There are a number of reasons you might want to install a Linux-based operating system like Ubuntu, Debian, Fedora, or Linux Mint on a computer. These operating systems are free to use, which means you can install them on a PC that may not have a Windows license without spending a penny. They can sometimes breath new life into old computers that no longer reliably run the latest versions of Windows. Or maybe you just like the idea of free and open source software.
But while it’s pretty easy to download and install Linux on most PCs, it’s not unusual to find out that your laptop or desktop has a WiFi adapter, sound card, or some other hardware that might not work out of the box. This can lead to hours or days-long quests to find a software fix or purchase replacements for the built-in hardware.
Want to avoid the hassle? There are a handful of companies that will sell you computers that come with a Linux distribution pre-loaded. Dell has a few Ubuntu laptops. A few smaller companies including ThinkPenguin, System76, and ZaReason only sell computers that come with Linux.
The advantage is that you can be pretty sure all of the hardware is supported by the operating system, which means you can just turn on the PC and start to use it right away.
I’ve been dabbling with Linux on and off for over a decade, but I tend to use Windows for day-to-day computing tasks. So when ZaReason offered to loan me one of their most affordable (and smallest) Linux-based desktop PCs, I was happy to take them up on the offer.
I’ve testing a ZaReason Zini 1550 mini-desktop with an Intel Broadwell processor and Ubuntu 15.04 software for a few months, and this is probably the best experience I’ve ever had using a computer running Linux.
While I can’t necessarily recommend this setup for everyone, it’s definitely worth considering if you’re looking for a computer with decent performance, out-of-the-box support for Linux, and little-to-no tinkering required (although you can tinker as much as you’d like, which is part of the appeal of open source software).
The ZaReason Zini 1550 is basically an Intel NUC that comes with memory, storage, and an operating system pre-installed, along with the ZaReason logo slapped on top.
ZaReason sells this tiny desktop for $549 and up. Theoretically you could probably save some money buy picking up a barebones model for $300 or less and adding your own RAM, solid state drive, and OS. But it’s nice to have the option of ordering a system that comes pre-configured.
You can opt for a model with a Core i3 or Core i5 processor, 4GB to 16GB of RAM, up to 500GB of SSD storage, and up to 1TB of storage on a second drive (if you don’t mind getting a model that’s a little taller), and ZaReason will also sell you accessories such as monitors, keyboards, speakers, and external soudn cards if you like.
The best thing about ordering from ZaReason may be that the company will load your choice of operating system. Options include Ubuntu, Mint, OpenSUSE, Debian, Fedora, or CentOS. You can even specify a different Linux Distribution if you’d prefer, or choose no OS at all in order to install an operating system yourself.
The model ZaReason sent me retails for $608 and includes a Core i3-5010U dual-core processor with Intel HD 5500 graphics, 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, and Ubuntu 15.04 software.
It’s a tiny version of the Intel NUC, measuring just about 4.5″ x 4.3″ x 1.3″ and weighing about a pound. It comes with an Intel 802.11ac WiFi adapter with Bluetooth support and has two USB 3.0 ports on the front of th ecase, as well as a 3.5mm audio jack and two more USB 3.0 ports on the back as well as mini HDMI, mini Displayport, and Gigabit Ethernet ports.
Don’t want to buy a mini HDMI-to-full-sized HDMI cable to connect the computer to your TV or monitor? Don’t worry. ZaReason ships the Zini 1550 with a mini HDMI adapter.
While the system isn’t fanless, it does run very quietly, since the fan is just about the only moving part (unless you opt for a model with a hard drive). And it’s easy to upgrade the memory and storage. Just flip the computer upside down and loosen the four screws attached to the rubber feet.
Swapping out storage or adding additional RAM is easy. Once the case is open, you’ll see two SODIMM slots for memory and an M.2 slot for solid state storage.
There’s one thing you won’t find in this compact PC: a memory card slot. It’s the sort of thing you don’t really even notice until you need it: after I finished my photo shoot for the Zini 1550 I ejected the SD card from my camera and… realized there was nowhere to put it.
Since I wanted to edit the images on the computer itself, I had to put the card back in the camera and find the correct USB cable to connect the camera to the PC. Fortunately that worked perfectly and Ubuntu recognized the camera in a matter of seconds, making it easy to copy the images and video to the computer’s solid state storage.
