Compulab specializes in making unique computers, with no fans, which consume very little power and make absolutely no noise. They’ve been a Linux Mint partner since 2012 and we’ve got an amazing relationship with them.
Their computers are always very unique so it’s a real pleasure to play with them.
Two years ago I wrote a preview of the MintBox Mini:
How does the new MintBox Mini Pro compare to it? Let’s find out.
MintBox Mini Pro
The content of the box hasn’t changed. Inside we find the following items:
- The Mini pro
- A power adapter
- A user guide
- Wireless antennas
- Some adapters (Audio Jack to RCA, MiniSerial to DB9 and HDMI to DVI)
The unit itself is still as tiny as before. It has the exact same dimensions, buttons and ports as the original MintBox Mini, yet it looks different.
The Mini was made of white plastic and green metal and it came with an external Wifi adapter which took away a USB port at the back.
In contrast, the Mini Pro is entirely made of black metal and its Wifi adapter is internal, so the antennas are connected directly on the side of the unit.
On top of that, this particular version is the rugged model.
As a Mint fan I can’t help it, I’m partial to the green looks of the original unit. By their size and connectivity, they both look incredible (I still have a few non-IT people in my entourage which struggle to understand these are actual computers in my pockets). The Mini looked cute, the Pro is just as impressive but it definitely looks much more serious.
Of course, once you know the bump in specifications which happened between the two units, you can only prefer the Pro.
It costs $100 more than the Mini but it features the following differences:
- The all-metal housing gives it better passive cooling
- AMD A10-Micro 6700T APU, running at 10W (vs AMD A4-Micro 6400T @ 4.5W)
- 8 GB RAM (vs 4 GB RAM)
- 120 GB SSD (vs 64 GB)
- WiFi 802.11ac mini-PCIe (vs WiFi 802.11n dongle)
- Bluetooth 4 (vs no bluetooth)
- Dual Gigabit Ethernet (vs single Gigabit Ethernet)
- Powered eSATA (vs none)
By default it comes with Linux Mint 18 Cinnamon 64-bit which has been slightly customized by Compulab:
- The codecs are installed
- Kodi (the Home Theater) was added
- MDM uses a custom theme
The kernel is custom by default (4.4.6-generic.fitlet) to add out of the box support for GPIO and Watchdog. That isn’t important for most users though, and the Update Manager provides updates towards the same kernels used by Linux Mint.
The OS is installed in OEM mode, so the first time you boot the unit you’re asked to set up your username, password, locale, keyboard layout etc.
Out of the 120GB SSD, 102GB is left available.
When idle about 8% of the RAM is used and the internal temperature is approximately 50C.
The box has no HDD and no fans so it is always completely silent.
The GPU is an AMD R6. It uses the Gallium open-source driver. Direct rendering and sound over HDMI are functional out of the box.
Compulab also sent us some accessories… there’s a larger heatsink to make the passive cooling even more efficient (you can open the MintBox with a screwdriver.. 4 screws on the bottom and you can access the RAM/SSD and swap the heatsink), and there’s a mounting bracket, to attach the MintBox to the back of a TV or a monitor.
One of the accessories I really enjoyed was a UPS called fit-Uptime which protects you from power outages.
Both the MintBox and fit-Uptime are pocketable (i.e. fit in your pockets) so this can also be used as a portable battery.
According to the specs on the Compulab website, fit-Uptime should power the Mini Pro for 1h30. That’s plenty of time to carry your work around to another workstation, a meeting room, or another building if the power outage lasts too long.
The Airtop is like nothing else I ever saw before. Compulab created that feeling in the past.. the first time I saw the first MintBox, and then with the MintBox Mini, we had our fair share of wow moments.
This is even more special because it isn’t just smart and good looking, the specs inside of it are also very impressive.
We’re talking about something here that is much smaller than my main computer, completely silent and yet even more powerful.
This is what it looks like:
It’s made entirely of metal, with heatsinks on the side.
The front of the unit shows the internal temperature and 4 USB ports.
There’s plenty of connectivity at the back.
You don’t need a screwdriver to open it. There’s a little lock switch at the back. Once unlocked you simply press the top of the unit and the side opens.
The Airtop is passively cooled, with an idle temperature of 35C. It has no internal fans and so it’s completely silent.
The model I received features the following specs:
- Quad-Core Intel i7 5775C
- 16GB RAM
- GeForce GTX 1060
The GeForce is also fanless, installed by Compulab and it takes advantage of the left heatsink.
