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Review: A9home v. Koolu

By David Llewellyn-Jones. Published: 15th Oct 2007, 00:05:33 | Permalink | Printable

Clash of the tiniest

The A9home has won the hearts of some RISC OS users, but how does it fare in the big bad world of embedded and small-form factor computing? David Llewellyn-Jones pits his Advantage Six A9home against the Koolu Net Appliance to find out.

Power struggle
As any RISC OS user will be painfully aware of, increases in processor clock speeds and hardware specifications across most of the home computer industry are relentless. The most common processor speed used by members of Valve's Steam PC gaming platform is currently pegged at around the 2GHz mark, blowing the current crop of RISC OS hardware offerings - at 600MHz and 400MHz for the Iyonix and A9home respectively - squarely out of the water.

But a recent article linked to from OSNews highlighted a growing interest in 'green' computing, with an emphasis on low power, small-form factor devices. If RISC OS doesn't compete on raw processing speed, it surely ought to have a fighting chance in the low-power stakes.

A quick glance at the OSNews article shows that there are a plethora of potential x86-based contenders. Most of them veer away from being what you and I consider to be a fully-featured PCs, and may rely on a subscription service, networked storage or Flash-based memory. The closest thing I could find to a traditional fully-featured albeit low-power PC was the Koolu.

In the red corner, the Koolu
The Koolu Net Appliance is marketed at those who want to save on hardware costs, save on support costs and save the planet, all at the same time. The Koolu company sell a disc-less thin-client version of the hardware, but we're most interested in their Net Appliance, driven by a 500MHz AMD Geode processor with 512MB of RAM and an 80GB hard disc.

Koolu are based in Canada and - from a UK perspective - their prices are currently benefiting from the weak dollar. The Koolu Net Appliance costs US$299, but after currency conversion, postage, packing and taxes, getting my hands on a unit set me back a total of £s;235.

The computer comes pre-installed with a release of Ubuntu Linux codenamed Feisty Fawn. It also has OpenOffice, Firefox, Evolution Mail and a bundle of other open source goodies. More crucially, the APT package manager provides easy access to the massive Ubuntu repositories of open source software, as seen in the screenshot on the right.

In the blue corner, the A9home
The A9home is the latest native hardware to be brought to market that runs desktop RISC OS, courtesy of Advantage Six. For most readers of this site, it'll need little introduction. On paper, the A9home doesn't fair particularly well against the Koolu, with its 400MHz Samsung ARM9 processor, 128MB of RAM, 8MB of VRAM, and 40GB hard disc. Whether this makes any difference in practice is something we'll be looking at shortly.

The A9home costs £586.33 including VAT, and is considerably more expensive than the Koolu. Of course the most significant difference between the two is that the A9home runs RISC OS which comes installed on FlashROM as standard. The bare machine came with little in the way of additional software, although it was bought as part of the beta-testing scheme so that may change once the full retail version is launched.

Indeed it's fair to say that there are still a number of areas that warrant the beta status of the machine, and unfortunately my particular A9home seems to have some networking issues. I've tried to work around the problem in this article, which has sometimes meant testing some things on a Castle Iyonix. This isn't ideal, and might be perceived as unfairly biased against the Koolu. However the issue is apparently uncommon, Advantage Six are working hard to resolve all such beta issues, and I've tried to be as fair as possible on this basis.

The hardware
The most obvious feature of both machines is that they're really small. The extra height of the A9home means it's actually nearly twice the size of the Koolu at 917cm³ compared to 547cm³, but both are smaller than my DSL modem. At these sizes the difference isn't such a big deal; it wouldn't be hard to find space for either on even the most cluttered desk.

A9home, left, with Koolu Net Appliance and a gathering of life-size Lilliputians.

Both machines have tough durable cases designed with a slightly industrial style but without air vents. Neither of them requires a fan, so they're both pretty much as silent as they come. Both sport four USB ports, although the Koolu gets the edge for having USB 2. This isn't a big deal for me with just USB keyboard, mouse and printer, but if you want to attach an external hard disc, and there's good reason to imagine you might, then the extra speed of USB 2 is going to start to look important. Looking at the photos you can see that the A9home, with its additional PS/2 sockets, crams most of its ports onto the back of the machine, whereas the Koolu has them scattered front and back.