So what’s this thing good for?
This computer may be small, but it’s a full-fledged PC capable of performing almost any task you could throw at it. The Zini 1550 may have a 15 watt processor designed for laptops, but it made short work of the CPU-heavy tasks I tested and the demo unit I tested had no problems with HD video playback, heavy web surfing, and light gaming.
But the absolute best thing about the Zini 1550 is how easy it was to set up. I plugged it in, connected a keyboard, mouse and display and turned it on. That’s about it. I mean, I had to enter a username and create a password. But once that was done, I could just start using the computer.
ZaReason loads up the operating system of your choice, so you don’t need to download an ISO, burn it to a disc or create a bootable flash drive, and then install the operating system. And unlike Windows, the first time I logged into Ubuntu, I was able to start using the operating system almost immediately. There wasn’t a long wait while the OS told be it was “setting things up” for me.
While long-time Linux users probably wouldn’t have a hard time installing an OS on an Intel NUC, it’s nice having everything done for you.
The Ubuntu 15.04 software that came with my review unit already had the Firefox web browser, LibreOffice suite, and GIMP image editor pre-loaded, which made it easy for me to start using the PC for work as soon as I connected to my home network.
To make the computer feel even more familiar, I tweaked a few keyboard shorcuts in GIMP so that it would act more like Irfanview (my image editor of choice on Windows), and installed Google Chrome for web browsing.
One nice side effect to installing Chrome is that you can use it to stream videos from Netflix. There are other ways to do that on Linux, but the simplest is to install Chrome. It just works. Note that the open source Chromium web browser does not support Netflix though. And neither Chrome nor Firefox will let you stream content from Hulu.
That’s the thing about using Linux in 2015: you can run just about any type of app or service you’d ever need. But you can’t necessarily access the precise app or service you’d want.
For example, Netflix, YouTube, and Amazon Prime Video work. Hulu does not. Microsoft Office and Photoshop are not available, but LibreOffice and GIMP are.
These days you can even run the Steam game platform on Linux… although only a fraction of Steam games support Linux. Still, I have a few games that I’d picked up when they were on sale, and several of them worked… including XCOM: Enemy Unknown, a relatively recent (2012) game that worked pretty well even on this system with a laptop-class processor.
There are still a few key apps that keep me from switching to Linux full-time, as much as I appreciate the ideals and flexibility of open source software.
For example, I use QuickBooks and TurboTax for accounting purposes. They’re not available for Linux, and while there are some accounting apps for Linux, they aren’t really in the same class. There are web-based versions of QuickBooks and TurboTax, but they don’t offer all the same features as the downloadable versions, and they’re subscription-based which means you could end up spending more money on them in the long run.
Nonetheless, while I continue to run Windows on my primary computer, I haven’t had any problems getting about 95 percent of my work done on the ZaReason Zini 1550.
Even for a long-time Windows user, there are some parts of the Ubuntu experience I’m really enjoying. The selection of apps available from the Ubuntu Software Center (or via command line with “apt-get”) makes the Windows Store look like a barren wasteland (which it kind of is).
While I tend to use Irfanview for light image editing on my Windows PC, I do use the cross-platform GIMP utility for more extensive jobs. It’s a pretty powerful tool, but it also takes a really long time to load on Windows. But GIMP loads almost instantly on the ZaReason Zini 1550 with Ubuntu.
It’s also quite nice to be able to choose from a variety of desktop environments.
Don’t like the Unity user interface that comes with Ubuntu? No problem. You can install Xfce, Lxde, GNOME, Mate, or another environment. I don’t despise Unity, but I really like the simplicity of Xfce, so I’ve primarily been using the Xubuntu desktop environment. When I feel like switching, I can just logout and choose a different environment from the login screen (or uninstall any environments I’m not using).
Want to use your computer as a media center PC? Not only is the cross-platform Kodi media center available for Linux, but you can boot straight to the Kodi user interface. Just choose Kodi from the login screen, and from now on every time you turn on the computer it’ll boot straight to Kodi (unless you exit the program, logout, and choose a different desktop environment).
