Review: Linux-based HP Thin Client With XFce 4

This summer, in the beginning of August, HP has released a new Linux based thin client. Unlike the other models from the “t5000” line of HP thin clients which use Microsoft Windows CE as their embedded operating system, the “t5515” is based on the Linux operating system. This is also, to my knowledged, the first device that is using Xfce for its graphical user interface.

The hardware
Click for a larger version The “t5515” thin client is based on a Transmeta Crusoe TM5800 800 MHz processor, and uses an ATI RADEON 7000M with 16 MB of video RAM for display. Two versions are available, one using a 32 MB flash memory and 64 MB of RAM and another one shipping with 128 MB of flash and 128 MB or RAM. The device also includes a stereo 16 bits sound card and an internal speaker, not to mention the obvious network card.

Being placed vertically on its stand, the device takes very little space on the user’s desktop. Another very positive point is the silence when operating the device, as there are no moving parts within the device, no hard drive nor fan at all thanks to the Transmeta Crusoe processor. No doubt that brings more comfort to those who have to work with noisy computers.

The device features the following connectors on the rear: A VGA connector, the network connector, 2 USB connectors, to plug the keyboard and the mouse, a parallel port, a serial port, a couple of connectors to plug external speakers.

Putting the device to work took me less than 5 minutes, I just plugged the keyboard, the mouse, the LCD monitor, the netword cord, plugged the power cord and switched the device on. The device boots in graphical mode and takes its network parameters from DHCP (if you have a DHCP server on your network). If no DHCP server can be found, the device still boots, and the user or system administrator can define an IP address and other network parameters manually.

Click for a larger versionThe t5515 device comes loaded with an embedded Linux distribution based on a Linux kernel version 2.4 and BusyBox (as stated on BusyBox web site, “BusyBox is a multi-call binary that combines many common Unix utilities into a single executable”).

Once booted, the system starts Xfce within a few seconds (the default user is root, but that shouldn’t be a problem given the nature of the device, there is not much the root user can break on such a system). The version that uses a 32MB flash memory ships with Citrix client and rdesktop for connecting to Microsoft Windows servers. and VNC client and server (TightVNC to be precise) to connect to all systems that supports the VNC server (that includes Microsoft Windows, Linux, SUN Solaris, etc.)

Click for a larger versionThe device includes the remote management tools from Altiris that allow deployment of Linux images on the thin clients connected to the network. The device also includes SNMP support for configuration of terminal settings, reporting of terminal configuration and attached devices, and traps but I’ve not tried these functionalities.

Additionnaly, the version with 128MB of flash memory ships with the Mozilla web browser among other tools. That should be very usefull for organizations where the intranet is used intensively.

The Xfce panel is very small, located at the bottom of the screen. There is no item predefined but a menu that looks like Windows “Start Menu”, and a few items like the the volume control, the logout button and the clock. The “start menu” is actually similar to the one that shows when right clicking on the root window. From there, the user can access the Xfce setting manager or one of the connectivity applications already mentionned.

Adding new items to the Xfce panel is perfectly supported and it’s very easy to define additional launchers for the favorite connections.

HP is actually not only using Xfce as a graphical shell, but it has customized the panel and developped its own plugins for the Xfce setting manager. HP has developped several additional modules for the Xfce settings manager to configure the device, the screen resolution, add printers, etc. That really gives the impression of a well integrated software package.

If something goes wrong, there is even an option to reset the device to its factory settings.

Click for a larger versionBeside the relatively slow 800 MHz Crusoe processor (compared to current desktop computers specs), the system operates fairly fast. In fact, I quickly forgot about the thin client or the remote connection (using VNC in my case) and started working like I do with a regular desktop Linux system.

I have not been able to try neither Citrix nor Windows Terminal Server because I don’t have any available server that run those tools, but from my experience I found Citrix to be faster than VNC so I guess the system would feel even faster when using these tools to connect to Windows servers (Your mileage may vary though).

The overall impression is that HP did a very good job by integrating all these software components together. Thin clients aren’t new, not even Linux based thin clients, but this one really makes the difference thanks to its integrated configuration tools and its configurable Xfce desktop.

About the author:
Olivier Fourdan believes firmly in free software. He’s been using Linux exclusively since 1994 (Yggdrasil Plug and Play Linux, anyone?) and started the Xfce project as a hobby in late 1996. He tries to share his spare time between his family and the development of Xfce, with the help from the other developers of the project.

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