The OpenPC project: Ready-made GNU/Linux Machines

The OpenPC project: Ready-made GNU/Linux Machines


The Open Desktop communities Open-PC project is now offering three different models of open computers with turn-key GNU/Linux and KDE installations based on OpenSUSE (or Ubuntu). These systems could provide real competition with pre-installed Windows or Mac computers, overcoming some of the most frequently-cited problems with GNU/Linux on the desktop. The systems are now available from vendors in Europe and the USA.

It's not that uncommon to come across brave plans for GNU/Linux-based computer systems, ranging from games to netbooks to desktops, but they often turn out to be vaporware that never makes it to market. One thing that's exciting about the Open-PC project is that it actually has hardware in stock now -- so if you think you're actually in the market for a low-cost "nettop" computer with GNU/Linux/KDE branding and a totally-configured operating system pre-configured for newbies (maybe for a gift?), then do read on, this is the real deal.

The Open-PC project is a partnership between an online GNU/Linux user community and PC manufacturers, aiming to provide user-specified, pre-configured free software friendly computersThe Open-PC project is a partnership between an online GNU/Linux user community and PC manufacturers, aiming to provide user-specified, pre-configured free software friendly computers

The OpenPC project is an offshoot of the long-standing OpenDesktop organization which hosts community sites like KDE-look and Gnome-look. Leveraging this community access, the group has been in a position to survey the GNU/Linux user community for specifications and other resources to specify what sort of computer would be useful. It began with a proposal presented by Frank Karlitschek in 2009, and has proceeded quite rapidly to products available at the end of 2010.

In the end, they settled on the Nettop (I had to look this up -- it means a small, low-power desktop machine for accessing the internet and other lightweight tasks. In other words, a starter computer for new users). This is just the sort of area where GNU/Linux really shines, and the OpenPC designs add stylish packaging to make the machines attractive to users. Personally, I think they're all really cute, although my favorite design s definitely the Open PC XS (which is fortunate, I suppose, since it's the one made in the USA, and thus the easiest for me to get).

The Open PC XS is the US-manufactured model of the three being offered by the Open-PC project (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)The Open PC XS is the US-manufactured model of the three being offered by the Open-PC project (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)

Unfortunately, as with essentially all short-run-manufactured electronic products, the Open-PCs are a bit pricey for their performance range. On the other hand, at roughly $250 to $522, they are inexpensive enough to make the savings on software (relative to proprietary Nettop systems) or on installation headaches (relative to scratch-building for GNU/Linux) a worthwhile consideration. Or to put it another way: what price will you pay for freedom?

The three designs (the "Open PC 1", "Open PC Micro", and "Open PC XS") are available for immediate purchase as of December 2010.

The Open PC 1 is the first of the three designs, produced in Europe (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)The Open PC 1 is the first of the three designs, produced in Europe (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)

Although it's hard to find the information on the Open-PC site, a 2009 presentation from Karlitschek says the systems will be based on the OpenSUSE distribution, and the installed desktop environment will be KDE. This probably reflects the German origins of the project, since OpenSUSE is very popular there. The Think Penguin site says the Open PC XS comes with Ubuntu by default, with OpenSUSE as an option (I think Ubuntu is more popular in the USA, so this makes sense).

The form factor, hardware specifications, and desktop environment were all chosen based on the results of surveys of the Open Desktop community, and break down as follows for the three available machines:

Spec Open PC 1 Open PC Micro Open PC XS
Manufactured in Europe Europe USA
Cost €387.03 €349.90 $249.00-$572.97
Sold by ARLT GreeniX Think Penguin
CPU Atom D510 Atom D510 Atom N330
CPU speed 1.6GHz 1.6GHz 1.6GHz
CPU cores 2 2 2
Motherboard Asus AT5NM10-I -- Intel 945 Expr
MB Chipset Intel NM10 Intel ICH7
RAM 4 GB 2 GB 1 GB
Hard Drive 500 GB 320 GB 40 GB
Video Intel GMA 3150 Intel GMA 3150 Intel GMA 3150
Audio "High Def" -- Realtek ALC662
Ethernet "10/100/1000" -- Realtek RTL8103EL
Power Supply 250 W -- --
Form Factor Mini ITX Mini ITX --
Size(mm) 345x100x425 72x185x240 --
Optical Drive CD/DVD Burner CD/DVD Burner Optional DVD-RW
USB Flash -- No Optional 16 GB
Wi-Fi -- No Optional 802.11N/G
Operating System OpenSUSE OpenSuse 11.3 Ubuntu or OpenSUSE

The biggest problem with the project appears to be a lack of experience with marketing and press-releases. For example, it was very difficult to get the photos for this column, and no high-resolution images seem to be posted anywhere on the Open-PC site. Furthermore, the spec-sheets for the PCs are somewhat sparse (you'll notice some entries are missing in the table above). Savvy commercial projects make this kind of information available so as to get free advertising through press coverage.