All in all, hardware-wise, the two are remarkably similar in intent, but there's no doubt that the Koolu has the clear edge. In my opinion the processor speed and memory differences are less relevant, due to the nature of RISC OS compared to Linux, but the gap in USB speed and hard disc capacity have the potential to make a real difference. The extent to which this makes a difference in practice is what we're going to look at now. There are lots of ways that either machine could be put to good use, but there's an obvious distinction between using them as desktop machines and using them as what you might call server machines. Because of their different capabilities, I felt it made most sense to look at these separately.

Server software
If the movements of Microsoft are anything to go by (and they usually are, even if they've been known to miss the mark on occasion), home servers are going to get increasingly popular. They can act as a central storage unit for music and videos, and provide other services to a network of computers. Servers are often seen as the Goliaths of the computing world: ultra-fast, multi-core heavy-weight beasts with water-cooling and their own electricity substation to keep them ticking over. This might be true if you're running an internationally renowned technology news website (ahem), but in general the demands on a home server are going to be somewhat less severe. For a device that needs to run 24/7 in the home, a small, low power and quiet device might be a much better option.

With this in mind, how do our two tiny contenders compare as home servers? First the Koolu. For my own purposes I hoped to use the box for file and printer-sharing, both within a home network as well as across the Internet. This meant running SMB, pictured left, and FTP for file and print sharing, VNC for network control and a VPN for access from afar.

Linux has more FTP server variants than you can shake a very wobbly stick at, and choosing the right one was a pain. Samba also needed to be installed. Although Synaptic (the front-end to APT) makes installing the software easy, actually configuring it all to do the job turned out to be considerably more tricky. You can share specific folders easily, but to do anything slightly more complex, such as setting up public folders or arranging printer sharing, meant delving into the configuration files. This isn't an impossible task, but without the Ubuntu community and its many online how-to guides it would have been a frustrating experience.

Once set up, everything purrs along nicely and it's clear the box would require only very low maintenance. Getting VNC working properly was mildly tricky, but by far the most complex was setting up OpenVPN. I'm sure there must be an easier way, although again it's a testament to the excellent online resources that it all worked in the end.

Finally, it was also possible to set up Apache for web serving and Subversion for version control. Other users will no doubt have different requirements, perhaps media or backup server capabilities, but whatever your needs you can be fairly confident there's software available of some form to achieve it. All in all, configuring the Koolu could have been much easier, but once set up it's an excellent small server machine and I'd not hesitate to recommend it for this purpose.

Now let's consider the A9home. RISC OS was never designed to be a server operating system, but in spite of this there are a surprising number of options that will allow network connections to be made into the box in one way or another. You can very easily share drives, directories and printers using ShareFS (née Access) and configuration is very simple. You can easily set access levels and password protect folders in various ways direct from the Filer menus.

Whilst easy and effective, this will unfortunately only work between RISC OS machines, so it's not going to be of much use if you ever anticipate any other operating system joining your network. Luckily protocols supported by more mainstream OSes are well catered for, thanks to Moonfish for NFS and SmbServer for SMB.

SmbServer, pictured right, is a doddle to install and has a very nice front-end, allowing shared directories to be set up simply by dragging a folder to the appropriate window. It's easy to set read-only access and password permissions, and although the configuration files of Ubuntu's Samba offer greater flexibility, SmbServer offered what I needed - and provided it in a much nicer way. As it happens, the heart of SmbServer is built using the same albeit older Samba source code, so you can revert to editing its configuration files by hand if you prefer.

As a caveat, the latest version of SmbServer has some annoying bugs. I found it worked fine in most cases, but occasionally crashed during remote printing. These bugs have been the source of some arguments in the past, but until fixed, the program can't be considered one you can just leave running to do its job, which is a real shame.

FTP is less well catered for on RISC OS. FTPs provides a simple FTP server that's configurable from the command line. This does the job okay, although some clients seem allergic to it and refused to connect to FTPs. It's not as configurable as the servers available under Linux and doesn't have a nice front-end either.

