A PC in Your Pocket

By Eric Grevstad | Posted August 19, 2005

Not every small business can afford a mobile workforce, and while it's handy to do a quick Web search or check browser-based e-mail at a library, Internet café, or client's office, a public PC doesn't have your familiar desktop and data files on it. It may not even have the applications needed to read and edit your data files on it. Still worse, it might harbor viruses or worms.

That's why, with USB flash drives having already replaced floppy disks for storing documents and files and moving them from one PC to another, we're starting to see flash gadgets as application platforms. Migo lets you carry not only your data files but your Windows wallpaper, Internet Explorer favorites, plus Outlook e-mail, calendar and contacts for use on any Windows PC with Microsoft Office installed. Later this year, vendors under the U3 banner promise to deliver programs ranging from Mozilla Firefox and Skype to McAfee VirusScan on plug-and-play USB "smart drives."

And now FingerGear has put not just data, not just applications, but a whole operating system on a key-chain. The $149 Computer-on-a-Stick is a bootable USB flash drive that carries a modified Debian Linux 2.6 OS and Gnome 2.8 desktop along with the Microsoft Office-compatible OpenOffice.org suite, Firefox browser, GAIM instant-messaging client and other programs.

The idea is that you plug it into almost any x86 system, reboot, and enjoy the same work environment no matter what is or isn't installed on the PC. When you're done, you shut down and put the Stick back in your pocket, leaving no files, bookmarks, cookies or browsing history on the host machine. The only part of the device accessible by the host is a "public" folder, which works like any other flash drive to transfer files to and from other PCs.

Neat idea? Very much so. Ready for prime time? Not quite.

Stick(er) Shock
First, the Computer-on-a-Stick is only a 256MB flash drive, so the OS and applications leave only 56MB for your data. FingerGear says it'll ship 512MB and 1GB models soon, as well as versions with a biometric fingerprint sensor for security, but it's hard not to notice that the going rate for a 256MB flash drive is closer to $29 than $149.

It's even harder when you realize there are several scaled-down, free-for-the-download versions of Linux designed to run from flash drives, such as Puppy Linux, Damn Small Linux and Slax.

To be fair, however, those distributions are strictly do-it-yourself projects, demanding a fair amount of Linux experience or at least a willingness to get geeky. FingerGear is targeting mainstream consumers and busy businesspeople, advertising that the Computer-on-a-Stick will run on any x86 PC with a BIOS new enough to permit booting from either a USB drive or CD-ROM. (A supplied mini CD boots the system and then activates the Stick; usually pressing a key such as Esc or F10 at startup summons a menu of boot drives, or at least a setup screen where you can tell the PC to try booting from the CD before the hard disk.)

Will the Computer-on-a-Stick work with your PC? We tried it with five different desktops — and, for the record, we blame Linux more than FingerGear for the following results:

  • Dell Dimension with 1.9GHz Intel Pentium 4, Intel 845G chipset, 512MB of RAM: Uncompressing Linux ... OK, booting the kernel ... warning: there were errors ... hw_random: RNG not detected ... unable to open /dev/fb0: No such device ... started to boot, then Power down.
  • Gateway Profile with 2.8GHz Pentium 4 520, Intel 915G Express chipset, 512MB of RAM: hw_random: RNG not detected ... sde: assuming drive cache: write through ... warning: there were errors ... warning: there were errors (15 more times until we gave up and powered down)
  • HP Pavilion with 3.0GHz Pentium 4 530, Intel 915P Express chipset, 1GB of RAM: ehci_hcd 0000:00:1d.7: BIOS handoff failed (104,101001), system hung
  • HP Business Desktop with 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 3500+, ATI Radeon Xpress 200 chipset, 512MB of RAM: Worked fine for one session, then hung a dozen times at either HP boot logo screen or FingerGear login screen with no mouse or keyboard response, then worked for another session, then back to hanging at the login screen.
  • Dell OptiPlex with 3.6GHz Pentium 4 660, Intel 945G Express chipset, 512MB of RAM: Worked fine on the first try; also worked in later sessions, though we sometimes had to remove and then reinsert the Stick, making sure it appeared as a USB drive under Windows XP, before booting again into Linux.

