Ubuntu and Final Thoughts
As a final experiment with the LIVA I installed the 64-bit version of Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, and immediately noticed an improvement in overall performance compared to Windows 8.1. Browsing speed improved slightly, and I was able to multi-task a lot more freely without the immediate performace impact I saw under Windows.
Ubuntu seemed to be using fewer system resources, though I didn't have the full functionality that I was afforded using Windows, either. For example, I used a wired Ethernet connection with Ubuntu. Yes, beta drivers are available for the wireless card, but I didn't want to go through the somewhat involved steps to get it working. (There is an excellent guide from a blogger called Samiux for Ubuntu on LIVA available here.) Even with limited testing I found myself forgetting that I was using the LIVA, and just went about my normal business in Firefox. Were I to use the LIVA full time, I think I would choose Ubuntu – as long as I could figure out how to get everything working!
The LIVA's performance as a desktop computer was fairly good overall. It was not as zippy as I’m used to by now in the era of the quad-core CPU and a saturated SATA 3 bus, though the slowness in the user experience was tolerable. Naturally, opening applications on a slower system is, well, slower. There is a lack of cohesion when even the little things you might take for granted like moving/resizing a window on the screen become laggy and choppy. Using Windows 8.1 there was the frequest lack of responsiveness when typing. For example composing a document using Google Drive in Firefox with multiple tabs open. This is a typical scenario for me, and with just Firefox running (with a total of 7 tabs) the system slowed noticeably as letters started showing up moments after I pressed a key. Closing most of the tabs made it better, but it was still a little sluggish. Revisiting this after a fresh reboot and with only one tab open brought back responsive typing. Under Ubuntu the multitasking performance was more robust, and typing was more responsive even with multiple tabs/applications open.
As you would probably expect, 3D acceleration performance is insufficient to drive any modern game at a playable rate, but there is another issue here that should prevent that attempt anyway. First of all, ECS would never market the LIVA to gamers, and therefore the passive cooler is more than sufficient to the expected use of the machine. Having said that, it was thermal performance that makes the 3D performance of the Intel HD solution onboard moot. When running the Unigine Heaven benchmark on the lowest settings for DX11 (640×480 resolution, “Low” preset), the LIVA ran a consistent 15 FPS on the test. Not good, but not anywhere near the slideshow I was anticipating. And then the temps began to climb.
After seeing nothing over 68 C during the Blu-ray playback test, I was seeing temps well over 70 C after just a few minutes of the Heaven benchmark. There was simply no way for the small heatsink on the SoC to cope with the GPU here. By the 15 min mark the temperature had reached 84 C on both cores, and I actually thought it had stabilized. But moments later the entire system froze and I was presented with a blue screen. The LIVA was very hot, so I pulled the plug and let it sit for a while. It booted up and ran just fine after this, but I would not advocate attempting to run any kind of graphics intensive game on the system.
On the other hand, the world of 2D gaming is an ideal match for a box like LIVA. With the money you’d save picking one of these up for $180 versus building a gaming rig, you could buy a pretty amazing library of retro PC games from GoG and never regret it. (Possible slight bias toward old games here!)
This is the kind of benchmark I like: Playing the classic "Lords of the Realm 2" on the LIVA
Adding to the value of a Windows-ready device like the LIVA is none other than Windows, itself. As this story was posted a new version of the LIVA has been annouced by ECS which will include the recently released Windows 8.1 with Bing. What is this version of Windows? Here's how Microsoft explains it:
"The new Windows 8.1 with Bing edition provides all the same rich experiences that Windows 8.1 offers with the latest update, and comes with Bing as the default search engine within Internet Explorer. Windows 8.1 with Bing will primarily be available on new Windows devices in selected markets later in 2014."
This has been annouced as a preloaded feature with the LIVA. We will have to see if this retroactively affects prior LIVA sales, as they have been shipping with no operating system included.
The LIVA is a very good product for both its size and price. The economy of a PC that can be found for less than $180 – and capable of running real desktop apps – makes an AM1 build seem almost expensive in comparison, but there’s a reason that the LIVA only requires a smartphone style power solution. It isn’t very powerful. For basic desktop tasks and HD playback from a file or optical disc, it’s good. It would make a really good headless server and could be placed just about anywhere. The passive cooling design means it makes absolutely no noise. But after using it for a week with my regular PC sitting lifeless just a few feet away I’m left with mixed feelings.
On one hand I desperately miss the power of my everyday system and the way I can multitask without penalty. On the other hand, it’s a full ATX tower. It doesn’t fit on my desk, and even though I use quiet components it still makes audible noise. The prospect of a silent computer so small I could literally shove it in a coat pocket is very exciting. We arent there quite yet, but the LIVA succeeds as a proof of concept for the NUC idea, if nothing else. It is a capable PC, and paired with a USB hub it could replace a lot of old desktops out there with no noticeble loss of speed. (We all know someone still running a 1 GHz tower with PC 133 memory and an IDE hard drive.)
The real story with the LIVA is the size. It’s hilariously small, and very light. You could easily pull it off of the desk with a USB cable, so I highly recommend a wireless keyboard/mouse.
While it isn’t going to be powerful enough to be a full time Windows desktop for very many people, the LIVA is a really interesting and affordable option for just about any ultra small footprint application.
The LIVA next to the recently reviewed Fractal Design Core 3300
- Incredibly tiny
- Ultra low power (runs off a micro-USB adapter!)
- Good connectivity (HDMI, VGA, Ethernet, USB 3.0 and 2.0, 3.5mm audio)
- Wireless card included
- Audio over HDMI makes HTPC application simple
- Underpowered as a Windows PC
- Only two USB ports makes an external hub a requirement