There's a straightforward VNC server by Henrik Bjerregaard Pedersen for RISC OS that's easy to set up and use, although it is without a desktop front-end, which is another shame. For serving web pages, WebJames - also originally written by Henrik Bjerregaard Pedersen - will do the job well on the A9home. It's trivial to get going if you're happy with the default set up: serving web pages, PHP and CGI. RISC OS is never going to make an impact in the web server market, and WebJames doesn't offer the flexibility or features of the ever popular Apache. However, for what many people might want on a lightweight home server, WebJames may well be enough.

There seems to be a bit of a trend in what I found as far as server software is concerned. Linux on the Koolu offers a huge variety of options and the device offers an excellent, stable and hassle-free solution. However, setting it all up to begin with required a bit of effort. Considering RISC OS's heritage, and the fact it was never designed as a server OS, I was pleasantly surprised at how well it performed. Once the bugs have been ironed out of the machine, it could probably do the job as a lightweight home server.

Configuration under RISC OS was easier, but ultimately less flexible, and there are some important omissions. For example, there don't seem to be any options if you want SVN or VPN capabilities. Finally, there are some bugs, notably in SmbServer, that would almost certainly make the device more problematic in the long run. Perhaps not such a big surprise, but the Koolu is the clear winner here.

Desktop software
If RISC OS doesn't really compete as a home server, it should do better on the desktop, right? After all, whenever someone suggests there's no reason to use RISC OS any more, there are always users willing to counter that the desktop is what keeps them loyal.

The Koolu ships with the standard Ubuntu Gnome desktop. I admit that I'm not a long-term Gnome user, but I find it very usable and much prefer it to Microsoft Windows. However, on the Koolu it has to be said that the desktop runs rather sluggishly. OpenOffice is a highly capable software suite, but it takes a good seven seconds to load up the word processor - which wouldn't be too bad if TechWriter didn't load up instantaneously - and screen redraw is noticeably slow.

For a non-specialist user who simply wants to word process, email, touch up photographs and so on, the A9home potentially has the edge. The user-interface is more responsive, and in my opinion, the applications are nicer to use. You can still produce top quality documents on a RISC OS box that will compete with those produced on other platforms.

The big catch is web browsing. On the Koolu box, Firefox isn't especially speedy, but it's still faster and more stable than Firefox on the A9home, pictured left. NetSurf is a good experience, but only if you're willing to live within its limitations. Most people will find the lack of JavaScript a problem.

The wealth of high-quality open source software available via Apt also means that if you have more specific requirements and want more capable software, such as 3D graphics and video editing, then you're going to be better off with Linux.

However, in this case, the low-power Koolu box may not be what you're looking for either. What is clear is that, on the desktop, getting the high-quality software needed for a reasonable RISC OS system is possible but not necessarily cheap. Personally, I have no problem with paying for quality software but it's hard to argue that this is preferable to getting it for free.

To be honest, the conclusion is unlikely to come as much of a surprise. The one area where the A9home excels is on the desktop, where it responds exceptionally well and is a joy to use even running on a processor that would be considered slow by the rest of the world's standards. The Koolu doesn't do so well here, providing a rather sluggish desktop experience, pictured right.

However, the Koolu makes up for it by being cheaper, having more software available for free, and with better web browsing to boot. It will always depend on your exact needs, but in my opinion, the Koolu fits best as a small home server, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it for this.

If you're a RISC OS aficionado, want a nice desktop experience and can live without all the bells and whistles of the world-wide web, the A9home looks good - but I'd recommend waiting until the bugs have been ironed out before taking the plunge. Check out the feature summary below for a side-by-side comparison of the two machines.

Size16.8cm x 10.3cm x 5.3cm13.5cm x 13.5cm x 3cm
Processor400MHz Samsung ARM9500MHz AMD x86
Hard disk40GB80GB
Memory136MB (128M SDRAM, 8MB VRAM)512MB
Ports4 x USB 1.1, 2 x PS/2, RJ45, video, 2 x audio, RS2324 x USB 2.0, RJ45, video, 3 x audio
OSRISC OS 4.42Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn)

Server software30%100%
Desktop software40%70%
Desktop experience75%60%


Koolu website The A9home website

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The power score favours the A9Home, but are there any figures for what the two units consume in idle and flat out loads? If not, how about using one of these [link]

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 15/10/07 9:46AM
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druck: Those are woefully inaccurate. A much better way to test these devices is to plug them directly into a high-quality DC bench supply, as otherwise you're also testing the efficiency of the PSU, which isn't what you're interested in as it's a separate device that you can always replace with something better.

