Review of the Everex TC2502 Green gPC -- Nov. 2007

It was time to buy my daughter a cheap Linux system to be used for schoolwork and playing flash games — well, mostly for playing flash games. In the past, I've bought the $200 Great Quality boxes at Fry's, and they've proved very reliable, but the salesman at Fry's told me that they were no longer carrying them, so in search of my cheap Linux fix, I decided to buy the new Everex TC2502 Green gPC being sold at WalMart. Er, supposedly being sold at WalMart. WalMart has sold Linux PCs in the past, but what was supposed to be different about this one was that it was going to be available on the shelf in stores, not just by mail order. However, a bit of searching in the WalMart web site showed that the machine wasn't really in stock at any of the stores that were listed as having it. What was in stock was the GC3500, a $300 model that comes with Windows Vista preinstalled. (Since then, Everex has lined up a bunch of other distributors, including Zareason; since I'm not a big fan of WalMart, I'd probably use one of them if I was doing this over.) I ended up ordering the $200 machine I wanted via WalMart's "Site to Store" service, where they ship it to the local store (at no extra charge), and send you an email when it's arrived so you can come and pick it up. The price was $199, plus tax. A monitor and wifi card basically doubled the price.

The default gOS desktop.

The gPC comes with a keyboard, mouse, and speakers. Hardware setup was pretty straightforward. It comes with a customized version of Ubuntu, called gOS, which uses Enlightenment as its window manager. A poster-sized, two-sided set of instructions is included, with hardware setup on one side, and an introduction to the window manager on the other. The first time we powered the machine up, it asked us to set the time zone, and set up a user account for my daughter. A couple of confusing and annoying things happened after that. First, it demanded a password for administration tasks, and we didn't understand at first that it was just asking us to type in the user password she'd already chosen.[1] Next it presented us with a EULA for Google toolbar; we just hit cancel, not understanding why we'd want to bother.

The Enlightenment window manager comes set up with a theme that looks like MacOS X with a green background. There is a row of icons on the bottom of the screen, called the "shelf," which is a lot like the MacOS X dock. The row of icons scrolls to the left and right when you move the mouse. There is heavy Google branding all over the place. The upper right corner of the desktop is devoted to a Google search window, and icons are provided in the shelf for GMail, Google Maps, and Google shopping. When you start up firefox, your homepage is set by default to be a Google portal called iGoogle. None of this was anywhere near as annoying as all the crapware that comes installed on many Windows boxes, but it did give me a little bit of the same feeling that my eyeballs were being treated as a commodity. Enlightenment didn't bowl me over as being especially snappy on this hardware, but it seemed acceptable. Performance in general seems perfectly fine, if you're not a heavy gamer. Writer starts in 10 seconds, which is actually slightly faster than on my dual core 2.2 GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 4200+![2]

The default homepage in Firefox, showing the heavy Google branding.

This machine is being strongly marketed as an environmentally friendly PC; evidence of this includes the word "green" in the product's name, the omnipresent green theme in the window manager, the leaf icon, and the similar styling of the box. Inside the case there's mostly empty space; there's a lonely little micro-ATX board, with a 200-watt power supply. The power supply is a Sanhwa DR-8220BTX with a rated efficiency of 65%, which seems decidedly unimpressive for a machine being marketed as environmentally friendly. Anyone who's really serious about building a green computer these days is looking for an 80 PLUS power supply, which means that it's at least 80% efficient, and is also typically lead-free. Measurements with a meter showed power efficiency that was okay, but not exactly earthshattering:

powered off 4 W
peak, booting 72 W
CPU spinning in a loop 50 W
CPU idle 40 W

(These numbers are all for the computer only, not the monitor.) The figures are certainly better than a gaming rig, but they're not especially impressive for a low-end desktop system. This is essentially the kind of power consumption you get with any micro-ATX machine that uses the motherboard's onboard video. The system is very quiet, since it has only a single fan. Here are the hardware specs, scraped directly off of Everex's web site:

1.5GHz, VIA -D Processor, 512MB DDR2 533MHz, SDRAM, 80GB Hard Disk Drive, DVD-ROM/CD-RW Optical Drive, VIA UniChrome Pro IGP Graphics, Realtek 6-Channel Audio, (1) 10/100 Ethernet Port, (1) DB 15-Pin VGA Port, (6) USB 2.0 Ports, (1) RJ-11 Port, (1) Headphone/Line-Out Port, (2) Microphone/Line-In Ports, (1) Serial Port, (1) Parallel Port, (1) Keyboard, (1) Mouse, (1) Set of Amplified Stereo Speakers.

Since this machine's main purpose in life is going to be to allow my daughter to play Neopets and Club Penguin, the first order of business was to get Flash working. The Flash plugin was not included by default, which seems odd for a commercially distributed distro aimed at your grandma. I popped up a terminal window and installed it using "sudo apt-get install flashplugin-nonfree." I didn't spend any time trying to figure out if a naive user would have been able to get through this step.

Usability seemed decent in general. My daughter had used Gnome and MacOS X before, and seemed pretty comfortable with Enlightenment on an intuitive basis. One thing I found annoying was the styling of the buttons used to maximize, hide, and close windows; all three buttons are green, and until you mouse over them, there is no clear way to tell them apart. The documentation for the WM was extremely sparse. For instance, I was able to guess, based on analogy with MacOS X, that it was possible to remove applications from the shelf by dragging them out of it, but the documentation didn't explain that, and I don't think the stereotypical Grandma would have had a very easy time figuring this kind of thing out. There was also no documentation at all on how to install new applications. I used apt-get from the command line, but again, this could have been a significant barrier for a naive user.

