Fit-PC2 review: The world’s smallest desktop PC

fit-pc2As I wrote earlier, CompuLab was kind enough to send me a Fit-PC2, so I could find out if this tiny little PC is as great as it sounds on paper. The first unit I received failed before I could properly test it, but it was quickly replaced and I’ve been putting the replacement one through its paces all day today.

On paper

The Fit-PC2 is the world’s smallest fully functional desktop PC. It’s about 1/4 the volume of a Mac Mini, and it still has all the necessary connections and features to be used as a home or office computer. It’s also the most energy efficient PC I know of, using only six watt when idle and eight when playing full resolution HD video (1080p). Yes, it does that. But more about that later.

When Intel launched it’s Atom series of processors, it coupled them with the rather ancient 945G chipset. This combo is inside most netbook and nettop PCs. Not only is the 945 an older chipset, it also uses a lot of energy. More in fact than the Atom chip itself. Basically, it let the Atom both down in terms of energy efficiency and performance. nVidia’s ION platform proved that it was possible to create a much more powerful chipset without needing extra juice. The US15W chipset found in the Fit-PC2 however is extremely energy efficient. It tops out at 2.3 watts, less even than the CPU.

Specs
My review unit was a ‘fit-PC2 Linux’ with the following specs. It retails for $359 when ordered directly from CompuLab.

Fit-PC2 Linux specifications
CPUIntel Atom Z530 1.6GHz
Motherboard chipsetIntel US15W SCH
Storage160GB SATA hard disk
WiFi802.11b/g
OSUbuntu Linux 8.04
Memory1GB DDR2
DisplayDVI up to 1920×1080 (I’ve tested 1920×1200, works!)
AudioHigh definition 2.0
LAN1000 BaseT Ethernet
USB6 USB
Other featuresIR Receiver, miniSD socket, 12V power supply

fit-pc2-pen

Hardware

The first thing I noticed about these specs is that Intel made some rather curious choices when designing the US15W chipset. There are cutting edge features like gigabit LAN, but at the same time you have to connect the hard drive using parallel ATA. Why Intel chose not to include the newer, faster SATA standard is beyond me. CompuLab has solved some of the practical implications of this omission by integrating a bridge adapter, but that still means hard drives won’t run at SATA speeds.

The only noise the Fit-PC2 makes comes from the hard drive. There’s a diskless version available, and if you were to add an SDD drive you’d end up with a completely silent system. SSD prices are dropping daily, so I may well end up swapping the 160 GB 2.5″ hard drive for one with no moving parts.

Because the CPU and chipset are not actively cooled (in fact the case functions as a heatsink), the Fit-PC2 can run quite hot. I’ve been assured by the people at CompuLab that 50 degrees (C) is normal, and that’s about how hot mine gets.

fit-pc2-connections

Form factor trade-offs

Because the Fit-PC2 is only 11.5 mm wide and 27 high, there’s very little room for connectors. This is probably why CompuLab opted for a much smaller HDMI connector even though the signal is actually DVI. Because of this, there’s no analog signal which in turn means you can only connect a screen with a DVI or HDMI connector. A HDMI to DVI adapter is supplied with the computer.

There’s also no audio over the HDMI output. There are analog line-in, out and microphone connectors, but digital audio is a no-go. This seriously limits the product’s potential as a home theater PC.

I’d also have liked the front USB connectors to be full size instead of mini-USB. This way you need an adapter cable to connect things like thumb drives.

US15W and Linux

The Poulsbo chipset includes an Intel GMA500 graphics processor, and it is what I was most curious about when testing this machine. The model number might suggest it to be a slower version of the GMA900, but in fact it’s an entirely different graphics core, PowerVR SGX, licensed from a company called Imagination Technologies. I wanted to see if it could keep up with the GMA900 in my Asus 901 netbook. Perhaps it’d even do better.