My A9 uses a little more than shown here (around 4-6W) when idling, but uses upwards of 10W when turning on while spinning the hard disc up.

Nice review, though. That koolu thing looks cool - idea for home servers and the like.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 15/10/07 10:56AM
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I found the review interesting, however, (puts on flameproof suit) if you want to have a fast desktop experience with a reasonable software sset (similar to the A9) then simply put PuppyLinux on the Koolo.

Cheers Bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 15/10/07 12:37PM
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It is a real pity that in the conclusion David had to write and did write "I'd recommend waiting until the bugs have been ironed out before taking the plunge". I'm afraid that that might be a long wait...

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 15/10/07 7:58PM
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It's a pity he had to write it (not his fault) but I'm grateful he did write it. Hats off to the man that can write a balanced review.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 16/10/07 12:37PM
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flibble: Precisely. I like Drobe for precisely this fact: It's honest. It doesn't say everything's fantastic when it isn't or if there are other better alternatives. Historically, the RISC OS printed press has just been propoganda saying everything's wonderful and hunkydory. This kind of falsehood doesn't help the community.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 16/10/07 1:06PM
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In reply to Rjek:

Its about getting the balance right, too much bad news will just put people off and lead people into thinking "its finally upon us its all over we're finished". The same goes for too much optimism, everyone gets hyped up about something, and then when it doesn’t happen they end up in a worse state than they would have if they were slightly pessimistic.

 is a RISC OS UserMikeCarter on 16/10/07 1:37PM
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MikeCarter: Some would say that it is all finished, and the only thing that's keeping this dead horse limping is over-enthusiatic everything-is-fine propaganda you see in the subscription RISC OS press. It's better to think things are worse than they are than better than they are.

When was the last time any of those magazines reviewed something and said "Actually, this isn't very good" ? Are we to believe that /all/ RISC OS software is superb and to the highest possible standard? That's not my experience.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 16/10/07 3:40PM
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Rob fails to appreciate that, just because everything cannot possibly be perfect, he must go around describing everything as bad - and gets nasty when people contradict him. There are bad things around in the RISC OS market (apart from Rob's comments, that is) but they are generally appreciated or ignored. What is wrong with the market are doom-mongers like Rob making everyone depressed - and the standard of commentary here, in newsgroups - and even in magazines - might well improve if we didn't have to waste time countering negative comments from the likes of Greg Harris, Rob, and others. In a world that lives by hyping every third-rate product it is stupid to highlight the deficiencies of RISC OS when we are well aware of them - but often overlook the benefits. Mike is right - the balance is important, but people are criticised for making balanced comments. That's not right.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 16/10/07 6:57PM
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rjek: Your comments about magazines don't fit Qercus - and as far as I'm aware you don't read it. Which RISC OS magazines (if any) are you taliking about?

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 16/10/07 7:18PM
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jc: I don't get nasty when people contradict me. I do however take a certain joy in pointing out your nonsense. In fact, your reply here, other than being slightly libellous, contradicts itself in at least two places. I find this deliciously ironic.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 16/10/07 10:20PM
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rob: The negative comments that you support *do* depress people (I apologise for the word 'everyone' - some people may, perversely, appear to thrive off it). Like the article that we are discussing, criticism needs to be balanced - and based on knowledge. In my experience people respond best to having their positive aspects praised and help given to improve the rest. You criticise RISC OS magazines. That criticism would be best made by being made by someone who read the magazines, made a correct statement, produced a balanced review to show how it should be done, and passed on positive suggestions to the software publisher to improve the program.

