In the Depths of the Cloud, Open Source and Proprietary Leviathans Fight to the Death
Jono Bacon Asked Google Home ‘Who Founded Linux?’ You Won’t Believe What Happened Next!
Red Hat's Women in Open Source Award Winners, 2017
Imagine an Android Phone Without Linux Inside
Linus Torvalds Talks to Debian Users
Mozilla Relents, Thunderbird Can Stay
Heed the Prophet Stallman, oh Software Sinners!
April 16th, 2015

Kicking the Tires on an $89 Symple PC

About six weeks ago I told you about Symple PC, the new $89 PC preinstalled with Ubuntu. Now I’ve had a chance to take one for a test drive. The verdict? Just like I figured, it’s a good deal. After all, the price is nothing if not sweet, especially considering that these machines come with a one year full replacement warranty.

Symple PC

Excuse our mess – some things never change. Our Symple PC, set up and ready to take on a test drive.

Before I turn into Siskel and Ebert and give this computer two thumbs up, perhaps I’d better explain a few things first. On its own terms, the machine certainly would deserve the upturned thumbs, and maybe even a gold star on your refrigerator door. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s necessarily a drop in replacement for the latest top-of-the-line offering from HP or Lenovo — even though for many uses it could be.

The Symple PC Web Workstation is a strange hybrid. It’s not new; it’s not used; nor is it refurbished — but it is all of those things. Symple PC takes discarded systems from electronics recycling centers, puts the components through rigorous testing, then reassembles them into brand spanking new mini tower cases made from 100 percent recycled vinyl. The resulting PC is new on the outside, but filled with “previously owned” guts.

Because the computers are made from repurposed parts, they don’t all come with the same specs; buyers are guaranteed a minimum of a 2.8 GHz processor, 2 GB RAM and a 80 GB hard drive. Our test machine meets these minimum specs exactly. While gamers and bleeding edge aficionados may scoff at these numbers, they’re more than adequate for nearly any office workstation, which is their intended use.

Rear view Symple PC

A rear view of our test machine. All controls, ports and plugs on a Symple PC are on the rear of the machine.

The folks at Symple also guarantee that each computer will come with at least three USB, one VGA and one Ethernet port; and for audio, at least an output jack. With our machine, we evidently hit something of a jackpot. In addition to the VGA and Ethernet ports, ours has six USB ports as well as both a parallel and serial port. Our unit also came with the standard three audio jacks: microphone, line in and audio out.

Most likely to make assembling the Symple PC easier, all ports and controls are located on the back of the mini tower, with the power button located near the top where it’s easy to find and reach. It’s also colored green, making it easy to see against the black tower in low light. As with all computers, the first thing you notice after pressing the power button is the whirling of the fan.

In our earlier article on the Symple PC, one commenter who’d evidently been prompted by our coverage to purchase a machine, complained about the fan being excessively loud. This isn’t the case with the machine we received. Although the fan isn’t as quiet as most laptop fans, it makes no more noise than either of the two desktop machines we regularly use at FOSS Force — much less than one, which goes into turbo mode ten seconds into a YouTube video. Personally, I like the sound a fan makes as it drones in the background. I find it comforting. It means the CPU is hopefully not catching fire.

The first boot into preinstalled Ubuntu 14.04 LTS went smoothly. As expected, Ubuntu required click-throughs to establish language, keyboard and location, then prompted for a name and password for the user before spending a minute or two configuring itself before bringing up the Unity interface. Unlike the horror stories I’ve read online from people who’ve purchased Dells with Ubuntu preinstalled, the Symple machine has worked perfectly out-of-the-box without a single configuration error.

Symple PC shipping box

No Styrofoam peanuts here. The container and packing materials used to ship Symple PCs are made from fully recycled material.

Because this computer is mainly being marketed to businesses as a web workstation, I thought it was important to see how it performed online under the type of load expected in a normal office environment. As I had no way of getting an Ethernet cable to the testing area and the Symple PC doesn’t come equipped with Wi-Fi, I plugged-in a small USB Wi-Fi dongle I had lying around. The Ubuntu install had no trouble identifying the device and I was able to connect with our router with one click.