Why blame Linux? Because these results, though slightly worse, reflect our experiences with various versions of Linux on CD: hit-and-miss compatibility with different hardware. It hurts our habit of Microsoft-bashing to say it, but for non-technical consumers, at least for now, FingerGear would be better off with Windows XP Embedded instead of Linux.

When booted, the Computer-on-a-Stick — a pack-of-gum-sized device about one and a half times as big as most USB keys — lets you specify a password (and add a password hint if you're forgetful) for security's sake. Oddly, we could find no way to delete or change the password once set.

Once you're logged in, the Stick shows a 1,024 by 768-resolution desktop (at the generic refresh rate of 60Hz, which is fine on LCD monitors but flickers slightly on CRT monitors). You can change the default FingerGear-logo background to a solid or gradient color or favorite image, although our Stick retained some but not all of our changes (remembering our choice of a 12- instead of 24-hour-format clock, for example, but keeping our time zone as L.A. instead of New York with every reboot).

The Gnome panel, like the Windows taskbar, places program launch buttons — though not the usual Windows-like menu; more on that in a second — across the bottom of the screen. It also gives you four (you can add more or delete as you like) virtual desktop or workspace icons that you can click to switch among if you don't want overlapping application windows.

The first program is a secure shell (SSH) remote desktop client that supports the Virtual Network Computing (VNC), Microsoft Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), and Citrix Independent Computing Architecture (ICA) standards for displaying your Windows desktop back at the office.

Next come the Firefox Web browser and Ximian Evolution, an imitation-Outlook e-mail and calendar program, followed by the word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, drawing and (can you say "low priority"?) math-equation modules of the admirable, just-short-of-perfectly-Office-compatible OpenOffice.org productivity suite.

Though not the latest versions — OpenOffice.org 1.1.2, for instance, instead of today's 1.1.4 or the more-compatible, almost-out-of-beta 2.0 — these are all fine, you'll-never-miss-Microsoft tools. FingerGear completes the lineup with image and PDF viewers; an archive manager supporting ZIP, GZ, RAR and other formats; a calculator with financial and scientific functions; the Linux terminal or command-line prompt; and GAIM, an instant messaging client compatible with AIM, MSN Messenger, ICQ, Yahoo, and other services.

Computing A La Carte
Almost buried on the FingerGear Web site is the hint that you can right-click on the panel to add more programs and utilities (or to make room for icons, more panels), ranging from an insert-special-character palette and e-mail inbox monitor to Post-It-style desktop sticky notes and a stock ticker. You can also add the Gnome menu, which lists available applications in various categories — including the Network Settings utility we needed, in another not-really-for-newbies moment, to enable the host PC's networking card (using DHCP for eth0 in Linuxspeak) so we could browse the Web.

As we've said, desktop Linux is still better suited to power users than casual technophobes — while we don't know whether the Stick logged us in as a Linux user or root administrator, for example, adding the audio-CD-player applet yielded You do not have permission to use the CD player. But power users will find the Computer-on-a-Stick frustrating because it offers no way to upgrade the installed programs or add new ones (in Linuxspeak, no equivalent to Debian tools like apt-get or Synaptic).

The company says it's working on a future utility that will let owners upgrade by overwriting the flash OS. But for now the device is both wholly write-protected (aside from the public folder) and wholly unable to access or mount the host's disk drives and files (unless you copy files to the public folder using Windows first).

This wins points for security and makes the Stick impervious to PC viruses as well as snoops who might track cookies or other left-behind information. But it also helps make the Computer-on-a-Stick feel like version 1.0 of a concept that's going to be really cool at, say, 3.0 or 3.5. On our five-star rating system, it earns just one star for its limited compatibility and functionality today, but another for what it promises tomorrow.

Pros:

  • A neat idea — carrying your whole desktop environment, Linux OS and applications as well as data files, on a USB flash drive

Cons:

  • Expensive; Linux is far from plug-and-play on every PC; no way to add or upgrade installed software

Adapted from hardwarecentral.com.

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