Small is Beautiful

Now, this is interesting. For as long as anyone can remember, the trend with computers has been to get faster and cheaper, but the size has always remained relatively constant. Today, though, now that just about any computer is fast enough for most people, vendors need a new way to differentiate themselves, and many have seized on size. The latest is Lindows, with their startlingly small and cheap ($350!) Lindows Media Computer — a 933MHz box suitable for general computing tasks, as well as more demanding stuff like DVD playback.

Frankly, this is a welcome development. I’ve been drooling over Shuttle‘s small form factor “XPC” systems for a long time — if you took their latest offering, the SN41G2, and stuck an AMD Athlon XP CPU and decent graphics card in, you could have a killer gaming PC the size of a GameCube. If you live in a small apartment like I do, that’s an attractive proposition.

Lindows’ new offering isn’t really aimed at the same crowd as Shuttle’s, though. Rather, it’s aimed directly at the new systems running Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition. These “Media Center PCs” are supposed to be plunked down in your home entertainment center — they’ve even got a modified UI that is surfable with a remote control — but the actual implementations of this concept have missed the mark on size and price considerably. The most heavily advertised Media Center PC, HP’s implementation, is the size of a standard mini-tower PC — hardly something small enough to set on top of the TV, or next to the stereo — and it starts at a cool $1,350! High-end game system boutique Alienware gets the form factor a little better with their Navigator system (which is roughly the same size as the Shuttle XPCs), but they start at $1699 and go all the way up to a non-trivial $2899. At that end many people would have spent more on their media center PC than they did on the rest of their media center!

Is Lindows’ system going to kill these beasts? Probably not; Lindows has always had a reputation as an odd duck among Linux distributions, neither fish (its ballyhooed compatibility with Windows apps is actually pretty iffy) nor fowl (Lindows users have to pay to get updates from Lindows that they could download from other Linux sites for free), so it’s hard to imagine this box launching them to dominance. Taken on its merits, though, this is a pretty compelling system; $350 buys you all the computer the average user will ever need, and it’s small enough that you can put it just about anywhere. For many people, the Lindows Media Center may be just what they’ve been looking for.