For two days now I’ve been using it for all of my work here at FOSS Force, and the machine hasn’t had any problems coping with anything I’ve given it. It routinely handles having ten or more open tabs in Firefox without showing any signs of bogging down — even when adding a YouTube video to the mix.

When I needed to edit the JPEGs that accompany this article, to crunch them down from megabyte sized files to something more appropriate for the Internet, I had the opportunity to get up close and personal with the Ubuntu package manager, as I downloaded and installed GIMP. Again, with about six megs of graphics files open, ten or more tabs up in Firefox, and a video streaming, the Symple PC was taking it in stride. Not bad for $89.

For most home users, I’d have absolutely no problem recommending a Symple PC. It’s only $89, it comes with a warranty, and Unity is simple enough that either your grandson or grandmother can figure out how to use it. And if Ubuntu’s not your thing: wipe it and put the distro of your choice on it. It’s true that if you open the case to add more hardware you void your warranty, but so what? If something goes wrong you’re only out $89, which won’t get you into some rock concerts these days.

As for business use, the Symple PC is a no-brainer for most everyday office purposes. Why? How about the fact that you can buy five of these for about what you’d pay for one from the name brand folks — with about the same warranty and no software licensing fees. Also, it’s uniform physical form simplifies the logistics of setting up workstations, and it can handle just about any task you’re likely to throw at it.

The following two tabs change content below.
Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001, she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and started covering Linux and FOSS in 2002 after making the switch to GNU/Linux. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux

Latest posts by Christine Hall (see all)

23 comments to Kicking the Tires on an $89 Symple PC

  • Lizbeth

    i paid more than 89 for a hp tablet that can’t replace a home pc. How about sharing the full specs of the rig you received? Feed our curiosity a bit more?

  • @Lizbeth As I said, we got the minimum. 2.8 GHz processor, 2 GB RAM and a 80 GB hard drive. The motherboard was originally from an HP machine. We’re planning to use it for testing and reviewing new releases of Linux distros.

  • Lizbeth

    pentium 4? Single core, dual core? AMD? Cyrix 686? Athlon?

  • How about even a more basic description. What did you actually get? Does it come with a keyboard, a mouse, a screen, replaceable cards, slots for more cards? Could you attach two screens? Can you put in a wifi card or sound card?

  • CFWhitman

    Well, it looks like there is only one video output, which is standard VGA, so I don’t think you can hook up two monitors out of the box. Also, I don’t see any access to expansion slots (the power supply looks like it would be in the way), so easy expandability with PCI/PCIe cards does not look to be an option. That seems kind of a shame as it leaves you with USB as your only WiFi option.

  • Brian Kemp

    It’s not like the PCI/PCIe bus is non-existent, CFWhitman: it’s just that opening the case voids your warranty.

    I’m guessing that this is “working pull” parts – so yes, that warranty is nice for the target market. What other options do you have for a computer under $100 up-front?

    Some of the motherboards will probably have two monitor outputs – but honestly, asking for dual monitors w/o an add-on card on an $89 machine is, well, forgetting its place in the market.

    If you can think to ask for dual-mon support, you probably can afford better.

  • @Paul The power cord and computer is what you get for your $89. I didn’t mention this in the article, because this is pretty standard. Monitor, keyboard, mouse, etc., if included are usually part of a bundle.

  • CFWhitman

    Of course I realize that the slots are there. My point was that both the prohibition against opening your case, and the lack of any accommodation in the case for cards makes the slots unusable unless you don’t mind voiding your warranty and transferring the whole system to a new case. For practical purposes, the slots are unusable.

    I should also have made it clear that my post was in response to Paul Palmer’s questions, so it was not meant to be a general criticism of such a low cost machine. It’s only the lack of any access to expansion slots which pretty certainly do exist on the motherboard that I think is a shame (if they didn’t exist, it wouldn’t be a problem).

