Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Gigabyte Brix BACE-3150 and Mint KDE

I work my computers pretty hard and after about three years I usually find something is dying. If it isn't the hard disk or DVD drive it's generally something else that has finally worn out. My current Compaq 1040 is more than four years old and has been a problem for quite a while. I'm not well off any more and the budget limits me to between $300 - $400 Aussie dollars. I also find having a laptop on the desk and trying to use it with a dual monitor setup is a real pain – so when I could not put the inevitable off any more, I bought a low end Brix.

The first thing I noticed about the Gigabyte Brix BACE-3150 was that it felt heavier than I expected for such a small computer. The second thing was that, well, it is a small computer. At not much more than 100mm by 100mm square and about 50mm high it can be placed just about anywhere on a desk or a shelf.  It also comes with a bracket and screw to allow it to be mounted on the back of most LED television sets.

There are lots of unboxing videos and various reviews about the Brix on Youtube and on Google. They all give details about the number and type of ports and the specs of the processor. But my needs are specific.

I always buy low end processors. I don't play computer games. I browse the web, play music and music videos, write simple programs (usually BASH scripts), and do a lot of photo editing and a little video editing. Much of the last two are either from the command line or using scripts I have customised for my own requirements. And of course there's the usual hack work. I design some web sites for businesses and maintain some blogs and do the usual word processing and spreadsheeting. I also only buy cheap computers.

One of the first things I need in a computer is that it will easily run Linux. Currently for my distribution of choice I've returned to Mint KDE, so I unpacked the Brix, plugged in the power adapter, a HDMI TV and a USB stick with a bootable Mint 17.3 KDE, plus my wireless mouse and keyboard.

I turned it on and a few moments later I had a working copy of Mint KDE on my screen. I entered the password for the on board Wireless to connect to my Internet and everything worked. So I double clicked the install icon and manually partitioned the hard drive the way I like it.

It was about this time I remembered reading somewhere that a reviewer of one model of the Brix had some dramas getting the UEFI stuff in BIOS sorted. Sadly I didn;t have the chance to explore the BIOS and UEFI stuff. The Brix BACE-3150 just accepted Mint KDE and everything worked.

The only drivers I had to install were for my collection of Brother printers. Fortunately Brother has a special section for Linux drivers on their web site which is kept up to date. Mint KDE just found everything else. I had to install a few programs and extras that asre not in the standard installation but for most users even that would not be needed.

The Brix was replacing a Compaq 1040 with an AMD E-350 1.6GHz dual core processor with a 500GB hard drive and 4GB RAM. The Brix BACE 3150 has a quad core Celeron processor that idles at 1.6GHz but automatically runs up to 2.08GHz on demand. Mine was ordered with a 500GB hard drive but I ordered 8GB RAM because I noticed on the AMD 64 bit processor I was very often pushing the system into the top of the available 4GB and flowing over into swap.

With the Brix, the quad core seems to prevent that somehow. I have no idea why, but running the same tasks on the same OS distro and version I haven't even got above the first 4GB RAM.

Something that stands out immediately is video performance however, The AMD system has a far better graphics benchmark score than the Intel system in the Brix. But that is on paper. In reality running the high performance tests on the jellyfish video at various bitrates using both Smplayer and VLC the Brix was still playing smoothly when the AMD started the stop start motion thing.

Streaming HD movies in full screen on a 50 inch TV was perfect on the Brix in KODI and I would recommend KODI and a few add-ons for regular video sessions. Teaming the USB 3 ports on the Brix with USB 3 hard drives and memory sticks worked great too.

Youtube video always depends largely on how heavy the Internet traffic is at that time, but again running the Brix and the Compaq at the same time left the Brix ahead in this area too. I must admit I was using Flashpeak Slimjet as my browser on both computers and a wired connection to the router on the compaq, while the Brix had the advantage of its internal wireless to connect to the router.

In summing up. The Gigabyte Brix was on ebay for $364 including delivery from pclivecomputers in Oakleigh, Vic. They will sell you the basic barebones Brix so you can choose the processor you need and add the bits you want, or you can simply choose an option to suit your budget as I did.
I ordered on a weekend, there was a public holiday on the Monday, and I still got mine up here in Central Queensland on the following Monday. I suspect had I ordered it Monday morning it might have arrived by Friday.

A couple of weeks into living with the BRIX and there was one annoying problem. The thing doesn't shutdown. When choosing to shutdown, everything seems fine, then it simply reboots. It was not happening initially but after a Linux kernel update it started happening. A bit of googling shows it is not only me with this issue, although it is not clear if it is happening with all processor variations. At any rate, with the Brix BACE-3150 it is happening. Fdor now, the only solution is to be sure to hit the main power switch (at the adapter) as soon as everything seems to have shut off. Otherwise, the light on the Brix comes back on and it reboots.

It is not a huge issue, but it is annoying to have to remember. I have no idea if this happens on any Brix with Windows installed. I can live with it though because everything else so far about the Brix has been a positive experience.

!!!!   N O T E   !!!!    After a couple of Linux updates the shutdown problem seems to have taken a holiday.  Now when it is turned off, the Brix stays off.

Something I will mention on closing is that KODI under Linux Mint suffers the same shutdown problem as KODI under Raspbian on the Raspberry Pi.  If you choose exit, instead of dropping back to Linux, it just hangs the system, often at a black screen.  Choosing Exit often does the same.  So I find the best what to get out of KODI is to choose a reboot, then either work in Linux, or shutdown from Linux.

The other option is to go into KODI System > System and choose to run in Windowed mode, then close the KODI window.

Be sure though to swap KODI back into Full Screen mode while you are running video or it will not play smoothly.

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