Much like the Asus Eee PC before it, the Linux-based Shuttle KPC K-4500 will impress the tech savvy--especially the Linux comfortable. You can strip it down, expand it, or simply use it as basic day-to-day desktop. You can even put a photo in the removable front panel. Because of its low price, we can also see bestowing this system on a non-tech savvy loved one. At $229, the K-4500 is a very inexpensive computer, and as such is missing a few features. However, as long as you or the person you might give it to understands its limitations, you'll be surprised at just how much you can do with this system, and how easily.
The tiny KPC K-4500 is the lowest-end full system in Shuttle's KPC family. You can also get the bare-bones K45, which has no operating system for $99, as well as a Vista Home Basic version in the SYK-4500. All share the same chassis and motherboard, with variations in operating system as well as basic hardware. The K-4500 comes with no mouse or keyboard.
The case itself is distinctive for a few reasons. Shuttle is known for its bread box size, small form factor PCs, but the KPC line is one of the smallest Shuttle systems we've seen. At 7.5 inches tall, 6.7 inches wide, and 11 inches deep, the K-4500 is not quite as small as a Mac Mini, but it makes even Hewlett-Packard's scaled-down SlimLine systems look big. You'll notice there's no optical drive door on the front panel, which is because this system lacks an internal 5.25-inch drive bay. Since it didn't provide optical drive access, Shuttle installed a removable piece of clear acrylic glass on the system's front panel that you can use as a picture frame. A row of USB and audio ports runs along the system's bottom edge. Between its small size and plain-looking front, this tiny desktop looks more like a nondescript appliance than a computer.
|Shuttle KPC K-4500||eMachines T3646|
|CPU||1.8GHz Intel Celeron D 430||2.2GHz AMD Sempron LE-1250|
|Memory||512MB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM||1GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||224MB (shared) Intel GMA 950||128MB (shared Nvidia GeForce 6100|
|Hard drive||80GB, 7,200rpm hard drive||160GB, 7,200rpm|
|Optical drives||N/A||16x dual-layer DVD burner|
|Operating system||Foresight Linux||Windows Vista Home Basic|
Comparing the KPC K-4500 with the desktop PC market as a whole compels us to look at low-end systems from Dell, HP, and Gateway's eMachines brand. The closest we get to the Shuttle's $230 price tag is the $300 eMachines T3646 (watch for the review soon), a standard midtower PC that gets you Windows Vista Home Basic, a DVD burner, a media card reader, and a larger hard drive, as well as a mouse and a keyboard. That's actually a decent amount of additional storage and media playback capability in the eMachines system. If you're shopping for value and you can afford to spend a little bit more, we think you'll find the eMachines a better deal in the long run.
However, where you might be surprised is that you can do a lot of the same things with this Linux-based K-4500 than you can with a Windows system. The version of Linux on this system is called Foresight Linux, which uses a graphical interface just like Windows and Mac PCs. With a thin menu bar on top and a set of icons running down the edge, it looks like a cross between Windows and Apple's OS X. In addition to the icons, the menu hosts a variety of sections, from different applications, to system settings, to games and user help files.
And similar to Windows, Foresight comes with a host of common applications that will help you perform familiar tasks. FireFox lets you browse the Web, you can instant message to multiple services using Pidgin, and OpenOffice provides an even more robust set of productivity applications than ships with Vista. Among others, you also get Transmission, a BitTorrent client.
Because of licensing issues, the K-4500 can't play MP3 audio files or DVD movies (via a USB DVD player) out of the box. It has player software for both of those tasks, but to recognize those types of media, you need to first download and install the proper codec files. That disconnect in itself will probably frustrate a novice user and may cause them to take time getting comfortable with the system.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the way you acquire new software. The operating system has a useful update feature that lets you look for and install new components. We've already updated multiple times over the course of this review. For new applications, you can't simply download an EXE file from the Web and expect it to work. Instead you need to find programs that are compatible with your specific version of Linux (in this case Foresight), or compile the source code yourself.
Assuming that a Linux novice might find your average compiler a bit intimidating, the alternative is Foresight's Add/Remove software feature. Here you can search an online database of Foresight-approved applications available for download. We used this feature to track down the DVD and MP3 file codecs. Our only complaint is that it doesn't have a interface you can browse, or any other means to see what applications are available without searching blindly on keywords. Understanding both the software compatibility limitations, as well as the means for adding programs the K-4500 can use, will be one of the challenges for someone inexperienced with Linux.
We don't normally test Linux-based desktops, so we had to whip up a few custom benchmarks for the K-4500. We built two basic tests using Audacity and JAlbum, a music player and photo album tool, respectively, that are free, open-source programs that run on Linux, Windows, and OS X-based systems. For comparison against the K-4500, we used two eMachines desktops, the $350 eMachines T3642, and the $430 T5246.