  • @Lizbeth Intel Pentium 4. It’s most likely single core although tt shows up on a query as dual core, which probably means that it has hyperthreading which causes it to look like two cores, because I don’t think there’s a dual core Pentium 4 (I could be wrong).

    This is probably pretty irrelevant to a general discussion on the Symple PC, as the unit you get might very well be completely different. That being said, because Symple is targeting enterprise users, I imagine that faster machines are being reserved for customers ordering multiple machines — but that’s just a guess.

  • Larry G

    Can you upgrade the configuration? Like more RAM, bigger hard drive? The web site at Symple PC doesn’t give you that option. So what’s the situation? You pays your $89 and takes your chances?

  • @Larry

    “So what’s the situation? You pays your $89 and takes your chances?”

    I think that’s a rather negative way of looking at it. It’s very straight forward. For $89 you get a computer with the minimum specs offered. To keep things simple, and to keep prices low, that’s all they offer. If you’re not happy with those specs, then the Symple PC probably won’t suit your needs.

  • Lizbeth

    this could be just low end enough for the Linux respin project that I’m considering attempting. Thanks for all the info. 🙂

  • @Lizbeth As always, it’s a pleasure to have you drop by 🙂

  • Lizbeth

    just for perspective, at Amazon.com I saw a similar machine but with a 40 gig hard drive same ram and processor for about 83$ though they want 20$ more to ship it to ya. It has as many usbs as the one Christine described and comes with windows 7 home premium and 3 usable expansion slots. If Larry wants to go that route it’s available. If I were to go that route though I’d buy an additional hard drive and keep the win 7 on it own drive, maybe even clone it in case it’s ever needed for something.

    I’m surprised there are no dvd/cd drives included though. They were pretty standard on Mose of those machines I thought. No biggie though as I have a usb one. Without one on an older machine like that, I don’t think you’ll get it to boot into anything other than Ubuntu. I’m skeptical that the bios would support booting from usb.

  • @CFWhitman I found this from another site which might interest you:

    “If you were to open the system, you would find available PCI slots which are located under the power supply. Since the power supply is in the way of the slots, they cannot be used. Here are no case slots to open to place a PCI card in the system anyway. The motherboard in my system had a second SATA controller slot, but there are no bays to mount a SATA drive. The existing SATA drive is mounted behind the green Symple logo on the front of the case. Be aware that the four screws in the case around the Symple logo are used to hold the SATA drive in place. It may be possible to mount a hard drive on the inside of the case as the other drive was done. The power supply and the extra fan are both set to blow out if the case. The direction of the fans cause the system to have negative pressure. A system with negative pressure causes the internal components to collect less dust than a positive pressure system. The pressure explains the large open slots on the front of the case to allow air to be sucked into the system and then blown out of the fans.”

    http://www.linux.org/threads/symple-pc-%E2%80%93-the-89-linux-system.7806/

  • @nightflier I stand corrected. Thanx for the input! 🙂

  • CFWhitman

    If it is actually called a Pentium 4, then it is single core. They did dual core processers based on the same generation, but (as you can see in nightflier’s link) they called the dual core processors by the Pentium D name rather than Pentium 4. You could probably figure out for sure with the information from /proc/cpuinfo which processor it actually is.

  • CFWhitman

    I probably should have added that Pentium D processors were all 64 bit, so if it is 32 bit, then it is not going to be dual core. There were some 32 bit Pentium dual core processors, but they were billed as “Pentium Dual-Core” or “Core Duo” rather than “Pentium 4” and were based on a different microarchitecture. You basically need a play book to keep track of the naming Intel used for all of these chips.

  • John

    Thanks for the article. While it is not something I would buy for myself I will certainly keep them in mind for others that may need a cheaper PC for whatever reasons.

  • EEspino

    Seem good deal but could be better without increasing the price: instead of Ubuntu I would sell it with Xubuntu or UbuntuMate.

  • […] Kicking the Tires on an $89 Symple PC by Christine Hall. Published April 16, 2015. What do you get when you buy an $89 desktop with […]