Intel has been known to support the Linux community by providing the details necessary to write display drivers. As a result, Intel’s integrated GPUs are a great option for Linux users with modest graphics needs. Unfortunately, because it’s not a true Intel product, this doesn’t apply to the GMA500. The current state of Linux drivers for the Poulsbo chipset has rightfully been described as ‘a mess‘. There is a driver available for some Linux distributions, but it does not work with the latest kernels. For Ubuntu, this means you’re stuck using 8.04. And I have to admit that after using 9.04 for a while now that feels like a major step backwards.

Another thing there simply wasn’t any room for in the Fit-PC2 was RAM sockets. It’s got 1 GB of memory soldered right onto the motherboard, and there’s no way to add extra RAM.

Test setup

To see how fast this machine was I ran a series of test on three machines I own. All of them run Ubuntu Linux, and all were fully up-to-date at the time of testing. I realize that this is a rather random collection of hardware configurations, but it’s the best I could do.

Computer nameFit-PC2Eee-PC 901Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic C620
CPUIntel Atom Z530 1.6 GHzIntel Atom N270 1.6 GHzIntel Pentium IV 3 GHz
ChipsetIntel US15WIntel 945GIntel 915GV
Graphics adapterIntel GMA500Intel GMA950Intel GMA900
System memory1GB1GB1GB
Operating systemUbuntu 8.04Ubuntu 9.04Ubuntu 9.04

Benchmark results

1080p HD video playback

Computer nameFit-PC2Eee-PC 901Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic C620
Smooth?YesHell noYes

Flash video
Flash is notoriously slow on Linux, and the Atom isn’t the fastest processor available. Watching Flash-based YouTube videos is an integral part of the web browsing experience for many, and something a nettop PC should be able to handle with ease.

Computer nameFit-PC2Eee-PC 901Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic C620
Standard qualityYesYesYes
Full screenNoNoNo
High QualityYesYesYes
High DefinitionNoNoNo

All three machines played both standard and high quality videos without issues, but going to fullscreen mode as too much to ask, as was playing YouTube’s new HD format. Faster machines may me able to accomplish this, but there’s a lot of work to be done by Adobe before Flash video plays as smoothly on Linux as it does on Windows.

Flash preformance
To further test Flash performance I wrote a little movie (which can be found here) that animates 700 movie clips in mathematical patterns. Animating this many objects is hard work for Flash player. The movie calculates a score after the first 1000 frames.

Computer nameFit-PC2Eee-PC 901Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic C620
Average test score345446649

This is the only benchmark I ran where the Eee-PC beat the Fit-PC2. I ran the tests several times to see if there was some sort of glitch, but the results were consistent. This probably means that the 2D part of the GMA500 core is a little slower than that of the GMA950. There are very few real world scenarios where Flash would draw this much into the screen though, so I doubt if anyone will ever notice.

Other benchmarks
Using Phoronix Test Suite, I ran a couple of other benchmarks to further measure performance.

Computer nameFit-PC2Eee-PC 901Fujitsu-Siemens Scenic C620
Tremulous (3D gaming, higher is better)19.16 fps16.26 fps13.23 fps
Ffmpeg (video encoding, lower is better)93.33 sec92.66 sec40.16 sec
POV-Ray (3D rendering, lower is better)6169 sec6066 sec2111 sec

I was quite surprised to see the Fit-PC2 win the 3D gaming benchmark, especially considering how little power it uses. the game ran noticably smoother on this tiny little box than it did on the Asus and the Fujitsu-Siemens. 19 frames per second may not be enough to actually play this particular game, but it does show that the GMA500 is a little more potent than its model number suggests.

Both the FFmpeg and POV-Ray benchmark give an indication of how fast the CPU is, and it’s clear that a single core Atom is no match for even an aging Pentium IV. The P4 may run very hot and use tons of energy, it did manage to beat both Atoms by a comfortable margin.

fit-pc2 back

Conclusion

CompuLab promotes the Fit-PC2 as a ‘new type of home theater PC’. Well, I’m not convinced that’s what it’s ideally suited for. It does play HD video really well, it’s quiet and it has DVI out. But there’s no TV tuner, and the Atom is seriously slow when it comes to transcoding video. I haven’t been able to try things like Boxee or even Windows Media Center, but I doubt running either on this machine will be much fun. Microsoft lists a 1.6 GHz processor in their hardware requirements, but I doubt they mean the Atom.