That's how people of goodwill can help make a positive difference to this market.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 16/10/07 11:36PM
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In reply to rjek:

Instead on complaining about "so called" unbalanced articles appearing in the RISC OS printed press, why not do something about it. Write a balanced article or two and get them published in the printed RISC OS press. Try and make a difference to the areas that you your view are unbalanced. Perhaps an article about this very subject.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 17/10/07 10:27AM
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sa110: John has already said numerous times that he won't print anything negative, so it's difficult to provide balance and accuracy unless everything's hunkydory. (Just search usenet for evidence of his standpoint.) Everything *isn't* fine. Our community has many problems, and they won't get solved unless we acknowledge, face, and deal with them. Plus, I'd expect to get paid for my contributions. John has a history of not managing this, and RISC OS Now seems to be sleeping. That leaves Archive. The other issue is that how many software or hardware dealers are going to provide review samples if they know I'm going to say what I think? I *know* historically Acorn User had problems with this, which is why they mostly said everything was great.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 17/10/07 11:11AM
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In reply to rjek:

I can assure you, Qercus does pay for contributions. As to them not printing anything negative. I don't believe that is true. I think it will all be down to how the article is written i.e. are you being negative just for the sake of it, or is the article tackling particular areas and being not just negative but also constructive and informative rather than a simple rant that is better left to c.s.a.a. When looking at products to review, don't just stay with the commercial stuff. There is a lot of free applications out there. A lot of which people don't know exist.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 17/10/07 11:26AM
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sa110; Actually, as you said you "expect to get paid" that doesn't "leave Archive" because Archive has never paid contributors.

However, it *does* leave RISC World because we *do* pay.

 is a RISC OS Userapdl on 17/10/07 12:00PM
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Are you still looking for contributors? I emailed RISC World some time ago, but never received a reply.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 17/10/07 1:01PM
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In reply to apdl: How much do you pay for contributions?

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 17/10/07 1:06PM
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jc: "Which RISC OS magazines (if any) are you taliking about?"

For me the RISC OS magazines are all things of the past (in the personal sense), but many of them (at least when it was still more generally Acorn stuff) seemed to have glowing, clichéd reviews of stuff in deference to the advertiser in question whose products they were reviewing, even when the products were rubbish. The usual "if <topic> is your sort of thing then you can't do much worse than <rubbish product>" prose along with five stars out of five or whatever.

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 17/10/07 2:01PM
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guestx: The views expressed in Qercus are those of the reviewers. I've never told a reviewer to deal with advertisers' products differently from anything else. If all a reviewer could say is "this is crap" then I wouldn't give it that much space. If a reviewer found lots wrong then I might ask them to offer a "what needs to be done before I'd buy it" type of review - and give the publisher the chance to say whether or not they are working on such improvements. The best is where a reviewer contacts the author/maintainer, suggests improvements, and by the time the review is ready some of those improvements are dropping through in updated versions of the application. I want reviews to facilitate development - not destroy any chance of improvement.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 17/10/07 2:32PM
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I kinda wish this discussion was about the A9h v Koolu. A debate about the article in terms of its fairness, balance and so forth is just fine; it's why the comments are here so that readers can add new information or question points raised in articles. Just my 2p, you might as well carry on as you are if there're no further points to be made about the above review.

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 17/10/07 6:26PM
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To bring the comments back on topic.

I think this is a well balanced article. I think it is highlighting where once the ARM processor was a good contender for low power devices, the x86 compatible processors have more recently started making headway in this market themselves. Again this article proves that with the right kind of money backing it that RISC OS could be a big player in this market i..e we have a compact lower processor and memory requirement OS, just not the additional applications which potential customer require.

 is a RISC OS Usersa110 on 17/10/07 7:59PM
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In reply to SA110

Totally agree on the recent headway x86 processors have made but even more worrying is that they have very capable integrated graphics processors onboard as well. Couple this with MMX and hardware FPE etc and they are really starting make an attack on the domain of ARM. The other thing to worry about is that as development costs are driven down then being able to support applications on just one processor type for desktop, server, laptop, tablet, STB makes a compelling economic arguement.

As it stands the A9 is a great little machine but the article does highlight a general failing in the market for some applications. As always the call for faster machines is good but only if we have applications to take advantage of it and add to the breadth of what we can do on RISC OS machines.

