First Look at the Neuros LINK

I built my first home media computer over four years ago. Its primary uses were web streaming video, local music files, and the occasional communal web surfing during living room gatherings. Unfortunately, the system had reached an age where ATI dropped support for the display in their accelerated (proprietary) drivers, and the open source drivers couldn't keep up with full screen video. To make matters worse, in that time I've upgraded the display from an 800x600 Sony picture tube to a 1360x768 Samsung high def LCD.

The old computer was choking to keep up. It was time for an upgrade.

This weekend I replaced the old media computer with a Neuros LINK. The LINK is an open source media computer. It's constructed of standard, off-the-shelf OEM components. It runs on Linux, configured and tuned for media center operations. It costs $299.

The LINK is intended to play media files (music, video, photos) stored on your network. It also works as a streaming Internet media player. It does not have a tuner to receive video from an antenna or cable.

The hardware components are pretty standard. The system board is an ASUS M3N78-VM. The case is a Chenbro PC71968. It's got a 2.8GHz AMD Semperon CPU and 1GB of main memory. An included PCI add-on board provides Wi-Fi networking.

The one uncommon component is the keyboard. It's a small size keyboard with integrated trackball pointing device. To the system, the trackball looks like a two-button, scroll wheel mouse. The keyboard is wireless RF, with a USB dongle. I was pleased to find that I could plug the dongle into a USB port in the back of the case and it worked fine. I can use the keyboard on my coffee table, where the distance to dongle is about 7 feet. If I lean back another foot, it starts having reception problems.

The keyboard keys are smaller than a full size keyboard, but larger than a laptop. I'm finding it harder to type than my previous keyboard (a Dell wireless RF multimedia keyboard, made by Logitech). The form factor is so attractive, however, I'm going to see if I can get used to it.

The biggest negative about the keyboard is that the BIOS doesn't recognize it. That means you'll need to hook up another keyboard if you want to tweak the BIOS settings or access GRUB (the Linux boot loader). The keyboard is fine once the system boots. Since the LINK is intended for use as a media center appliance -- where you aren't mucking with BIOS or bootstraps -- this shouldn't be a serious problem in practice.

The system contains no hard drives and no optical drives. Instead, the operating system resides on a 4GB USB memory stick. You boot and run from there.

The operating system is a preconfigured version of Ubuntu Linux 9.10 (the current release). It includes the xbmc media center software, which starts at boot. So in its furnished configuration, you really don't see the Linux. The LINK appears to be turnkey media center appliance.

The drive-less setup is cute, and makes some sense for an appliance. I think it would have been cleaner if they used CF (compact flash) instead. An adapter to connect CF to a disk interface is about $10 and a 4GB CF card is about $20. The CF solution would add about $10-$20 to the cost, so that may be why they went with the USB stick. I'm not sure what the performance impact would be. Neuros uses a Crucial USB memory stick, and the manufacturer doesn't provide performance specs.

I think the filesystem layout on the Neuros LINK may be a problem that will hamper the ability to deploy upgrades. The problem is that they created a single filesystem that contains not only the system files, but also all of your configuration settings. An alternate way would be to create a read-only root filesystem that holds the system files, and a read/write filesystem with all the configuration settings. This technique commonly is used in embedded Linux environments. The advantage of this approach is that the system image can be updated without losing any of your preferences.

While there are good reasons for the drive-less setup, it has some big drawbacks. The first is speed. It's slower to boot and run the system than it would be from a hard drive. The second is space limits. I didn't have enough space on the 4GB drive to download and install Ubuntu package updates, let alone add new programs. Finally, the LINK uses several tmpfs filesystems (presumably due to the performance limitations of nonvolatile memory), which eat away at the already slender 1GB main memory. These are not serious concerns for turnkey users, but are severe limitations for system modders.

To work around these limitations (and to make the system more hackable), I added a SATA hard drive and SATA optical drive. I transferred the system from the USB memory stick to the hard drive, and I'm running from there.

The Neuros people actually encourage experimentation. I bought the "bag 'o bolts" option. For an additional $4.99 they include the extra bits and pieces you'd get with an OEM system board and case, so that you can easily add onto the base system.

