Splashtop "Instant On" motherboard

Jack Wallen reviews one of the new Splashtop motherboards, now part of the ASUS laptop. What kind of performance do you get, and what kind of user would want one?

So I have had on my desk for about week now a sweet little ASUS laptop containing one of the new Splashtop motherboards. Don't know what Splashtop is? Well Splashtop is a motherboard that contains, in the onboard memory, a special version of Linux (based on Small Linux - formerly tinyX) that runs right after the bios. In my review laptop, I hit a special key (mapped to tinyX), the bios posts, and tinyX is up and ready to surf the Web and do a minimum amount of tricks.

As far as performance is concerned - I was really impressed. I never would have guessed that X Windows was running off system memory. Most Live CDs show themselves by means of performance. Splashtop was not the case. It felt like I was running a standard OS on a standard motherboard. This thing was fast. Now the specs on the laptop were nothing to sneeze at:

Duo T7500, 160GB HD, and 2GB of ram.

That 2GB of ram really helped. I think if the laptop were sold with less, the performance would take a serious hit. But as is, that baby sang! In fact, I would have to say that, on this laptop, tinyX performed better than when fully booted into Windows Vista (yeah, Splashtop sent ME a laptop with a Windows OS on it...go figure!).

And just how fast does Splashtop boot? 9.3 seconds. So, from a cold start you are ready to "work" in 9.3 seconds. I say "work" (as in "") because the Splashtop OS isn't perfectly suited for the business environment - unless your business environment happens to be primarily Web-centric. If that's the case, then you are set to go. What does this mean? It means, in similar fashion to the Zonbu machines, Splashtop's disadvantage is its best advantage. You see the system is in lock down. You can't add applications to the desktop. You can store small files to ram or to a USB drive, but that's it. So it's best suited for kiosk and cafe deployments because users can't really do much harm to the system. And Splashtop one-ups Zonbus green claim with it's "instant on" so the system doesn't need to be running all day. So even less energy is used. Think about it. You have a kiosk, and you don't want that machine running eight hours a day. Simple. Load up a machine with Splashtop and allow users to turn the machine on and off. With it's lightening fast load time, it's a no brainer.

Of course, as it stands, hard core fans need not apply. For now that is. Sergei Krupenin informed me that an SDK (Software Developer Kit) would be released so that developers could create applications for the desktop. Does this sound familiar? Hello iPhone? And since it is open source it should be pretty easy to develop for. The core of Splashtop is a reworking of LinuxBIOS, so even the very foundation should give hard-core open source fanatics that starry-eyed glare. Of course, I do wonder why an SDK has to be released for open source software.

Is it worth it? Honestly, I think this system is most certainly worth a look for certain applications. As for every-day users, I can certainly see how a family of multiple users (who tend to shut their machine off at night - I know plenty of this type) would benefit from having "two" systems. One system would be a quick on and off for someone just wanting to browse the Web. This would be an ideal solution for single-computer families where parents want to either apply parental controls over children or do not want children risking more critical data on the hard drive. So kids get to use Splashtop and adults use the regular OS, and you can boot to the regular OS straight from Splashtop.It doesn't matter what OS you are booting to - Splashtop doesn't care.

But what would the children get on the Splashtop OS? They would get a browser, music player, some really fun online games (Tank 2008 is worth it alone), a photo viewer, chat, and Skype.

This system would also help in a situation where you've possibly hosed your OS. Your X configuration borked? Just open up Splashtop and Google the problem. Think of it as a built-in, online help system.

How do you get one? ASUS has already started shipping motherboards with Splashtop under the Express Gate brand, and notebooks should be coming out soon. Sergei assured me they fully plan on having millions of Splashtop motherboards shipped by the end of the year on mainstream PCs. That would certainly be impressive as well as a boost the already rising exposure of Linux to the mainstream.

Should you get one? Why not? ASUS does make good motherboards and having the extra functionality of an "instant on" OS embedded certainly has it's perks. I would have to say that my next motherboard might very well be a Splashtop enabled ASUS board. It's geek-chic and user-friendly enough to be worth the price of admission.