I should point out a few things here. First, my system came with Ubuntu, but your experience may be different if you opt for another operating system. Since this is a full-fledged PC, you can also install your own OS if you’d prefer to switch to another operating system, create a multi-boot setup, or even run Windows.
Second, while Ubuntu and other desktop GNU/Linux operating systems are a lot more user friendly these days than they were a decade or two ago, they can still be quirky. You might need to open a terminal emulator window and use the command line from time to time in order to get some things done, and sometimes it can be confusing when there’s more than one away to do the same thing (like installing software, which can be done through utilities like the Ubuntu Software Center or Synaptic Package Manager or a terminal command such as “apt-get”).
In other words, there’s a bit of a learning curve to using Linux if you’re coming from Windows or OS X. But the same would probably be true if you were moving from Linux to Windows or OS X. The bigger issue is that you may have a hard time finding substitutes to some of your favorites apps or games if they aren’t available for Linux.
That said, the ZaReason Zini 1550 offers as close a beginner-friendly Linux experience as you’re going to find, since there’s just about nothing to configure before you can start exploring.
And if there are a few Windows apps you can’t live without, you can always install a Windows virtual machine in VirtualBox (although you’ll need a valid Windows license to do that).
The unit ZaReason loaned me for this review features an Intel Core i3-5010U processor with Intel HD 5500 graphics, 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM and a 120GB M.2 solid state drive.
Since the processor is a relatively low-power chip designed to fit in small spaces (like a laptop case), it doesn’t generate a whole lot of heat, and the computer never got more than a little warm-to-the-touch during my tests. There’s a small fan in the case and a series of vents around the side to help keep things cool, but the fan isn’t particularly noisy and it was easy to forget the fan was there at all.
What about speed? Sure, this is a laptop chip… but it’s a pretty good laptop chip. The Zini 1550 was one of the fastest computers I’ve tested when it came to my file zip and video transcoding tests.
I wasn’t able to run all of my usual tests because some of the tools I use are Windows-only. But the Zini 1550 made short work (literally) of the video conversion jobs I performed with Handbrake, and created a large ZIP archive from 2,186 files pretty quickly using the 7-zip command-line utility.
In fact, the only computer I’ve tested that scored better in these tests is the Dell XPS 13 with a Core i5-5200U processor, which makes sense, because that notebook has a processor based on the same 5th-gen Intel Core “Broadwell” architecture as the Core i5-5010U, but it’s a somewhat higher-performance (and higher cost) chip.
If you want the performance boost that comes from a faster chip, ZaReason offers an optional upgrade to a Core i5-5250U CPU with Intel HD 6000 graphics for $119.
Overall, the ZaReason Zini 1550 has been a pleasure to use. It’s compact, quiet, and powerful enough to handle most basic computing tasks.
If you need a computer with discrete graphics, an optical disc drive, or even an SD card reader, you might want to opt for something a little bigger. But if you’re looking for a small, relatively low power system that can be used in your office, living room, or just about anywhere else for office, productivity, web browsing, light gaming, and audio and video duties, the Zini 1550 is more than up to the task.
It also provides an extraordinarily pleasant out-of-the-box Ubuntu experience. While you can install Linux on just about anything, it can take an awful lot of work when you want to load it on hardware that wasn’t designed to support the operating system. Having a company like ZaReason do the heavy lifting can make things a lot easier.
On the other hand, if you’re not afraid to do a little work on your own, you could probably save money by purchasing a barebones Intel NUC and installing the memory, storage, and operating system on your own. You can buy an NUC for under $300 and outfit it with everything you need to run Ubuntu for a the price of an M.2 SSD and some laptop memory.
It’s worth noting that System76 offers a similar computer called the Meerkat, which is also an Intel NUC that ships with a Linux-based operating system. The Meerkat has a lower starting price of $449, but that’s for a model with 4GB f RAM and 32GB of storage. And while System76 offers its computer with a choice of Ubuntu 14.04 or Ubuntu 15.04, there are no options for Debian, Fedora, OpenSUSE, or other operating systems.
All told, the Zini 1550 may not be the cheapest way to turn an Intel NUC into a tiny, Linux-powered desktop. But it’s certainly one of the simplest.
Thanks again to ZaReason for loaning us this demo unit.