Comparing the MintBox Mini Pro and Airtop to my main computer
I decided to compare the Mini Pro and the Airtop to my main computer. There are a lot of computers here, but this one is the one I use the most to work on Linux Mint when I’m in Ireland:
- Quad-Core Intel i7 2700k
- 16GB RAM
- GeForce GTX 680
It sits under a desk in a Cooler Master Storm tower. It takes space and it sounds like a small hoover. It does everything I need without issues though, so I am (was) happy with it.
All three computers use SSD drives and don’t have any HDDs.
All three computers are well able to run Linux Mint. Cinnamon feels smooth on all of them, apps are fast to launch and responsive.
These are out-of-the-box figures. They include everything from the moment you press the power button to the moment you see the login screen. None of the computers were optimized for fast boot times (whether it’s in the BIOS, GRUB or OS configuration):
- MintBox Mini Pro: 24 seconds
- Main computer: 42 seconds
- Airtop: 30 seconds
I compared the time it took to compile Xreader (which is the PDF reader used in Linux Mint):
- MintBox Mini Pro: 5.16 min
- Main computer: 1.44 min
- Airtop: 1.12 min
To evaluate the quality of video playback I played files side by side on all three computers.
I used two 1080p movies in traditional formats (x264-MP4, h264-MKV) and to stress test I used an NFL match and an F1 Grand Prix in 720p (there’s nothing better than the camera following a fast object in the middle of an overly busy landscape to spot lag and vsync issues).
Linux Mint is configured by default to work on a wide variety of computers, so it comes with xplayer as the default video player and plays video without using GPU acceleration.
Compulab units on the other hand (both the MintBox and the Airtop) are configured to make the best of their hardware, so they come with VDPAU/VAAPI installed and playback is handled by VLC (by default) and Kodi.
The movies looked fluid and gorgeous on all 3 machines.
Kodi eliminated all vsync issues out of the box (some visible in VLC).
Watching sports felt good on all 3 machines. There were no slow downs or sync issues and if you looked at each computer individually you wouldn’t notice any issue.
Comparing the same frames being played side by side on 3 monitors highlighted smoother playback on the main computer than on the MintBox though, and a slightly smoother playback on the Airtop even.
I couldn’t measure the playback FPS, but if you’re into games you’ll probably know what I mean. I could enjoy watching the Grand Prix on any of these three machines, it played fine and consistently without apparent issues. Looking at a fast Formula 1 taking a straight or at the stands quickly moving on the sides, it felt similar to what you see when comparing games at 30FPS and games at 60FPS, they both look great, but when compared side to side, one has more fluidity, there’s less jumps between each individual frames.
In theory, we shouldn’t see that, since our eyes capture at 25FPS and as long as it’s consistent our brain adapts to the frequency anyway… but we feel it all the same.
First prize goes to the Airtop’s GeForce GTX 1060, then to my main computer’s i7 CPU. A honorable mention to the Pro’s Radeon R6 which played 1080p movies perfectly and only started to look bad when comparing landscapes scrolling at 300Kph side by side on multiple monitors.
I used Stellaris from Paradox to see how the three computers compared. It’s not really fair to include a mini-computer like the MintBox Mini Pro in this comparison since it’s not supposed to be a gaming computer, but heh, why not have a look?
I launched Stellaris in fullscreen, with a resolution of 2560×1440 at 60Hz. Obviously the Pro’s AMD R6 struggled here. It ran the game but rotating/zooming the galaxy wasn’t smooth. I had to lower the game’s resolution to 1920×1200 for it to be playable. Rotations and zooms were ok in 720p, but at that resolution we’re getting close to old-generation consoles (PS3, Xbox 360) and we’re far from the standards set by modern gaming machines.
On the main computer, with the GTX 680, the game is fluid and with no apparent lag in 2560×1440.
Same thing for the Airtop and its GTX 1060. Scrolling, zooming on planets and stars and browsing the galaxy was extremely smooth.
I wanted to check the difference between the main computer and the Airtop a bit more. Although it’s of a less luxurious series, the GTX 1060 is way more recent than the GTX 680, so I had no doubt it should be more powerful. In the Airtop, we’re not talking about a standard GTX though, we’re talking about a card which is optimized and which doesn’t use any fans…
So I ran the Unigine Heaven Benchmark 4.0 on both machines, using the OpenGL renderer in high quality and with a resolution of 2560×1440. The GTX 680 showed its limits with an average of 30.1 FPS and a overall score of 758. The Airtop scored 1504 with an average of 59.7 FPS.
