Green computing frequently makes the news either for its cost-saving
potential to businesses, or as a way for eco-conscious consumers to reduce
their environmental footprint. But UK-based Aleutia, Ltd takes a different approach,
using green to produce ultra-low-power-consumption Linux PCs for classrooms
and businesses in developing countries. The company's flagship product is
the E2, a compact desktop system
that consumes just 8 watts.
The E2 measures 115x115x35 millimeters, is fanless, and runs from
Compact Flash storage. It sports a 500 MHz VIA processor, 1GB of RAM, and
comes with VGA, Ethernet, PS/2, audio-in, audio-out, and three USB ports
packed onto a ruggedized aluminum enclosure. The case has screw mounts
designed to match
the 10x10 centimeter VESA plate on the backs of most LCD
monitors, allowing for an even smaller desktop footprint.
The company sent two Compact Flash cards with its review unit, one
containing a standard Debian Etch installation, and the other Aleutia's
customized version of Ubuntu 8.04 LTS. Other operating system choices are
available, including Windows XP, although founder Michael Rosenberg says
Ubuntu accounts for the overwhelming majority of customer selections.
The base model that I tested retails for £199; options adding a Mini
PCIe WiFi module or hard disks are available at additional cost. If you
opt for the WiFi model, be prepared to either load a binary blob or to work
with NDISwrapper; the card included is a VIA VT6655, which is supported by
VIA-built closed drivers only. Alternatively, the Mini PCIe slot is unused
in the base E2 configuration, so any other card of your choice is an
option. The graphics situation is better; the onboard video for all E2s is
a 32MB VIA CX700, running the openChrome driver.
The Compact Flash card is ready to boot; no installation required. It
uses the GNOME desktop environment and a customized suite of applications,
including several not common to vanilla Ubuntu, such as the Mozilla-based
Songbird audio player, Mozilla
Seamonkey, and MPlayer, which Rosenberg says provided the best playback
performance of the available free software video players. There are also
applications from the proprietary world, such as Skype, Picasa, and Google
Desktop. A local mirror of Wikipedia is included as a reference,
containing 4,625 articles.
Apart from these supplementary applications, however, the system is a
full-fledged Ubuntu installation, capable of downloading updates through
the project's official APT repositories. Rosenberg explains that the
company went with the 8.04 LTS release for stability's sake on behalf of
the units in the field, and that his team continues to track Ubuntu
development as well as other Linux variants.
Considering the E2's low power profile, I was surprised by some of the
application selections, such the inclusion of OpenOffice over the much
leaner Abiword, and Seamonkey over Firefox. Songbird is an interesting
project in its own right and I find it impressive in a number of ways, but
it consumes far more memory than many simpler music players. Google
Desktop is a CPU drain that I have never found to be worth the trouble.
At 500MHz, the E2 will strain to perform some processor- or
graphics-intensive tasks. I found video playback choppy, although audio
playback and Skype were flawless. Saving files to flash storage is
predictably slower than writing to a hard disk, but the difference is only
discernible on multi-megabyte data like downloaded audio or video. The E2
is easily capable of handling Internet and office tasks like you would
expect in the classroom or in an Internet cafe. The 8 watts of electricity
it consumes is roughly five percent of the power drawn by a typical desktop
computer; if you did not know it was specially-engineered to be green, you
might well mistake its performance for a traditional PC one generation or
so behind the curve.
Video performance and write speed are two particulars that the company
is taking specific steps to improve as it continues to tweak the E2's
system configuration. Many of the tweaks Aleutia incorporates to improve
E2 performance originate with the ever-increasing pool of Linux netbook
hackers. The platforms face similar issues: flash storage of limited
capacity, low-speed (by desktop standards) CPUs and graphics processors,
and limited RAM.
Rosenberg chronicles the effort on the corporate blog, noting changes such as the
adoption of the lightweight Fluxbox window manager to replace GNOME's
default Metacity, filesystem tuning, and accelerating Firefox by storing
the browser cache in RAM instead of writing it to flash storage. The team
has recently been experimenting with supplanting GNOME itself with LXDE, although Rosenberg confides that the
system is not yet stable enough to ship to customers. It is a promising
alternative, though, as Aleutia has demonstrated
that an E2 running LXDE is capable of playing video smoothly
Speaking of netbooks....
Despite the E2's obvious benefits from a power consumption and space
perspective, once you add on the cost of a display and I/O hardware, the E2
is also similar in price to a midrange netbook -- without the portability.
Thus one might well ask how Aleutia sells the E2 as a better value.
Rosenberg's answer is that the E2 is designed to outperform and outlast the
expensive Dell and HP Windows boxes that dominate education channel sales
in developing countries, particularly in Africa. In that context, of
course, a netbook's small screen and keyboard are a
disadvantage. Furthermore, the E2 is designed to be easily serviced by
local resellers -- a problematic board can be pulled out and replaced in a
matter of minutes, unlike the more complex beige boxes.
Still, considering Aleutia's stated goal of catering to underprivileged
schools, comparisons to one other high-profile effort are inevitable: One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). Like OLPC,
Aleutia is targeting its machines at schoolhouses in underdeveloped parts
of the world -- but, unlike OLPC, Aleutia is attempting to stay
The company highlights two
differences between itself and the OLPC project. First, it operates as an
open-to-all manufacturer. OLPC's XO laptops are available only to national
governments, through specially-negotiated contracts. Aleutia can and does
sell E2s in any quantity to any buyer. Second, Aleutia warranties its
devices for three years and offers support and repair services. When OLPC
has offered XOs to the general public through "Give One Get One" programs
in the past, the laptops came with a 30
day warranty and no support.
The company appears to be making its case to business and schools. It
currently has resellers in six countries outside the UK, and has made sales
to 37 others. Rosenberg says he just shipped a classroom set of E2s and
LCD monitors to a school in Musoma, Tanzania, where they await clearing
customs before they can be installed. At this point, he adds, the main
hurdle Aleutia faces is marketing against the billions of dollars spent
each year by the larger manufacturers.
"Typically, our customers find us through blogs or just searching on
Google. Internet access is much more expensive in Africa so often it's a
question of [expatriates] or volunteers finding us in the UK and then
putting us in touch with prospective customers back in Africa." The Musoma
sale was just such a case. "The headmistress had seen the pair of E2s at
the school we have case study
for, contacted our local reseller, and spent the bulk of her annual budget
to set up this ICT lab."
The state of the art changes fast, and development continues on
successors to the E2 hardware -- including the possibility of mesh
networking and optical drives. Whatever the next model looks like, though,
it will build on the E2's tradition of desktop performance at remarkably
low power consumption, a feat that would not be possible on a closed
Right now, the E2 would not replace a typical Linux hacker's primary
workstation, but for a less demanding usage scenario it is worth
considering. The low profile, minimal power draw, and rugged construction
make it viable in conditions beyond those suitable for a traditional PC.
And as Linux continues to evolve on low-power platforms, you can be sure
its advantages will only increase.
to post comments)