Thanks to Drobe for a thought provoking article.

 is a RISC OS Userbluenose on 17/10/07 10:03PM
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in reply to sa110 'Again this article proves that with the right kind of money backing it that RISC OS could be a big player in this market....' Which IIRC was the vision that Castle were offering with their great leap forward a few years back.

That idea having been firmly put down by other parties, we as desktop users are still flailing around using a cottage industry OS.

As for the article I'd be interested to know how the % are combined. For instance the availability of desktop and server apps is something that is important every day, whereas the difference between 2w and 10w power is insignificant in cost terms (the same as one energy saver light bulb uses).

Whilst desktop experience has some relevence I find it is becoming less and less important. Being able to use one web browser to visit every site I want makes the MacOSX desktop irritations pale into insignificance.

Even with O2 Netsurf and Firefox on the Iyonix there is plenty of content that is inaccessible, and that is after starting up three separate applications. This translates into three startup actions on a better desktop vs one startup action using a GUI that is 'functionally less good'. And then you still have to go and fire up the Mac and do your browsing there.

Bang goes your 8 watt power saving.

 is a RISC OS Userblahsnr on 18/10/07 9:08AM
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blahsnr: Your misty mornings must be making a mess of your memory. The only great leap forward that I remember had the same constructive effect as Mao's. ;-(

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 18/10/07 10:09AM
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In reply to guestx:

Sorry everyone, but I'm returning to the off-topic discussion. I remember a review (I think it was in the now defunct Archimedes World) where a product that used the PC card on a RISC PC was described as "faster than a speeding glacier". A tremendous public argument took place between the magazine editor and the software designer. It seems that public arguments are part and parcel of the RISC OS world. Plus ca change ...

 is a RISC OS Usercables on 18/10/07 12:28PM
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cables: And someone got *very* uptight when Acorn User suggested that a program that deliberately ignored the style guide (in practically every way) was bad just for that reason. If someone is trying to con you with rubbish then it's fair to let the criticism off the leash - but I don't know of anyone who does that in the RISC OS market these days. If products fall below what you would hope for it's going to be because they cannot afford to do more, cannot do better with the time and facilities available, or haven't had sufficient feedback. Honest criticism never means knocking copy - and Rob seems unable to accept that knocking copy is simply not appropriate here, in RISC OS magazines, or in the newsgroups.

BTW Archimedes World (which turned into Arc World for a fleeting moment) technically became subsumed within Acorn User which became Qercus when AU merged with AP. So not quite defunct.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 18/10/07 2:31PM
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Are the missing applications available for ARMLinux, or is it a purely processor related problem?

Surely, most server applications in the review would work on an ARM as well as on the x86 processor. I imagine codecs and so on would be another kettle of fish.

Does anyone have Linux running on an A9, how does it measure up?

 is a RISC OS UserStoppers on 18/10/07 2:36PM
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Stoppers: Many UNIX/Linux applications available for x86 are available on ARMLinux. Many aren't. On the occations where the applications aren't hamstrung by the slowness of the CPU, porting them to RISC OS is a highly non-trivial task, due to the non-trivial nature of most appliactions and their build dependancies. Other applications can't be cross-compiled either. I wouldn't like to think how long OpenOffice might take to build even on an Iyonix, even if it were possible to do so. I suspect it might take longer to build than it takes OpenOffice.org to produce a new release.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 18/10/07 3:35PM
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rjek: I wasn't really thinking of porting them to RISC OS, I was thinking of comparing the two pieces of hardware using the same operating system, how do they measure up?

Also, the simpler porting direction would be from RISC OS *to* Linux, the latter being a more powerful system (built-in threads, pmt, asynchronous I/O, etc.), don't you think?

 is a RISC OS UserStoppers on 18/10/07 4:18PM
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A very interesting article. I think the tables at the end of it really highlight the problem with the A9 - for well under 1/2 the price of an A9 home I can get a machine which is not only smaller but also has a vastly superiour spec (and a finished OS ;) ) . Don't get me wrong, I think that the advantage six boys have done a wonderful job in creating the A9 home and the high price reflects the fact that it is a small market.... but I just do not see how it could ever compete more widely or attract outside users, in its current form and price.

 is a RISC OS Userpolas on 18/10/07 6:03PM
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