Back at the start of the millennium I was working for a large government contractor supporting an agency of the U.S. federal government. This agency was a major customer of SGI. Many of the scientists who worked there had very nice SGI workstations and some of the SGI servers I supported were, to say the least, impressive technology at the time. At the time SGI systems, one and all, had 64-bit MIPS processors under the hood. SGI spun off MIPS Technologies in 1998 and stopped selling new MIPS based systems in 2005.
The technology that once powered supercomputers now is found in embedded devices. In recent years both MIPS32 and MIPS64 cores have been found powering everything from routers to the Sony PlayStation. About a year ago the first MIPS32 based netbooks appeared, mainly in Europe and Asia. MIPS64 based netbooks are now on the market as well and are competing with ARM processors for the low end of the next generation of super low cost machines. We are talking about systems that reportedly will sell for as little as US $130 and which have already sold for as little as US $149. Say hello to the $150 netbook.
Last week I wrote about two different projections claiming that Linux will recapture 50% of the netbook market, either in three years or by next year. Compelling MIPS and ARM based systems are the reason I believe those projections are correct. Current versions of Windows won't run on ARM or MIPS processor based systems at all. Windows CE can and does but offers the functionality of a PDA, not the functionality one expects in a miniature PC. Even if Microsoft were to adopt a crash program to port to these platforms many of these systems lack the horsepower to run Windows acceptably if at all. Lightweight, optimized versions of Linux are another matter entirely. They run just fine for many applications on the MIPS based systems released so far despite processor speeds ranging from 336 to 797 MHz. If that sounds slow please remember that the original Asus EeePC was underclocked to 600MHz and sold like proverbial hotcakes. EeePC 70x models are still sold today with a street price of $200-$250.
Linux on MIPS based systems isn't new. Red Hat Linux 7.1 ran on MIPS based servers back in 2002. Nowadays Debian has well established and stable MIPS ports. GnewSense has a MIPS64 big-endian port in development. Though still not finalized it is functional and available now and designed specifically for MIPS64 netbooks and notebooks currently being produced in China.
Right now the MIPS based systems are ahead of promised ARM based systems. They have, until recent weeks, rather quietly come to market. Some are available for purchase right now and, in at least one case, have been for a year.
SkyTone Alpha 400
In the spring of 2008 Chinese laptop maker Guangzhou SkyTone Transmission Technologies Co. introduced the Alpha 400, using an Ingenic Jz4730 336 MHz MIPSII-compatible single core 32-bit System-on-a-chip (SoC). Recent production versions use an upgraded Jz4740 360 MHz processor. For whatever reason both SkyTone and most of the vendors who sell their systems creatively claim 400MHz for these systems. The system comes with 128MB of SDRAM and either 1 GB or 2GB NAND flash SSD in lieu of a hard drive. Models offered today do include WiFi, originally offered as an option. The one spec that is impressive is weight. The Alpha 400 weighs in at just 600 grams, or about 1.33 lbs.
Despite these obviously very limited specifications these systems were branded by more than 20 different vendors and sold in an interesting array of configurations, becoming quite popular in Europe and Asia. The various incarnations of the Alpha 400 generally run a Linux distribution specifically written for these machines based on the Debian Etch mipsel port. Various websites refer to it by different names as it doesn't seem to actually have an official name. It uses the Matchbox window manager and includes a variety of lightweight but familiar applications including the AbiWord word processor, Sylpheed e-mail client, and an alpha variant of Firefox 2. In the United States the systems are sold as the Belco Alpha 400 by geeks.com. Back in December and January this system was offered for $149. Current price is $169.
Some reviews of the Alpha 400 have been absolutely scathing and derisive. Joshua Topolsky, writing for Engadget, called it "the crappiest netbook you'll ever hate", apparently just based on specs rather than first hand experience. He went on to call the Alpha 400 "a glorified pocket dictionary". Engadget did follow that up with a proper review by Ross Rubin who more fairly detailed what the system can and can't do but still concluded "it is difficult to consider who would benefit from the Alpha 400 versus a more expensive netbook with an Intel or Intel-compatible processor" but did note that "Linux hackers" might find it interesting.
In contrast, other reviews were quite positive, Kristofer Brozio, who wrote a review for Test Freaks rather liked the little system. While conceding that most people would like a little more horsepower he concludes: "The Alpha 400 is what it is, it's an inexpensive ultralite notebook, or mini-netbook and it works for basic things just fine."
