Sunday, November 25, 2012

Cheap and silent desktop Linux box!


In the tech news in the last couple of weeks, there was an announcement of an intel branded mini-pc.  There have been many of these small desktop machines in the last few years.  Very small footprints, low power consumption, most are silent due to a fanless design.

The appeal of such small machines is obvious.  Taking negligible desk space, they can sit out of the way, or even be hidden.  They can be mounted to the back of a monitor for use as industrial signage, or a pseudo all-in-one design for the desktop.  They are ideal for limited space installations like in mobile homes, or a small collage dorm room.

They're considered cheap, yet are still a bit pricey for a lot of us.  Many of them seem to settle around the $300 mark.

I've found an alternative that is widely available and much cheaper, less than half in most cases.  The early intel Mac minis.

Back in 2006, Apple produced their first intel based mac mini design.  Quite a capable box at the time, Apple was always using cutting edge hardware in their designs.  This model contains an intel core duo dual core 1.66Ghz cpu, 1Gigabit ethernet, wifi, bluetooth, four usb ports, firewire 400, and DVI video connector.

Full specs listed here:

http://www.everymac.com/systems/apple/mac_mini/specs/mac_mini_cd_1.66.html

The last version of Apples OS that could run on this model was Snow Leopard, 10.6.x.   Since the last two versions of their OS, there has been a glut of these machines showing up on eBay, going for as low as $130 to just over $150.   I picked one up with a bad hard disk for under $80!

Replacing the hard disk is not too complicated, I'll list the steps at the end of this article to help anyone along if they pick up one cheap.  These make a GREAT Linux box,  I'm writing this on mine right now loaded with Debian testing.

In my case, I had a unit with a bad HD, as mentioned, so I installed a 32Gig SSD I'd picked up a year or so ago.  Installing your favorite Linux is easy, Apples firmware has an emulated bios for their "bootcamp" method of dual booting windows on their machines.  When you power up, hold down the 'opt' key if you have a mac keyboard, or the left hand 'alt' key if you have a PC keyboard.  The machine will come up to a graphic menu that allows you to choose your boot device.  Insert your linux CD/DVD, and after a few seconds you'll see a CD icon appear with "Windows" under it.  Arrow over to select it, or click with the mouse and the CD will boot.

From that point, you go through an installation just as you would on any PC box, and after the install is done and it reboots, it will come right up.

These machines are a bit pokey under Apples OS, but under Linux, they perform extremely well.   All hardware works just fine on any recent Linux kernel.  OpenGL performance is not bad at all, making all 3D games that I've tried run smoothly.  I've even played full 1080p video files full screen without stutter.  The machine is nearly silent as the internal fan can't be heard unless you put your ear right down next to the vents on the back.

So there you go.  For not much money, you can have a tiny desktop Linux PC that is fully capable of just about anything you might need to do.  Enjoy.

Here are the steps to get the mini apart for HD replacement.

1) Remove the case.  For this you need a special tool.  Apple sells it for $30.  Since it's basically just a 1" wide putty knife, you can get one at the hardware store for a couple dollars.
   Insert the knife into the seam around the bottom edge of the machine and pry.  It will pop loose, and you just work your way around.

2) Disconnect two cables.  At the back, there is a ribbon cable connected to a small board at the back of the CD rom drive.  It has a ZIF connector.  You pop to small clip up at each side and the ribbon lifts out.
   At the front, next to the small coin battery, is a two wire cable with a snap connector into the main board.  Pop it out carefully.  This is the fan temperature sensor, and if you forget to plug it back in, the fan will run full speed.

3) Remove the wifi antenna.  At the rear corner is the wifi antenna board.  Under it you will find two plastic clips.  Squeeze them in slightly and you can life off the antenna board.  Remove the spring and set it aside.

4) Remove four screws holding the chassis down on the main board.  At each of the four corners of the chassis  there is a small Phillips head screw.  One is at the bottom of a tube, one is right out in the open, and the remaining two are tucked down inside the corner of the plastic chassis.  A penlight will help on those hidden two.

5) Lift off the chassie.  This is only a little tricky.  There is an interconnected socket between the two, and the wifi antenna cable snakes down under the fan exhaust at the back.  Just work the chassis loose with a gentle rocking and lifting motion, keeping the antenna cable from getting snagged.

6) Once the chassis is out, turn it over and you'll see the 2.5" sata HD right there.  Four screws and you can work it loose from the connectors and lift it out.  Drop in your replacement by lining it up with the sata connectors and gently pressing it in until the screw holes line up.

7) re-assemble in reverse.  Take care to guide the wifi cable around the fans exhaust, *carefully* or you'll pop it loose from the wifi board.  With the holes lined up, you'll be able to work the interconnection in.  The ribbon cable at the back will slide into the ZIF connector and has a line drawn across it that will line up with the edge of the connector when it's all the way in.  Alternately press down the little clip edges while holding the cable in.
Don't forget that fan connector up front by the battery!
The two screws with the hidden holes are just a bit tricky.  A small Phillips jewelers screwdriver that has been magnetized helps there.
Finally, guide the case back on, watch the flexible ground at the back and use the guides around the back connector areas.  Press it down and it will snap back on.

4 comments:

  1. I whole-heartedly agree. I'm currently running a G4 PPC mini w/Debian. Even this one works quite well.

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  2. And you can get those dirt cheap! The only down side to the G4 machine is lack of flash and sometimes you have to build from source when PPC binaries are not available. Speed is much much better on the intel box.

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