Review: A9home v. KooluBy David Llewellyn-Jones. Published: 15th Oct 2007, 00:05:33 | Permalink | Printable
Clash of the tiniestThe 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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
|Size||16.8cm x 10.3cm x 5.3cm||13.5cm x 13.5cm x 3cm|
|Processor||400MHz Samsung ARM9||500MHz AMD x86|
|Memory||136MB (128M SDRAM, 8MB VRAM)||512MB|
|Ports||4 x USB 1.1, 2 x PS/2, RJ45, video, 2 x audio, RS232||4 x USB 2.0, RJ45, video, 3 x audio|
|OS||RISC OS 4.42||Ubuntu 7.04 (Feisty Fawn)|
The A9home website
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