So, is this a bad machine then? By no means. It’s an amazing engineering feat, and because it uses less power than even the average router you can leave it on all day without worrying about your electricity bill or the environment. I’d highly recommend this as a download machine or a lightweight home server. Simply put it somewhere out of sight and have it handle your torrents. Or you can attach an external hard drive and use it to store (backups of) your files.

And if you’re running a business it may be worth considering that these machines pay for themselves. If I’d replace my current desktop PC with a Fit-PC2 it would save around $100/year on my utilities bill. It’ll run office software with ease, and general performance under Ubuntu was on par with the Eee-PC.

27 Comments

  1. Link: FLOSS_News: Um verdadeiro Plano Tecnologico; Debian fiel a si mesma; 5 formas de colocar Ubuntu em ms-windows « O Vigia
  2. Link: Links 30/07/2009: Brazil’s Move to GNU/Linux, IBM ’s Latest GNU/Linux Announcement | Boycott Novell
  3. On why Intel would have integrated PATA instead of SATA: This chipset is obviously made for embedded applications. Since PATA is cross-compatible with CompactFlash, it makes sense to include PATA so that embedded machines can use a CF cartridge rather than a traditional hard drive or a more expensive SSD.

    Comment by HeartBurnKid — July 31, 2009 @ 9:29 pm

  4. OK, but it’s not (always) being used in embedded applications. It’s inside recent Dell netbooks among others. And why would embedded computers need full HD playback. It’s a strange mix of legacy and cutting edge no matter how you look at it.

    Comment by Roy — August 4, 2009 @ 9:10 am

  5. cool box) looks like router:>

    Comment by dreamjke — August 9, 2009 @ 5:43 pm

  6. Cool product. This would be an ideal gadget for “techy” people who need to be connected all the time. It is not only practical to use for 24 hour computing. It also features “green computing”.

    Comment by Desktops — August 11, 2009 @ 8:40 am

  7. Great review! Have you had a chance to run a Mac mini through the tests that you’ve perfomed in this article? I’ve been considering a Mac Mini for a long time, but find it way to expensive. It would be really interesting to see how it performs with the fitpc2. The hardware specifications are clearly a lott better, but a real life test (with Mac OSX) should be interesting.

    Comment by Alex — October 20, 2009 @ 12:58 pm

    • Hi Alex. The Fit-PC2 won’t run OSX if that’s what you want. The GMA500 graphics are incompatible. As you say, the Mini has a completely different class of hardware and will run circles around this little machine with ease. I don’t have one, and even if I had, running Ubuntu and OSX benchmarks would mean comparing apples and oranges.

      Comment by Roy — October 22, 2009 @ 1:07 pm

  8. You may have missed a feature of the Fit PC2 that we find invaluable: its low power draw. Combined with a low-power LCD screen, we can deploy desktop computers to the developing world that draw less than 20W of electricity, making them great for solar-powered computer labs.

    You also may want to point out that for domestic uses, car electronics are a fav, folks can buy the Fit PC2 from Amazon (Linux & XP models): http://tinyurl.com/fitpc2-amazon

    Comment by Wayan — October 26, 2009 @ 3:41 pm

  9. Hi Wayan. I don’y think I missed that at all. It’s mentioned in the article, and it’s why I was interested in the Fit-PC2 in the first place. Are there really LCDs out there that draw only 12 watts? Both my screens use many times that.

    I checked out your organization’s website and I have to say it sounds really interesting. Any chance you’d be interested in doing an interview about the technical solutions you’re using in developing countries? Would make a good blog post I think.

