My goal was to make a Linux system with no moving parts. It seems that fans and disks are the causes of most failures. Linux has JFFS2, a flash filesystem with compression. I bought 2 GB of flash on Amazon for only $148. With Damn Small Linux fitting in 50 MB. [On 9/7/2006 Amazon had 2 GB flash for $46, on 12/7/2007 Amazon had 4 GB for $31.53, Frys had 2 GB for $15 - 10 times cheaper than 3 years ago]. For many applications you don't need a really fast CPU and 1 GB with compression is enough space. So a system with no moving parts is reasonable today.
The PIC is a very low power system, I measured 8 watts for the computer (the CPU spec is 1 watt and the disk spec about 4 watts). The monitor uses either 4 or 53 watts depending on if it is active or sleeping. This is like 100 watts less than some other machines we have. At island electric rates this should save more than $200 each year, if the machine is on all the time. The disk never stops spinning but you can only hear it if your ear is closer than about 8 inches.
The PIC is also low cost. Without monitor it has a MSRP of $185, though on this tropical island it is $251 (given shipping and duty rates here this is not bad). With the monitor it is $372 here. Also, the phone company will let people pay $40/month on their phone bill. The PIC runs Windows-CE 5.0 and will not let me install any software. It has a browser, editor, spreadsheet, email, etc. So most people can probably do what they want on this computer. My main complaint is that it does not have Java, so some web pages do not work.
The real fun is that the PIC hardware looks fantastic for making a router, firewall, print server, nameserver, etc. if we can get Linux running on it. However, the usual ways of getting to the BIOS settings do not work, so we can not tell it to boot from a USB-flash. So now we have to open it up and see if we can boot Linux from an IDE device. I also wanted to look inside.
I might have voided the warranty. Does not really look like they want you to open it up.
The PIC is just the right size to hold a 3.5 inch disk.
Note there is no fan or even heat sink on the CPU. What must be the memory card is laying flat just above the CPU.
Off with the disk and on with the IDE-compact-flash. But it would not boot Linux.
So we put the flash back in the other Geode system. This system has no trouble running Linux (Fedora Core-3) off the flash. This is a mini-itx with a 1 Ghz Geode (1500+). It uses the AMD K7 core. This CPU is 6 watts, so it has a heat sink. The power supply is DC-to-DC, so there is no heat. The system runs fine without the little fan plugged in (at least with the case off). So we have a 1 Ghz system with no moving parts! Only about 4 years ago an AMD K7-core Athlon at 1 Ghz was the fastest PC you could get. Cool.
The PIC is back together and playing missile command.
Another thing that causes computer failures on tropical islands is bugs or geckos getting inside. Since the PIC does not have a fan it does not have big openings for things to crawl inside. So it should last very well.
Someone at AMD said that a future version of the PIC could come standard with Flash instead of a hard disk. This might be a year after the first model. This type of computer should last just about forever. I wonder how small it will be.
Also someone suggested just copying the hard disk onto flash. We tried this and it did act differently. With the first flash it did the memory/disk diagnostics and then halted. With this copy it does the diagnostics pauses, then loops and does the diagnostics again. The disk is 10 GB and the flash is 2 GB, so I suspect that we just could not fit enough to make it work.
After buying these systems a new board came out, the Tyan Tomcat K7M. This is a Geode motherboard that looks very nice. This should work fine with Linux and also be very cheap.
Anguilla's main industry is tourism. The PIC with Windows-CE makes a great computer for guests to use since they can not mess it up. It seems several people here will be using it for that.
Some people are worried that flash can wear out. But flash is a bit more reliable and much bigger these days, so it is hard to wear out now. Current Flash can do around 100,000 writes to a given block before wearing out. The Linux JFFS2 (journalling flash filesystem 2) spreads the writes out over the flash. It seems CF modules even have logic to spread writes around (heard on slashdot). So for a 2 GB flash module you have to do like 200 TB of writes. If a computer writes at 1 MB per minute (mine average less than this) this would take 380 years. This is not something to worry about. Mechanical things break faster (disks, fans).
Anyone is welcome to use any of these pictures in any way they want. No need to credit me.
I took the PIC to the company I bought it from, Cable and Wireless, and explained what happened. I asked if they could give/sell me a new disk. They said that these boxes can not be opened and so I have to buy a whole new computer. A 10 GB harddisk is cheap. A whole new PIC is not so cheap. I explained that they can be opened and if I could borrow a PIC I could copy the harddisk off that one onto a new disk for my machine. They said no.
I will try to find someone else who has a PIC and see if they will let me borrow it and copy the data off their disk onto a new disk for my machine.
This time I used some big quick-ties to attach my PIC to the monitor's power and video cables behind the monitor. My one year old should not be able to pull it off the table now.
Still have not found anyplace where you can get a PICs that runs Linux.
There is a report of a new PIC that can run Linux, but it looks like they just got confused by what I think is a report that with a BIOS update you can load Linux. Now to figure out if I can get a BIOS update.
Oh well. I hope AMD learns the right lesson and comes out with a tiny Flash based system, with no moving parts, and a reasonable BIOS. The One Laptop Per Child project is sort of this. But I rather have a box that I plug a nice keyboard and monitor into. A monitor can last a very long time, as can a keyboard. But a 3-year old computer is going to be about 1/4th the power of a comparable current model. So it makes sense to be able to keep your keyboard and monitor and just replace the computer. You can't do that with OLPC. Also, for many things like routers, nameservers, printservers, etc we don't need a monitor.
I have ordered a decTOP with the new bios. Because I live on an island in the caribbean, I probably won't get it till around July 10th. I will load linux on it and update this page as soon as I have done so.