A small part of each sale (typically €10) is paid to the KDE project, so the sales directly support free software development for desktop users.

The Open-PC Micro (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)The Open-PC Micro (Photo Credit: Open-PC / Advertising Photo)

Is this really a good idea?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say "Yes!" The worst thing about GNU/Linux on the desktop has been the poor availability of turn-key systems compared with Windows and Macintosh, and the second worst is the inconsistency with hardware support. The Open-PC solves both problems.

Though the cost is admittedly somewhat high for the given performance, the Open-PC offers a way around all the installation and configuration hassles of scratch-building

For myself, I'm more likely to save money by scratch-building from components. This is one way to avoid the "Microsoft Tax" paid when you buy through system integrators who generally must pay for Windows licenses in bulk -- a cost which comes out of your payment, regardless of whether you actually use the Windows license or not. I'm also generally able to get a very nice, high-performance system for a very low price this way. But there is a cost.

The cost is that I must then spend days -- sometimes weeks -- hassling through the inevitable hardware and software incompatibility problems. For me, as a relative expert on GNU/Linux and computer hardware, this not so bad, and I don't mind the high buy-in cost, because I'm know for a fact that I'm going to get a lot of use out of the resulting system. Plus I need to save the money. But for a typical, non-technically-inclined end-user, it can be a nightmare.

Though the cost is admittedly somewhat high for the given performance, the Open-PC offers a way around all the installation and configuration hassles of scratch-building. This would be a terrific starter system for an end-user, and one which directly supports free software development and free software advocacy goals.

Licensing Notice

This work may be distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License, version 3.0, with attribution to "Terry Hancock, first published in Free Software Magazine". Illustrations and modifications to illustrations are under the same license and attribution, except as noted in their captions (all images in this article are CC By-SA 3.0 compatible).

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Comments

openuniverse's picture

hey, i love your articles, (i love your book,) this one really confuses me though. are you saying these guys are vaporware or will put you on a long waiting list? laclinux.com/gnu/FAQ

because they've got suse, (and others,) but they've also got 100% free distros like gnewsense. they've got a wider selection. i'm not sure about the prices, but if i was looking for a "net-top" i could go lower than $250 for bare-bones and install myself.

so what's special about open-pc that's new? are they just the cheapest way you can possibly up gnu/linux's "marketshare" on pre-installed pc's? because there are obviously *better* ways.

that or i'm just missing it, and probably will until someone points out the really obvious detail i'm missing. that's fine-- i'm asking! cheers...

Terry Hancock's picture

Thanks for the comment, and I'm glad you liked my book. :-)

About your question:

The OpenPC concept is principally about the openness of the hardware. Obviously you can find free operating systems and install them on commodity computers, but it's tricky to find hardware where everything is open and fully supported by free software drivers.

The site you link to does take care of the installation, and no doubt they are taking some care to pick commercially-available systems that have relatively manageable hardware. But they're still basically just installing GNU/Linux on a commodity system that wasn't particularly designed for it.

What OpenPC is doing is querying the community for what hardware will work best, then contracting manufacturers to make the systems to that specification. In other words, they're putting a GNU/Linux user community in charge of the hardware decision-making process and in charge of setting priorities for the hardware selection process.

That's a step up from the type of site you are pointing to in terms of the transparency of the hardware. It means that all of the software you use can be free software, all the way down to the metal. I'm not 100% sure they've achieved this (I think there may have been some issues with the BIOS), but this is the goal.

There is a further step, which I don't think OpenPC is doing, which is full disclosure of the hardware design and manufacturing data (sometimes called "open source hardware").

Not everyone cares about these issues (or for that matter about free software), and there's certainly room for many different niches. But for those who do care about the transparency of the hardware, OpenPC is pretty interesting.

When I referred to "vaporware", I was talking about a number of attempts to create open hardware systems for GNU/Linux -- particularly game consoles -- that get a lot of buzz in the trade press, but then turn out to be mysteriously difficult to actually purchase! OpenPC has actually made it into production and retail sales, which is an achievement worth mentioning.

Ryan Cartwright's picture

Open-PC are "special" because they supply PCs that require no proprietary software at all - not even drivers. Yes you can get PCs cheaper but it's very likely you would need to install proprietary drivers to put GNU/Linux on them.