Dimensions and weight
I’m a French expat who lives in Ireland. I love going back to France and I do so often. I take a plane when it’s for a few weeks, and I take my car (via a Ferry) when it’s for a few months. No matter how I get there though, once I arrive I want to be operational. I can tinker a bit and keep on top of things with a laptop (the Macbook Pro is well able to compile software and virtualize environments), but if I want to do real work I need a good keyboard and large monitors. So I leave these devices there and all I have to carry with me is my data, or even better, the computer I’m working on.
The Cooler Master Storm is a dusty tower which sits under the desk. It’s big (22cm x 48cm x 52cm) and it’s heavy. With a bit of a sweat I can carry it all the way to the boot of the car, where it takes a significant portion of the space available (which is important on the way back when bringing back wine and all, but that’s another topic). I brought it with me a few times because although I had MintBox 2 units at my disposal, I wanted the extra power. It’s become an issue though, not only because it takes space and it’s clunky to fit and plug but also because it has a lot of moving parts and internal fans, and so every time it travels, it gets a little worse and a little more noisy too.
The MintBox Mini Pro is light and it’s tiny. I would want extra power for my work when I go for months with the car, but for a few weeks it’s the perfect complement of a laptop to bring with me on a plane.
The Airtop is definitely larger than a mini-computer, but it’s relatively small compared to a traditional computer. Its dimensions are roughly 10cm x 30cm x 25cm. Nothing is loose inside of it.
It’s heavier than it looks, because of the heatsinks: 5.8Kg.
The ambient noise level in the office is approximately 26dB.
My main computer is quite a noisy one and it brings the level up to 39dB.
Most computers are less noisy than that, but the noise can accumulate, especially in open-space areas in big companies or public buildings, where 100 computers can suck a lot of power and end up making a lot of noise.
The Airtop and the MintBox Mini Pro have no HDDs and no fans. They’re completely silent.
The best way to get the best specs for your money is to buy cheap components and assemble them yourself. The best way for the industry to fill that demand is to mass produce, and to cut costs (salaries, quality, transport etc..). In other words, you get the best ratio “performance vs price” when buying what’s the most common, what floods the market, what everybody else has, and preferably on the low-end or mid-range of the market segmentation.
Although it was high-end at the time, that’s what I did with the main computer by sourcing plenty of RAM, a good CPU, a powerful GPU and a big fat tower on Ebay. It didn’t cost much and I got good specs.
During the liftetime of a computer things change drastically though. At purchase time, the specs and the price of the unit are paramount. And then the more you use it, the less relevant they become. What becomes more and more important is how much you enjoy the computer and your experience with it.
It no longer matters how much I spent on that computer years ago. What matters now is that I’ve been able to do everything I wanted with it for all that time (on the plus side) and that I don’t really like it, mostly because of the noise (on the down side).
When I saw the Airtop, I already knew I wanted to get rid of my main computer, its big tower and noisy fans. I’ve had devices I was really sad to let go and it never had to do with how much I paid for them or how fast they were.. it had to do with the fact that they were no longer powerful enough and that I loved using them (The Sony T2XP 10″ laptop for instance, the Google G1 smartphone and its keyboard, the MintBox Mini now that the Mini Pro is better in every way except cuteness, and one day probably the Apple MacBook Pro).
Compulab does devices like that. You get to love them.
I talked a lot about performance in this preview but I compared three computers that had little to do with each others. If you were on the market for one of them, you wouldn’t look at the two others. Most people have a computer which sits between the MintBox Mini Pro and my main computer in terms of specifications though, and most gamers would have a computer which sits between my main computer and the Airtop. I wanted to compare specs and performance because the advantages of the MintBox and the Airtop (form-factor, low-power consumption and silence) over a traditional tower computer are obvious to people who are interested in them and so the real question people have about the MintBox is how much they can push it, what can it run and where is its limit compared to a traditional computer. They certainly don’t hesitate between a MintBox and a PS4 if the goal is gaming, but still it’s nice to know how the unit behaves if one day you feel like throwing a game at it. And when it comes to the Airtop, we’re talking about a much higher budget. There’s no question the form-factor and the passive-cooling technology is expensive, but there’s also the promise of really good performance. So I wanted to see how much better that Airtop was compared to my main computer and I have to say I’m impressed.
I can’t tell what your budget is and how important form-factor is to you. I can focus on my impressions of these two devices and tell you how much I enjoy using them.
I don’t think I’m going to use my main computer anymore. The Airtop is better in every way, and the various MintBoxes I have around here (including that new Mini Pro) handle tasks I give to secondary computers just fine (working on the go, running different releases in parallel), so I really don’t need to hear these fans any longer.
Farewell my Cooler Master Storm tower, you served me well, but this is where it ends. It’s not you, it’s me.. I met someone else :)