Basically, you can loosen four screws and place your own photo underneath a glass bezel, allowing you to turn the front of the machine into a photo frame. Shuttle provides free software called MyKover that lets you print out appropriately sized and shaped images, and you can download some colorful designs from their Web site as well.

What's missing, of course, is an optical drive. And there's no place to add one either, so you'll have to go external or burrow into the mostly-empty box and jury-rig something yourself. Shuttle sells an external DVD+-RW for $100, but I already had one. This is something you'll have to factor into the price if you think you'll need to reinstall the OS or install a new one.

Still, the KPC is impressive at these prices. A comparable Apple Mac mini is almost twice as expensive and is far less expandable. The Mac mini is also hobbled by the laptop parts it uses, most notably its hard drive, while the KPC uses real desktop parts and is less constrained as a result.

On the other hand, the Mac mini tends to be nearly silent, especially when new. (Like other PCs, they get gunked up over time.) The Shuttle isn't loud, per se, but it's louder than I'd like and certainly louder than the excellent Lenovo ThinkCentre M-series I've also been testing. It's more of a constant low-grade drone than anything, but it's enough to make me want to take it off the desk. I've never needed to do that with the Lenovo. (ThinkCentre M's, too, start at prices double that of the KPC. I guess you get what you pay for.)

Foresight Linux?

Like you, probably, I had never heard of Foresight Linux. As with my favorite Linux distribution, Ubuntu, Foresight Linux uses the superior GNOME desktop and comes with a number of leading-edge features--like the cool Compiz 3D desktop effects--that suppressed any complaints I had been formulating. It also ships with the standard collection of Microsoft-replacement software, including OpenOffice.org (office productivity), Firefox (Web browsing), Pidgin (instant messaging), Banshee (media player), Totem (movie player), F-Spot (photo management), and so on.

The Compiz bit is interesting. If you're not familiar, Compiz is a Linux-based compositing engine, similar to Windows Vista's Aero, which adds a number of impressive rendering effects. Where Vista is staid and mature, however, Compiz is flighty and fun: As you drag windows around, they bend and wave like laundry on the clothesline during a windy day, an effect that frankly grows tiresome pretty quickly (though it is impressive at first). (Microsoft demonstrated similar effects back in the Longhorn beta days, but Compiz provides them today for shipping OSes, which is perhaps more impressive.)

As for Foresight itself, it works as you'd expect, and much like any other GNOME-based environment. Performance on the Pentium-based machine I purchased is excellent.

Also, I should note that Linux has come a long way with regards to hardware compatibility. Foresight Linux had no issues handling the Apple keyboard, Microsoft mouse, and Samsung USB-based DVD+RW drive that I used with the system, and it handled two different monitors, with their unique native resolutions, without a hiccup. That's pretty impressive.

Windows and KPC

While most Shuttle KPCs will head out the door with Linux preinstalled, Shuttle does sell a single Windows Vista system and notes that both XP and Vista will install and run on this PC. I'm of two minds when it comes to Windows on the KPC. On the one hand, if you insist on using the KPC primarily as a cloud computing workstation, which I think is the most compelling reason to own the device, then either XP or Vista would be fine, and the 2 GB limit won't be an issue, even in Vista. That said, XP would be a better choice on this PC because of its lower-end hardware specs. You'd get years of use out of such a system, and could benefit from the wonders of Windows software compatibility.

But the problem with installing any version of Windows, even XP, is that just seeing Windows on there will raise your expectations. And as is the case with other low-end computers that are shipping these days, I think that leaving Linux on there might just make sense, as those who are used to Windows will simply approach a Linux-based PC a bit differently. You'll expect limitations and be happy with what you get.

Put another way, given the way that most people work today--and by "most people," I mean "normal" people who view the computer as an occasional tool and nothing more--then a KPC will make a fine computer, regardless of which operating system they eventually choose. I personally believe they'll get more mileage out of Windows, but this is less true of those who stick with online services like Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Docs, Flickr, and the like.

The Shuttle KPC would also make an awesome second computer, one you could point the kids to while you're busy getting work done--or playing games--on the main Windows PC in the house. As a secondary PC, either Linux or Windows would be fine. Certainly, Linux would be cheaper.

As for the Windows experience on the KPC, I did successful install both Windows XP Professional with SP3 and Windows Vista Home Basic on the box, separately. I was curious how that would work, given the USB-based optical drive, but in the end, both installed just fine. (My first XP install experience simply ended part way through Setup for some reason, but a second went without a hitch.) A few general comments about each OS on the KPC:

Windows Vista Home Basic. Give Microsoft some credit: Not only did Windows Vista come up immediately with every single device successfully detected and installed, but the system was surprisingly snappy. I've been preaching the "2 GB as a minimum" mantra for Windows Vista for so long that I think I'd forgotten that 2 GB isn't just a minimum; it's plenty for most people. I'm surprised to admit that this machine would make a very capable Vista workstation for businesses.

Windows XP Professional. XP came up with four missing device drivers, and they're all pretty crucial: Video, Ethernet controller, SM bus controller, and "PCI device" (which turned out to be the integrated sound). I was about to head to Shuttle's support site to hunt down drivers when it occurred to me to check the Driver Install CD that came with the machine. And sure enough: It contains all the drivers I needed, albeit manually and one at a time. (I originally assumed it was for Linux.) This is all mainstream stuff too, which I think speaks to the age of XP and its inability to meet the needs of the time, but that's a different conversation of course.

Final thoughts

The Shuttle KPC is a fine computer, and a bargain at the current asking price. My only niggling concern in the noise level. The KPC is not overtly loud, but it's demonstrably louder than some of the other machines vying for my attention, including my main desktop (a heavily upgraded HP tower), a Lenovo ThinkCentre M-series small form factor PC, and my HP MediaSmart Server. (That said, it's nowhere near as loud as, say, an Xbox 360.) Whether this will be an issue for you is unclear, but I'm sensitive to sound. If this was quieter, I'd have no qualms awarding it a 5 out 5 rating. As it is, however, the Shuttle is still close, very close, to utilitarian computing nirvana. Highly recommended.