While compiling my article A conversation about Open Source I came across an interesting US Company Xtra-PC who are marketing “Xtra-PC: The $25 Computer.” which is in effect not as some of you may expect another Raspberry Pi competitor, but instead a low profile USB stick with a Linux based operating system that you are expected to run that way, permanently. As referenced in that piece I was so intrigued by the concept that I ordered one. The package arrived form the USA this morning so here is the start of my review. See also my new article Xtra-PC in depth for more info.
As you may be aware Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and Fedora have been able to boot from USB sticks instead of the more traditional CD or DVD media for years now. The fact that USB memory sticks are writable has allowed such Linux distributions to allow some element of “try before you install” operation. This has been great in giving people confidence that Linux runs on their hardware and is “for them” before applying the final solution to any Windows that is lurking on the hard disk.
This approach although very useful is not really taking advantage of the fact that USB memory sticks have become much bigger and faster in recent years. This is to the extent, that just like the Raspberry Pi, much of what most people want from a computer can now be easily done using inexpensive and reliable solid state memory alone.
Who really needs terrabytes of personal storage space?
What Xtra-PC have done is take this concept, familiar to and well proven by Linux geeks, but aiming at the potentially huge market of people that bought a computer a few years ago, are generally happy with what it does for them but have run into problems with the hard disk (the most likely part of any computer to fail) or the Windows (probably still XP, or 7) messing up in some complicated and expensive/difficult to fix way. Times are tough, money is tight. Do you REALLY need that new Windows 10 PC?
If the computer is capable of booting from a USB stick – and most built after 2004 are, then Xtra-PC is a possibility to breathe new life into it – even IF the hard disk is faulty of the Windows OS horribly virus infected or locked up in some way by malicious ransomware.
For my tests I plumped for the $79.99 variant of the Xtra-PC – which is a USB3 128GB and conventional USB stick in size.
The cheaper $25 (8GB) and $35 (16GB) and $50 (64GB) are all the ultra small USB types that can be left in a laptop permanently without fear of being knocked out. Compared to what may be available on a 10 year old PC these are very reasonable amounts of storage for documents, personal music collections etc.
The 128GB model comes with extra ‘FileRez’ software for helping getting files back from Windows hard disks. As I do not run Windows I have no way of testing the efficacy of this however 😉
The packaging of the memory stick contains important information for beginners – what the key press for selecting boot from USB is on a selection of manufacturers machines. My test machine was a Toshiba so I put the stick in and powered up, pressing F12 which is the right key for my laptop. A menu then appears allowing the USB key to be selected as a boot source.
The USB takes a few seconds to boot and the first clue of the target audience for this when the first prompt is asking for a password for the administrator user (not root).
Actually what is going on is that this is just a name chosen for the default user of the computer (like the “pi” user account on a Raspberry Pi). This user is called by Linux as an “Administrator” in that the sudo command can be used to execute commands as the true “root” user when needed. This is needed for actions such as installing new software. If you want to be really secure it is better to create a second account for your own use that does not have this special ability. However in the real world plenty of people plug on with Windows permanently in Administrator account!
The first hurdle that may be a trap for the unwary is that the computer needs to connect to the Internet to complete the setup. If a physical cable is plugged in this is not a problem but most laptops will typically be used over WiFi. The icon for network connection is in the bottom right hand corner of the screen next to the time. Once this basic fact is known, it is a simple matter of choosing your WiFi network and entering the secret key for it. I found it easy enough but after the good beginning in telling users which key to press to get started, a bit more on screen help as to how to connect your network would have been nice. We have to remember here that many of the target users of this product will never have used a Linux desktop before so where things are located will be a mystery.
Once connected to the Internet lots more software is downloaded. It is at this point that it is clear that the underlying operating system is here is Ubuntu Linux. This is great as it means that an absolutely huge amount of software is available to the Xtra-PC user if they should ever need it.
Several licence agreements need to be accepted as part of the setup process – including one for the Microsoft TrueType fonts.
This is not a distribution that will please Free Software purists! However the aim here is clearly to make the transition for people with existing investment in Microsoft Office documents as painless as possible.
The other nice feature of the software downloaded is that you also (without any complicated mucking about) get the ability to play DVDs – even commercial region encoded ones. The DVDs do not play when inserted (there my be an option to change that) but firing up VLC does the trick.
The software selection installed by default seems rather spartan by normal Linux standards, but are the sort of things a Windows user would expect.
There are desktop icons for Facebook, Email, Firefox, Pintrest, OpenOffice (Not Libre Office as many Linux distros use now), Amazon Cloud Reader and something I am not familiar with called Pandora.
The menu has a few more items, including the package installer, but there is NO terminal. If you want a terminal program the keypress Ctrl+Alt+T does the trick. However I can see people going through the same work cycle they did under Windows without needing to either use the terminal or install any further packages.
