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If you can’t fathom a world where there’s no bad-ass gaming rig at your disposal, or gigabit fiber Internet access, or a plethora of mobile devices to choose from, then you probably won’t get the Endless Mini PC.
The fact is, the Endless Mini PC is not aimed at most of us. This grapefruit-sized computer is for the emerging middle-class family in the developing world that has little to no Internet access. If there is access, it’s expensive, slow, or unreliable.
That family, Endless says, typically has running water, a functional electrical grid, a television, and maybe even a smartphone—so shelve your view that “developing” means everyone lives in a mud hut or cardboard shanty town.
And yes, the company insists, these same folks want a desktop PC, too.
A different kind of desktop
The new Endless Mini is available in two configurations. Both feature a quad-core AMLogic S805 ARM processor. The $79 base unit has 1GB of RAM, a 24GB eMMC drive, and gigabit ethernet. A stepped-up $100 unit has 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and more importantly, includes 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0.
For ports, you get three USB 2.0, a smartphone-style audio jack, HDMI, and composite video.
I expected there to be a VGA or D-SUB connector to use with older CRT displays but the Endless Mini is meant to be hooked up to a television primarily not a computer monitor. The OS isn’t Windows or Android. It’s a customized version of GNU Linux with the GNOME desktop environment called the Endless OS. Linux is usually the OS of tech heads, but Endless makes its fork as simple as possible.
Setting it up
Fire up the Endless Mini and you are walked through the process of compensating for the overscan on most televisions. You’re also prompted to set a password. In one of the many little signs that this PC is intended for a less tech-savvy audience, your password is visible by default, so you can verify what’s been typed.
I tested the Endless Mini on a flat panel television using the composite out—which, being composite video, was predictably ugly. In a clever trick, if composite video is used, the Endless Mini scales up the font to compensate for low-res output. Both PAL and NTSC are supported, with a toggle switch on the back.
No Internet, no problem
I first tried the Endless Mini with zero Internet connectivity to see how useful it would be, and it’s really not bad. The device comes preloaded with content that Endless thinks will appeal to people in emerging markets. For instance, it comes with a veritable encyclopedia courtesy of Wikipedia (we've come a long way since those old-fashioned CD-ROMs of the 1980s).
No, not all of Wikipedia can fit onto a mere 32GB, but by minimizing the graphics and focusing on the more popular content, Endless estimates that about 80 percent of Wikipedia's content is there.
Despite Wikipedia's critics, there's no denying the value of this information. Endless points to the fact that in some developing nations, printed encyclopedias (remember those?) can sell for hundreds of dollars. Parents have resorted to installment plans for those books to give their kids an edge. Getting access to Wikipedia without Internet access is a boon.
Besides Wikipedia, Endless has crammed in other valuable educational tools, such as popular Khan Academy videos. On the 32GB version, I counted just under 1,100 videos covering everything from science to mathematics.
Other preloaded applications focus on medicine, budget management, basic gaming, and resume creation. There's also an office suite. And yes, there’s even a small celebrity database, so a user can learn more about Beyonce.
It’s like 1982 all over again
In some ways, the Endless Mini reminds me of the early days of computing. While most early consumer PCs were basic boxes with nothing but the OS on a ROM chip, some computer makers tried to make complete packages with a rudimentary word processor and basic functionality included so you didn’t have to buy anything else.
The Endless Mini is way more sophisticated though. If a family in a developing nation buys one and plugs it in without Internet, they’ll get a far better computing experience than I did in 1982.
The thing is, Endless doesn't expect its users to never get on the Internet. With a WiFi or LAN connection, you can download more apps or browse the web using the included Chromium browser.
Endless says its made allowances for limited Internet access. We might complain about 250GB data caps here but many developing nations have far more depressing data caps or speeds.
Although I could not test it, Endless says the OS is designed to only download what it needs, and duplicate files, even if used elsewhere, aren't downloaded. Still, if you’re on a severely metered connection, it would be nice to see more granularity in how updates are carried out.
Endless says it plans to integrate features that let a person set a maximum cap on downloads. It also plans to allow updating the OS, apps, or encyclopedia using a USB key.
That way if a person doesn’t have Internet at home, he or she could still download a file at an Internet cafe or friend’s house and sneakernet it home. There's printer support and the Libre office suite supports saving to USB key, too.
If you’re looking for benchmarks comparing the Endless with other PCs, forget it. That’s the wrong way to think here. The experience is maybe a step or two behind what you’d get from a Bay Trail-based Atom machine.
There was definite lag on booting and occasionally with opening applications, but I don’t think it’ll be a deal breaker for the crowd it’s aimed at.
So is it worth it?
That’s the tough part. We live in a world where you can get an 8-inch Android tablet for $50 and an Android set-top box for $19. That’s a lot less than the $79 or $100 for the Endless Mini. And for maybe $30 more, you can get a full-on budget Chromebook that doesn’t require a separate keyboard, mouse, and display.
But the obvious weaknesses of those devices—and even modern Windows, OSX, or iOS devices—is that out of the box, they need the Internet to really do anything. It’s not like you’ll rummage through your collection of CD-ROMs for stuff to do.
A person can truly pull a $79 Endless Mini out of the box, plug in a $10 mouse and keyboard, hook it up to a TV and have a somewhat satisfactory computing experience without the Internet. That really gives the Endless Mini an edge over most of the devices out there.
Still, I do have to question if we are at the point where you can really have a long-term computing experience without access to the Internet. When you’re weighing the petabytes of the Internet versus the gigabytes of the Endless Mini, is there still room for an offline computing experience in this world? I’m not sure.
But I suppose this is all moot for those who simply have no choice. Faced with the choice between 32GB of the Endless vs. none, even I’d take the 32GB.
- Aesthetically pleasing
- Ready to go out of the box without an Internet connection
- Relatively inexpensive
- Is there room for an offline computing experience anymore?
- Why not 64GB of preloaded data?