Open-PCs come with GNU/Linux pre-installed AND they will have no non-free software on them what-so-ever. This is an important point for many in the free software community. See this article written after the announcement of the Open-PC project for discussion on this.

--
Equitas IT Solutions - fairness, quality, freedom
http://www.equitasit.co.uk

MNC3333's picture
Submitted by MNC3333 on

I believe the goal of the open-pc project is to develop a powerful, high quality Free Software based PC in an open fashion. We believe that opening up the development of a personal computer, setting our own goals and boundaries and expanding on the knowledge of thousands will result in a superior product. Everyone is invited to take part in the preparations: currently there is an online poll at open-pc.com for the first product's hardware details (What form factors? Netbook or nettop? Optical drives?) and software additions.

Now a final price of $300 to $400 is our current goal, assembly and international shipment included. As an unbeatable advantage we promise to deliver compatible hard- and software, a preinstalled AppStore client and integrated online services for community support.

Dave J. lte phones Inc.

aqualung's picture
Submitted by aqualung on

Six+ weeks after this article was published (and more than three months since product launch), Open-PC still haven't published complete specs on the machines.

Their support forum is a wasteland, questions from potential buyers go unanswered.

Doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, I'm afraid.

Christopher Waid's picture

The goal for the open-pc project was one of furthering freedom. Before this you couldn't easily get a pre-manufactured desktop system that didn't have non-free software dependencies (except for our systems although they come with Ubuntu at the moment). That is no GNU/Linux desktop system existed that intentionally was produced without the need for non-free drivers or firmware and still retained full support for things like 3D accelerated graphics. All that being said I should point out that no X86 system will ever be based on 100% free software. Even if we used the right components to produce an X86 system without a proprietary BIOS it still wouldn't be 100% free. You can stick on a 100% free OS. That doesn't mean it is 100% free as other pieces exist which are non-free still. To get a totally free system you would have to switch architectures. Only one company can really claim to produce a totally free system right now. It is a manufacturer in China which produces a non-x86 Netbook (I believe two versions exist one with a 7" and one with a 10" screen). Richard Stallman has one of these.

What I want to point out is that you will not see a financial benefit to selling free systems. That is except for support costs potentially being reduced nobody is actively purchasing these systems. A totally free system is the only fully supportable system by the way. This is one of the reasons we encourage people to buy into freedom. Without freedom you will loose support for hardware rather quickly. The problems abound when it comes to non-free drivers/firmware. Wifi cards without free drivers/firmware don't "just work" as they should across distributions and time. Video cards loose support for 3D acceleration (3DFX on Microsoft Windows is a good example- company went out of business). Printers become obsolete in a single iteration of a particular distribution. Power management fails to work properly and poor battery life results. You can go through just about every category and if the device uses non-free drivers/firmware you will see problems on both free and non-free operating platforms such as Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X. These issue are not exclusive to GNU/Linux.

Our computers and peripherals are meant to work across the spectrum of GNU/Linux distributions. We work with distributions to improve your freedom and ensure stuff "just works" as a totally free system should. When we have a device that uses a chipset that depends on a piece of firmware where it is 100% free for instance and those devices which depend on it don't work in GNU/Linux distributions which are free we take an initiative to correct the situation. We're working for instance to correct one such instance right now with an 802.11N USB wifi device. Before we started selling this 802.11N USB wifi device you couldn't get a competitively (retail) priced 802.11N card in the USA for under $70. Both the $70 free device and the one we sell did use the same chipset.

We worked with the open-pc project to correct 3D accelerated driver issues. These are the things you will get from buying a pre-manufactured computer designed for GNU/Linux compared to building it yourself. If you buy a random "Linux" computer from any other company in the USA right now you will end up needing non-free drivers and firmware. If you don't have a problem initially you are still almost guaranteed to run into a problem at some point.

The main reason we ship with Ubuntu is it is a supportable and easy to use distribution. That is largely it has drivers for current chipsets, has flash support, and is well integrated (auto-detection of not installed components, smooth upgrades, etc). Going forward we will be focusing more and more on Trisquel too for those users who are ready to go free. For those who don't know Trisquel is a newer free distribution based on Ubuntu that strips out the non-free components.

Christopher Waid
ThinkPenguin.com

Author information

Terry Hancock's picture

Biography

Terry Hancock is co-owner and technical officer of Anansi Spaceworks. Currently he is working on a free-culture animated series project about space development, called Lunatics as well helping out with the Morevna Project.