If you do open a terminal a simple df command will show you that in the case of my 128GB stick there is a 21G root partition 4.3G of it in use and the rest a whopping 94G as /data – for the user to store what they like. Using such a slow device as virtual memory is painful to say the least. How the Xtra-PC gets around this is by using a Linux facility called zram to provide the swap. A portion of the main memory is reserved and used to compress data as it needs to be swapped out. This leads to a gradual degrading of performance as you ask the computer to do more and more rather than hitting a sudden brick wall of speed suddenly going down to only a small percentage of what it was. Using zram for swap means that the product will perform better the more memory you have. Spending a few $ on increasing the memory in your older PC to the maximum it can take is probably going to be a good investment.
With just over 4G of the main file-system in use by the standard software suite means that even the basic $25 model has plenty of spare space.
What is it like to use?
Programs can take 2-3 seconds to launch first time, a few seconds more for something really big like the OpenOffice suite. Provided that your computer has a reasonable amount of memory the action of caching will soon make things very speedy. If you can take a spinning hard disk out of your laptop and run completely from the stick, the battery life should improve quite a bit too! If you want to use this with a laptop that is on a go a lot then I would recommend that you stay with the ultra low profile sticks – so max capacity 64GB – for now) – only reason for this is that the larger 128GB and normal sized stick juts out so could be damaged if you are on the move a lot.
The choice of Apache OpenOffice is interesting too – maybe this is something to do with working with the Microsoft fonts?
This is a choice if you hate waste. If you are generally happy with a PC you paid good money for a few years ago, this is a great way to give it a new lease of life with Xtra-PC and maybe some more memory if you are making do with 1 or 2 GB at the moment. The most likely thing to go wrong physically with a PC is hard disk failure (they are complex pieces of mechanics that do wear out). Even more so than that is the Windows software getting corrupted in some way either by accident or malice. Just bypassing these issues by plugging in a small memory stick is a wonderfully elegant solution.
This is just the first day – I will report back when I have used it some more.
Lastly, for now, here is the a makers demo of the software I just found on Twitter.
Time for an update..
Had some time for playing with this again..
Once the system is fully set up for use, on my test machine at least (a Toshiba laptop with Intel i3 processor and 6GB of memory) a boot from cold start to desktop takes about 110 seconds. If the computer had a USB3 port instead of USB2 I would expect this to be be considerably faster. UPDATE: I have now tried the Xtra-PC stick in another computer that has on-board USB3 ports. In this case booting to from boot device menu through to desktop is in 35 seconds instead of 110 – quite an improvement – but expected. There is no getting round that USB2 is relatively slow compared to SATA hard disks (or USB3). The Firefox browser for example takes 100 seconds to start first time – that is nearly as much as the whole OS boot process takes! If you watch the progress with the top command on a terminal you will see that the ‘wait state’ figure for the OS goes to 55% at times. This is the slowness of the USB2 technology holding things up. However once the browser is loaded, signing into my Gmail account was nice and snappy, as was generally visiting websites. Apache OpenOffice seems much faster to start than Firefox – about 15 seconds from the double click to start before you get the first screen. This goes to show that Internet browsers are amongst the largest, and therefore slowest to load, pieces of software most people get to run! Note that the action of buffering under Linux mean that second and subsequent starts are much much faster. For instance shutting down Firefox and double clicking it again gets the browser loaded and ready in just 7 seconds instead of 110! Again – when running from a USB3 port the initial (after booting) Firefox load time was down to about 4 seconds. The moral of this is once booted keep your computer running all day (or all week). Or if your computer has it use the USB3 port! Going back to the original machine with the USB2 ports I then retested a Firefox load after reboot and that too was now 7 seconds. It seems the VERY first time you run Firefox it does a lot of stuff that is very slow on a USB disk. The initial boot time for the OS is still around 110 seconds however from USB2.
Personal computing started with people having to load any software they wanted to use from really slow floppy disks (or even slower cassette tape). To some extent the “PC on removable media” idea of Xtra-PC goes back to this. You have to get into the mindset of loading the program you want, doing some work with it, and then a short wait while the data is saved again. Having everything on a USB stick means that the concept of backups goes back to the same simplicity of the floppy disk days – just have another stick of the same size and just copy the lot – once a week or so.
When looking for what other people had said about Xtra-PC I found one site calling it “A Scam” – because it is “Just Linux booting from a USB stick”. In a way yes it is, but with a whole lot of work put in to make it more useful than just a staging post for getting that Linux onto a faster internal hard disk where it would then spend the rest of it’s life.
Xtra-PC provides a complete working system, that is suitable for novices to Linux to use, and even plays DVDs without any messing about. They just need to be taught a little patience that big programs take a while to initially load from the USB2 media. Once loaded they should work just the same as on a more conventional PC.
Under the covers it IS Ubuntu Linux so you can install anything on offer there in the repositories. As a test I picked something quite far removed from the set of software you would expect to be provided with Windows. I picked the “GNU R” language – much loved by statisticians and City traders. It pulled in a bunch of dependencies and produced a menu item under Education which started a terminal where the R command is available and the standard demos of graphical plots etc ran without issue.