They did not however, include documentation, and that threw me a small curveball. I don't need or want the paper manuals, but it would be nice if the Neuros web site had links to the manuals. In particular, there is a trick to getting the front bezel off the Chenbro case, and I was afraid of breaking it. Fortunately, the forum and wiki gave me what I needed.

Once installed, the system worked great. I connected the LINK to my A/V receiver through HDMI. It properly configured to the full resolution of my television, and provided digital audio.

The key test was whether I could visit hulu.com and watch a full screen video at top resolution (480p). The LINK performed perfectly.

The only A/V issue I'm noticing is that the LINK appears to be sending stereo (2.0) signals out the HDMI. I'd like to get full 5.1 surround. Since I'm not doing anything with the LINK that provides surround sound it's not been a top priority. It is, however, a bit of a disappointment since everything else just worked out of the box.

I spent the day working with the xbmc media center interface, and decided that I pretty much hate it. There are two reasons for that. First, the media center interface is designed for simple controls, such as a remote. If you've got full controls (keyboard and pointing device) that's unnecessary, and actually makes things harder. It took a lot of scrolling and clicking through the media center interface to watch a hulu.com video. On a conventional desktop interface it's one click on a program icon, a second click on the bookmark, and you are there.

The other problem is that the media center offers an all integrated approach to applications, and I'd like to pick and choose best of breed. The xbmc music interface, for instance, offers a mere fraction of the capability of amarok, my preferred music player. The one nice capability xbmc offered was the ability to browse SMB (Windows) shares on the network, where amarok requires you to configure the system to mount the network volume. I find amarok superior in every other way, and that's what I want to use for my music files.

I ended up disabling the xbmc startup in favor of a standard Ubuntu desktop (shown to the right). That lets me use the applications I want (primarily amarok and chrome) much more directly.

So, the question is, if the Neuros LINK is just standard off-the-shelf parts, and if I'm just going to run a standard Linux desktop on it, is it really worth it? The answer is an absolute, emphatic yes.

First, it's a good deal. I ran the numbers on building an equivalent system from parts, and I came up with $257, as compared to $299 for the LINK. For the extra $42 I got a system pre-built and tested. Moreover, I'm happy to pay them that small premium just for the R&D to achieve such a well integrated system.

Moreover, there are some advantages to their Linux distribution, even if you don't use the media center interface they configured.

As an experiment, I loaded the stock Ubuntu 9.10 distribution onto the LINK and compared to their customized version. I saw several small differences that made me prefer theirs. First -- and this is a big deal -- the HDMI audio worked out of the box with the LINK distribution. The stock Ubuntu installation did not. The LINK distribution had some useful non-standard repositories added, such as xbmc and boxee. Further, boxee requires some additional work to run under 9.10, and they took care of those problems.

At this time, my largest concern is with the main memory. I'm not sure if 1GB is going to be enough, especially since I've added the amarok music player which is going to try to pull in a whole KDE environment.

I'm also concerned about the noise. I was hoping for silent, and the CPU fan and case fan are nowhere near that. I think that's a serious drawback for a media computer.

For future releases I think Neuros should look at improving the fans to reduce noise, as well as switching to a filesystem arrangement that better accommodates updates. I think the LINK would be much more elegant if the USB memory stick was replaced with CF, but that's an added expense that wouldn't benefit me personally.

I'm pleased with the Neuros LINK. The photo to the right shows it installed into my A/V rack. It's the left-most device on the bottom shelf.

The Neuros LINK appears to be an excellent -- and affordable -- platform for a media center computer. It's delivered as an appliance that does a great job at playing both local media as well as streaming network media. It's built from commodity components and uses open source software, so it's perfect for customization.

Comments

Comments have been closed for this entry.

Great Review

This is a great, thorough review, the only surprise for me is that the BIOS didn't work with you keyboard. I don't know why this is, I've changed BIOS settings many times with my keyboard (the one you've shown that comes with the unit).

thanks

Thanks for the note on the keyboard. I'll investigate further and report any updates.

Fans?

It has no hard drive or optical drive, yet two fans? That's a major FAIL right there.

Component in your A/V Rack?

What's the shiny box sitting on top of your LINK?

shiny box

It's a Tix LED Clock.
http://www.tixledclock.com/