- Great price
- solid hardware
- LindowsOS 2.0 runs Office 2000 applications
- good selection of bundled and downloadable software
- Click-N-Run Linux software download system.
- Poor graphics and audio subsystems
- no hardware expansion capability
- OS customisation beneath the pre-packaged surface requires considerable technical expertise.
The £250 PC hasn't been part of the British computing landscape since the days of the eight-bit micro. Evesham Technology has changed that, with the launch of the E-scape Li -- no monitor or speakers, but everything else you need for a working computer. It includes, for the first time in the UK market, a version of Linux aimed at the consumer.The E-scape Li impressed straight out of the box -- and a small box it is too. Based around VIA’s EPIA Mini-ITX motherboard and a low-power 733MHz VIA C3 processor, it is small enough (31cm by 16cm by 26cm) and quiet enough to sit unobtrusively in a living room. The downside is that there's no room for expansion, as the motherboard's solitary PCI slot is taken up with a 56Kbps modem. However, unless you relish tangling with updating Linux drivers for new hardware, you'd be best advised to leave the case on this computer unopened. So, you're stuck with VIA's choice of hardware, which is as good as you'd expect on a £250 system. An integrated Trident Blade 3D graphics chip and a VT1612A codec handle multimedia with a complete lack of panache: set a 70Hz refresh rate on a 1,024 by 768 desktop, and shimmering lines will come and go. Similarly, the audio isn't much better than a £10 transistor radio. But there is a TV output, alongside S-Video and VGA; you also have four USB ports, parallel and serial ports, PS/2 keyboard and mouse connectors, and a 10/100Mbps Ethernet port. A 40GB hard disk and 256MB of RAM finish things off rather well. Considering that ten years ago the purchase price would have got you the modem by itself (at a fraction of the speed), minor grumbles about quality and flexibility seem churlish. The hardware does the job.
The Lindows experience
But nobody's much interested in the hardware. What sets the E-scape Li apart is its choice of operating system: LindowsOS 2.0, the Linux distribution with Windows-like bits bolted on. Lindows comprises a custom desktop running on the KDE interface, which in turn runs on the Debian Woody Linux distribution. There's also WINE, the Windows-compatible layer: Lindows started off life making grand claims for future compatibility with Windows applications, but there’s a lot more circumspection now. The starting screen is very familiar, combining elements of the Windows desktop with bits of Macintosh Aqua, half-forgotten ideas from the Amiga and some ideas of its own. Despite that, it's colourful, reasonably uncluttered and unthreatening. There's a start button with passable simulacra of the Windows control applets, program lists, file find and so on, and a task bar that has links to popular applications and running programs. Evesham ships OpenOffice (the open-source version of the StarOffice suite) with the installation; there's the Netscape 7.0 browser, email and news programs, an MP3 player, lots of little utilities, desktop games and so on. We plugged our review system into our office LAN, and it immediately acquired an IP address from DHCP -- there was a hiccough where it wouldn't do anything else for a while, which looked like an intermittent connection on the network port. A bit of prodding, and it worked perfectly. Web browsing, file transfer, composing documents and setting up email went very smoothly. We then tried installing Office 2000. That worked as well as it does under Windows XP, and a few minutes later we had what appeared to be a fully functioning Office suite. As Lindows comes with a Windows networking client, it can read and write shared resources on Microsoft machines: we loaded in some documents from a share on a Windows 2000 machine and edited them. Hardly an extensive test of the software, but the system was entirely usable. Thence into the depths of Lindows. Most common functions are accessible -- if not exactly where a Windows user would expect, then at least somewhere obvious. It's when things go wrong, or when you have to brave the Linux command line to run software that expects you to have a ponytail, that things degenerate. There are two classes of user for whom Lindows is appropriate: the absolutely non-technical appliance operator, and the unreconstructed geek. Lindows is friendly, capable and stable enough to run a simple set of tasks -- such as word processing, Web browsing and email -- just as well as any alternative. Teach someone the way to do it, and as long as they don't fiddle it'll work just fine. Alternatively, if you're comfortable with hacking through megabytes of error messages (some more obtuse than anything Nostradamus came up with) and teaching yourself the stickiest, most gruesome guts of an operating system, then Lindows will be delightfully open to your curiosity. You'll need broadband, though: Linux downloads are rarely svelte.
Installing Linux software
If you're a normal user, prepared to download a bit of software here or try a little configuration file editing there, then Lindows will drag you down like quicksand. Lindows' own Click-N-Run system lets you download ten applications, after which you must pay $99 a year (soon to be $120) to get access to the rest. That's safe enough. You can also use the ‘apt-get’ application in Debian, which is one of the best and safest application installation managers on any operating system: most of the time you just type ‘apt-get install [appname]’ and it flows in over the Net. Mind you, you then have to find where on the system it has installed itself, set up icons for it on the desktop and do all the other housekeeping tasks that Windows takes care of automatically. But try to install software that isn't carefully packaged, and you enter a world of pain. Some applications need particular libraries (blocks of code that add functions to the operating system), and not all of those are going to be compatible with your setup. Install them, and other applications start to bleed gallons of error messages. Get things just that little bit too wrong, and next time you try to restart your computer you'll get a curt refusal to start up the desktop. That's where we ended up. You have two choices: you diagnose the problem, which in a system of several thousand interacting files is a matter of extreme cleverness and experience, or you reinstall. We are in the process of reinstalling, and will be reporting back later as we get more experience with the system. Evesham Technology is taking a bold step into the unknown with this product, as will its customers. How much support can you expect on a system that costs £250? How much do you need when it's Linux? It's a bargain price for which you get a great deal, but expect the pain -- and the pleasures -- of the early adopter to be with you for a while. Just like the last days of the £250 computer, in fact.