    Comment by Roy — October 28, 2009 @ 8:19 am

  10. Link: Odd Lots – Jeff Duntemann’s Contrapositive Diary
  11. Hi Roy,
    So do I understand correctly that the fit-pc2 can not be used for playing.HD or even Blueray movies..
    Cause I want to buy one.. I dont want to have a desktop in the bedroom for my fullHD tv. I want a small capable PC for just playing movies. I could have placed the fitpc right behind the tv and no-one would notice it’s there.. to bad..

    Any suggestions for a small pc that would do the trick?
    I have an OQO2+ Also with an ATOM cpu but doesn’t want to work properly..

    Good review, though..

    gr.
    michel

    Comment by Michel — November 22, 2009 @ 12:02 pm

    • Hi Michel. Theoretically, it should do blu-ray movies. I’ve played some 1080p trailers on it and that worked just fine. There’s no blu-ray drive of course, but the GMA 500 handles full HD just fine. But I still wouldn’t recommend a severely underpowered PC like this as a media center solution. If you come across a video that uses a non-standard encoding (like Flash/YouTube) and the processor has to do the work it’ll fail. Atom just doesn’t do full HD without help.

      Considering the current driver situation (on Linux especially), I’d recommend going for an Ion based solution instead if you want a box that’ll play most files. If you want something to play every file you come across, and let you watch YouTube in HD, go with a more powerful processor. Those new Dell Zino HD’s look real nice…

      Comment by Roy — November 24, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  12. Link: Updated Fit-PC2i adds second LAN port | Roy Tanck's weblog
  13. I am not looking for a heavy duty Home theather. Just a light one. I have an LED Monitor that is very energy efficient. Purchased from Staples. I want to be able to play a regular CD Movie and listen to an audio book on CD. I also want to be able to use this PC to run Skype. If I can keep this tiny machine running on little juice I can use Skype as a “land line” and hear incoming calls.

    What are your comments/views.

    Thanks

    Alternate email: Cassandra.odoms@navy.mil.

    Comment by CD Odoms — December 16, 2009 @ 12:14 am

  14. Link: Fit-PC2 used to power amazing robot spider | Roy Tanck's weblog
  15. Dont really see it mentioned anywhere but to make sure, is there a built in wireless card?

    Comment by Mike C. — March 22, 2010 @ 8:03 am

    • Hi Mike. There are version with and without wifi. If you get one without you can use the mini-PCI slot to add it later if you like.

      Comment by Roy — March 22, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

  16. Link: Updated Fit-PC2i adds second LAN port | yugobimawan.org
  17. Am I understanding this right, you’re saying that the chassi gets 50 deg C hot? That’s something that could make me not wanting to buy it.

    Comment by Isak — January 6, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  18. Hi Isak. Yes, it runs hot. But it’s designed to do so. The housing is the heatsink, and I;ve detected no stability issues at all.

    Comment by Roy — January 12, 2011 @ 1:37 pm

  19. Link: CompuLab’s Trim Slice puts ARM on the desktop | Roy Tanck's weblog
  20. cool box ‘-’ looks like router XD

    Comment by Wordpress Dicas — April 26, 2011 @ 3:49 am

  21. Link: Fit-PC2 review: The world’s smallest desktop
  22. GREAT review! I was looking for an inexpensive, green home email/ssh server, and your review tells me that this little box should be perfect.

    Comment by Glenn Meyer — July 14, 2011 @ 6:30 am

  23. For a 24×7 server I currently have a Dreambox, which is an ARM-based system without video output.

    However, this combines the low-power requirements of such a thing with a quite serious processor and video processor. You could try to run XBMC on this fit pc2, it might just work.

    Comment by Merijn Vogel — January 25, 2012 @ 3:33 pm

  24. I’m extremely inspired along with your writing talents as neatly as with the format in your blog. Is that this a paid subject or did you modify it your self? Anyway stay up the nice high quality writing, it’s rare to look a nice blog like this one nowadays..

    Comment by All In One Computers Reviews — January 30, 2012 @ 3:25 pm