Out of the box, your only option for networking is ethernet. A slip comes packed with the machine saying "[...] gPC does not support dial up modems [...] We've left the modem for our developer friends who can help the gOS community by configuring it for others to use [...]" Although the slip doesn't say so, I'm assuming this means that the motherboard they use has an onboard winmodem, which there are no Linux drivers for. Presumably if you wanted to use an external phone modem, you could. Since we're not wired for ethernet in my daughter's bedroom, my next step was to install wifi.

A rough spot in the user interface. The My gOS menu has different options depending on who's logged in. If you're not a user with administrative privileges (left), you can't shut down the computer. Only if you have admin privileges (right) do you get that option.

This was where the real problems began. The first issue was that I couldn't find any way to shut the machine down from the WM. There were no shutdown options in any of the menus I could find. Although I knew enough to open a terminal window and do a "sudo shutdown -h now," this seemed like a clear example of serious rough spots gOS; hassles like these would become very significant to naive users. Much later, I eventually realized that this was because I was not logged in as a user with administrative privileges, and a bug in the WM prevents non-admin users from shutting down (see screenshots above).[3] After shutting the machine down, I broke the seal on the case reading "WARNING: DO NOT OPEN UNIT BEFORE READING WARRANTY AGREEMENT," and installed a type of wifi card that I'd previously gotten to work on Ubuntu (a Linksys WMP54G card that uses the Ralink RT2500 chipset).

When I started up again, I didn't automatically get a wifi connection. There was an icon on my desktop, which turned out to run (via gksu) Exalt, a network manager that is intended to play the same role for Enlightenment that Gnome Network Manager does for Gnome. However, when I clicked on the icon, it gave an error message and refused to run. I eventually figured out how to run it by executing Exalt directly from the command line, but even then, I couldn't get the wifi working by clicking around in Exalt's GUI; it recognized our home network, but wouldn't connect to it via DHCP. I decided that since my previous successful experience had been with Gnome, I would install Gnome and see if I could get the card working with Gnome Network Manager. At this point, I ran into an uncomfortable issue, which is that gOS uses a nonstandard configuration of gdm for its login manager, and there was no way to select any other type of session besides Enlightenment.

By this point, my motivation to run the preinstalled OS had completely vanished. I felt as though I was in the worst of all possible worlds. Everex clearly intended me to do everything using their GUI, but their GUI was obviously a rough beta that wasn't going to let me do what I needed to do. On the other hand, I was also being repeatedly frustrated with my attempts to get things done by the standard methods I'd use on a normal Ubuntu system. I ended up giving up on gOS, and installing standard Ubuntu instead. To be fair, I ended up finding out that there had been a regression in wifi support for RT2500 in recent versions of Ubuntu, so it wasn't exactly smooth sailing on the new system. However, I did feel confident that with standard Ubuntu, I would be able to get the information I needed via the ubuntu forums.

Once I had installed standard Ubuntu, I was curious to see how the performance of Gnome on this machine compared with that of the Enlightenment WM that came installed on it. I had heard that the reason for supplying Enlightenment as the default was that it was supposed to be more usable than Gnome on low-end hardware. In fact, I didn't detect any clear difference in performance. Both Enlightenment and Gnome seemed about the same to me on this machine: a little on the slow side, but fairly usable.

My overall impression of the gPC's hardware was that it was very good, for a non-gaming machine, although its supposed environmental friendliness was overblown, if you compare with other non-gaming machines. The software, however, seems very raw and unpolished, and I wouldn't recommend gOS to anyone as a Linux distribution. Anyone who prefers Enlightenment as their WM can simply install Enlightenment on a standard Ubuntu system.

If you want to try gOS for yourself, there are instructions here for installing a version of the gOS desktop as a debian package, and using it as one of the sessions you can choose on a standard debian system; however, beware of the fact that it will replace your /etc/gdm/gdm.conf file with a nonstandard one, which will keep you from choosing any other session (e.g., Gnome) unless you change it back! You can also download gOS here via bittorrent, and burn it onto a live install CD; this is a much safer way to play around with gOS, without reconfiguring your whole system.

— Ben Crowell,

[1] This might not have been so surprising to someone who normally does administrative tasks using the Gnome GUI on Ubuntu, since Ubuntu uses a GUI interface to sudo. However, I normally do my administrative tasks on Ubuntu via the command line, by logging in as the root user. There were three Linux users standing around the machine, and it took all three of us by surprise, partly because we hadn't actually initiated any administrative task, we were just logging in for the first time. In any case, I would expect someone new to Linux to be pretty confused at this stage.

[2] Both machines were running Linux, and in both cases this was the startup time for the very first time OOo Writer was being loaded, so it was probably mainly a measure of hard disk speed. The second time, both machines took only a couple of seconds to load OOo, because it was already cached.

[3] I didn't figure this out until after I had already written the review, and it had already been frontpaged on Slashdot. Although I had wiped gOS by then and installed vanilla Ubuntu, there is a live CD provided with the gPC, so I booted with that, and eventually figured out what had been going on.