The market over the past year seems to have agreed with Mr. Brozio's conclusions, particularly in Europe. As already noted more than 20 different incarnations have popped up. Much like the Asus EeePC before it, a large online community has developed centered on the Little Linux Laptop website with a very active UK based forum. Additional software that can be installed with the stock OS has been made available. In addition, two Linux distributions designed specifically for the Alpha 400, 3MX and Xenium have been developed.
Although it takes considerable work it is also possible to run Debian Etch on the Alpha 400. The screenshot below, originally posted on the linked page, shows a Debian desktop using the IceWM window manager with windows open for Mozilla Firefox and mrxvt.
Lemote Yeelong 8089A and 8089B
Last week OS News published a detailed article about the Lemote Yeelong, a laptop built by Quanta, a major laptop manufacturer. The system CPU is a 797 MHz Loongson-2 MIPS processor. Lemote is selling a full range of laptops powered by the Loongson-2 MIPS CPU which is described as "energy efficient."
The netbook is part of a Chinese government effort "to produce an independent range of processors, for which no license fees have to be paid to major American, Japanese or other foreign CPU designers such as Intel." For those who might consider the Loongson architecture exotic: "Considering the fact that the development of the Loongson MIPS cpu continues unabated, and the amounts of cash the Chinese government is able to invest in this architecture, the future looks very bright for this cpu. So it's not just an exotic architecture, it's an exotic architecture with a future. That alone makes this machine an interesting option for free software enthusiasts looking for a mini laptop."
My only concern about the hardware is the Realtek RTL8187B 802.11g 54Mbps wireless chipset. As I learned on the original Sylvania g Netbook the native Linux Realtek driver is very poor and results in very limited range. A number of Yeelong users online have had similar results. Using a Windows driver with ndiswrapper simply isn't an option on a system with a MIPS-based CPU. The other complaint I have found online is the fact that Debian doesn't port non-free software, meaning there is no Flash plugin, for example. If it doesn't work with gnash or swfdec it won't work. While some may see a system that runs entirely on free software as a big advantage others will be concerned about failing to be able to view some websites properly.
Derrick Sobodash reviewed a Yeelong 8089A in his Cinnamon Pirate blog back in January. He loves the hardware but absolutely hated the Lemote Loonux distribution, a severely hacked version of Debian, that was provided. He ended up replacing it with Debian Lenny. This, sadly, has been the issue with a number of netbooks that have shipped with poorly thought out or poorly configured Linux implementations. Sobodash added "If you want a fun, non-x86 system to hack at, then Loongson is perfect for you."
Currently the Yeelong is available for around €335 in Europe. It is not presently sold in the U.S. but Dutch retailer Tekmote will ship worldwide.
Over the past two weeks the tech press has been buzzing about a Spanish startup called iUnika which announced a new MIPS-powered netbook with an interesting, some may feel a compelling feature. The iUnika gyy. is touted as environmentally friendly with good reason. It is essentially a SkyTone Alpha 400 in a biodegradable plastic case. It optionally offers a solar charging system with a solar panel in the laptop cover.
For those who live in areas of the world which receive plenty of sunshine this will allow charging on the go. For those who are concerned about reducing their impact on the environment and going green the iUnika gyy will certainly be appealing and may warrant living with the hardware limitations.
The iUnika gyy should be available for sale in Europe late next month. There is no word yet on U.S. availability.
If These Systems Don't Sound Appealing...
...then please remember that they are the first efforts at offering low cost netbooks based on MIPS processors. Like the original EeePC before them the Alpha 400 and Lemote Yeelong already have a dedicated following. As MIPS and soon to be released ARM based systems improve and offer more competitive specs they could, as ABI Research predicts, capture a significant portion of the netbook market, a portion in which Microsoft will be unable to compete.
Think about what was appealing about the original EeePC and what made it compelling to consumers: it is very small, very lightweight, and inexpensive. It does enough real world work to be useful. Most x86 netbook vendors have suffered from a severe case of spec creep. Newer netbooks are more powerful, certainly, but many are significantly more expensive. They are almost universally larger and heavier, becoming more and more like slightly smaller conventional laptops than the original EeePC or OLPC netbooks.
It won't just be cost that drives these non-x86 Linux-based systems if they succeed in the marketplace. Rather it will be a return to what made the EeePC successful in the first place. In addition, netbook makers will need to come up with additional features that make a system with limited resources compelling for other reasons. iUnika has done precisely that with their solar powered system.
In a future article I'll look at the first of the up and coming ARM based netbooks.
UPDATE: A change on the iUnika website now indicates that their gyy models will come with the tiny 1GB SSD normally found in the SkyTone Alpha 400. The 64GB number is what you can add with an SD card. Thanks to Hans Kwint of LXer for spotting the change and bringing it to my attention.