Giga-Byte G-MAX TA4 Mini PC Review - Can You Tango with a Penguin?
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Since the TA4 is a barebones kit, the fact that no operating system (OS) is included doesn’t come as a surprise. After all, this type of system is usually the first choice when it comes to building a thin client, which doesn’t have a hard drive and wouldn’t have and OS in the first place. The use of this system in other capacities, such as in a POS or Beowulf cluster, would put it in the realm of alternative operating systems, like FreeDOS and NetBSD, using a DOM, for example, instead of a hard drive. So to pay the so called “Microsoft Tax” for this type of system would be absurd.
Now, note that I didn’t list Linux as an alternative OS. That’s because the popularity Linux has garnered in the corporate server market, coupled with the increasingly common Linux desktop system, has brought the OS into the mainstream for most business applications. Although the market is decidedly Microsoft’s at the moment, the increase in the numbers of thin clients, coupled with burdensome licensing schemes, make Linux the perfect solution for companies looking for a thin client layout. With this in mind, and since the system comes with nothing but Windows drivers, the question begs to be asked: does this run Linux?
Of course, when a system comes without an Operating System, my first assumption is that the system should be able to run comfortably with Linux. Because of the many flavors of Linux available, I decided it would be best for me to test this rig with two of the most popular versions: Lycoris/LX and Mandrake Linux.
The first version I loaded was Lycoris/LX (the free download version, not the commercial package). Having seen this thing in action before (it’s what my sister has on her system), I was familiar enough with the OS to know what to possibly expect from it.
I’ve tried to load Lycoris/LX in laptops before, but have never had much luck. It wasn’t much different in this case, since this PC is essentially a modified laptop, set up to run a desktop processor. After the initial install, I ran into multiple quirky problems with the system, including a very strange screen re-sizing problem that would lower the usable space on the screen, adding a increasingly thick black border around the unused parts of the screen, whenever the system went to any resolution lower than 1280x1024. Speaking of which, the auto-detect feature in Lycoris/LX apparently couldn’t detect much about the system, as it ignored the PCMCIA slot, placed the video at a measly 8mb of dedicated video RAM and wouldn’t go any higher than 24 bits per pixel (bpp). I guess I won’t be using Lycoris with this any time soon.
After my crash ‘n burn with Lycoris, I installed the free download version of Mandrake Linux 9.2, a distribution known for its hardware support and its cult-like following. This was an almost totally different story. The installation went extremely smoothly, including an auto detection of the video card which was recognized as the Intel 845 chip. Unfortunately, I was only able to choose 16-bit color for viewing. Everything else went perfectly.
Living with Mandrake on this thing was an almost perfect experience; the system was extremely fast and responsive, and I was even able to set up OpenGL, so 3D games would run; not spectacularly, but well enough. In fact, I took a break and spent a few hours playing one of my favorite oldies, Heavy Gear II, from the now defunct Loki. The game ran at 1024x768 in 16bpp and gave me approximately 78 frames per second (FPS – the more, the better). Running the benchmarking program glxgears allowed me to test out the video setup on this thing. At its default size (320x320), glxgears worked at 850 FPS. At full screen (1280x1024), I got approximately 78 FPS, just as in Heavy Gear II. Again, this was not impressive by any means, but it was good enough.
I tried to look around to see if there were any benchmarking programs other than the Linux command “top” to see how the system was performing. After searching on the web but finding no usable results, I decided to write a “kill script,” which would tell me how well this system could move around. To be honest, this script was more of a “can I crash Linux” script than an actual test, but it did offer some insight. Using Emacs, I wrote a simple script consisting of the simultaneous launch of the following applications:
Totem Movie Player, playing an AVI
Grip: ripping a CD and encoding it to Ogg Vorbis
glxgears (which slowed to a meager 7FPS at one point)
updatedb (updates the “locate” database by re-indexing the entire system).
The GIMP (GNOME Image Manipulation Program. Essentially Photoshop).
In the mean time, I would also be checking out the system’s load via the command “top.” According to top, the CPU utilization was at 100% and RAM was at 252 MB of system RAM used, and 100 MB of swap space used. This kind of massive load, all at one time, would have brought most Windows systems to their knees. Surprisingly enough, I was still able to play Heavy Gear II through all this, albeit very slowly, and only at 640 x 480 resolution.
In short, if you’re interested in using this system for Linux, I’d say go for it, but use something with a lot of hardware support, like Mandrake, SuSE, or Debian.
The last OS loaded was, of course, Windows. To be totally honest, I would have left it at Mandrake, but all the good benchmarking tools are written for Windows at the moment, and we can’t have a system review without those benchmarks, can we?
Considering that many of Giga-Byte’s statements deal directly with Windows optimizations, it’s no wonder that this system worked great with the OS, after all the proper drivers were loaded. In fact, unlike the native drivers included with the Mandrake package, the Windows drivers allow for 32bpp – much better for movies than the measly 16bpp I was getting before. Now, if Microsoft could just make a version of Windows that installed as easily as Mandrake - or almost any commercial version of Linux today - it would be grand. But that’s a conversation for another day.
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