The Deliverator – Wannabee

So open minded, my thoughts fell out…

The (almost) $100 computer

Posted by Deliverator on May 22nd, 2007

At recent SWN Hacknights, the NorhTec Microclient Jr. has come up quite frequently in conversation. The Microclient Jr is an extremely small PC with a 200mhz x86 processor, 128 MB of ram, sound, usb, vga, ps2 and all the typical ports one would expect on a PC and is capable of booting from a variety of devices including CF, USB devices, hard disk and even PXE network boot. The small size of this device (it can even attach directly to a VESA standard mounting bracket like…the back of a monitor), good connectivity options and rock bottom price make it a very attractive platform for embedded projects, thin clients and other assorted hijinx.

Norhtec Microclient JR Interior

The Microclient Jr is available in a couple different configurations, including one with a wifi card and/or two serial ports. The Microclient in its most basic version sells for $120 in small quantities, but supposedly this shrinks to $90-100 in sufficiently large quantities. Given that NorhTec ships their units from Thailand, the $40-50 shipping cost for small orders really eats into the platform’s attractiveness. Thankfully, I found out that the Microclient JR is also sold rebranded as the eBox 2300 and is available via a couple US distributors. Not only does this cut the shipping cost and time down significantly, but most of the distributors are selling it even cheaper than Norhtec. I ordered mine from WDL Systems with two serial ports and an open mini-pci slot (for self installed wifi) for $150 with two day shipping. Both Northtec and WDL Systems sell the Norhtec in a configuration with WiFi preinstalled, but their solution is based on a VT6655 chipset, which has poor compatibility with Linux 2.6 series kernels, so I chose to leave the slot open and add something with better support.

I look forward to receiving my Microclient JR soon. I have a number of projects in mind for which I believe it should prove suitable. If so, I will probably be purchasing a few more.

Addendum – Ordered a Ubiquiti XR2 mini-pci card and pigtail from Matt’s company, Metrix.

600mw Ubiquiti XR2

Amusingly, these two items cost more than the computer itself. The card is rather expensive at $130, but it has a lot of novel and even unique features including:

-600mw transmit power. Most previous generation “best of breed” cards like those from Senao maxed out at about 200mw. By contrast a lot of the solutions integrated by OEM’s into laptops are in the 30-80mw range. This card is the current reigning Border Blaster of 802.11.
-Excellent receive sensitivity…just because you are blasting 600mw out to the AP doesn’t mean it is blasting 600mw at you :)
-Uses a more robust mmcx connector. Most mini pci wireless cards use a much smaller Hirose/U.FL connector which isn’t as mechanically robust. In fact, the manufacturer only rates U.FL as good for 30 couplings, and that is assuming you don’t break the connector by tweaking the cable to which it is connected. I would prefer cards used something even more mechanically secure, like some variant of SMA. I saw this option advertised for the Ubiquiti cards at Linux Devices, but Matt has never seen it actually sold that way.
-The card is supported by the excellent MadWifi driver under Linux. This driver lets one do some pretty spiffy things with this card, such as creating multiple virtual access points and adjusting channel size (allowing one to have more non-interfering channels or alternatively use up more of the band for more throughput potential).

I look forward to playing with the eBox 2300/Microclient JR and the Ubiquiti XR2 card next week at hacknight. I hope they play well with each other. My main concern is whether the eBox will supply the card with adequate power for its 600mw transmitter.