Getting Linux installed on your machine of choice is not always easy, especially if you’re trying to multi-boot. With all the restrictions you have to worry about, it often becomes a game of trial and error. Luckily ZaReason, a company that builds computers optimized to work with Linux distributions, helps to alleviate those headaches. Today we’ll take a closer look at their MediaBox 5440 computer, a small form-factor Linux desktop that was sent to us for testing.
It’s not super small, but small enough to fit comfortably on a desk or table without taking up too much space. It’s meant to be used for a streaming media server, but would also make a great gaming system with the addition of a Nvidia card (which you can add via their website for an additional fee).
Although I did connect it to my TV in order to stream media via Plex, I found that it works best as a regular desktop computer. Maybe if it came with Plex, Kodi (formerly XBMC), Serviio, or something similar already installed, it would feel more like a “media box.” Instead you have to install your own media streaming software. Because of this, the ZaReason MediaBox is probably not best for newbies since it would require some extra steps that they may not be familiar with.
Specs and Customization
You can customize your ZaReason MediaBox as much as you’d like. It all depends on your needs and your budget since upgrades cost more and add more to the total price.
The MediaBox 5440 comes with a 4th-generation Intel Core processor; you can choose i3, i5 or i7. Our MediaBox came with an i3 processor along with 8GB of RAM (you can choose 4GB, 8GB or 16GB), and a 120GB Crucial SSD. When it comes to storage, there are many options to choose from – all the way up to 6TB. You can even add a second storage drive if you’d like.
Other options include an optional optical drive (CD/DVD or CD/DVD/Blu-ray), video card, sound card, power supply (250W or 450W) and warranty. You can even add a monitor, speakers, and keyboard/mouse if needed.
You can also have your MediaBox preinstalled with Linux distro of choice. Currently, you can choose from Ubuntu 14.04 LTS, Ubuntu 15.04, Mint 17.1, OpenSUSE 13.2, Debian 8, Fedora 21, Kubuntu 14.04 LTS, Edubuntu 14.04 LTS or any other distro specified. For instance, my distro of choice was Xubuntu. Even though it’s not an option on their drop-down, they didn’t hesitate to install it. As a matter of fact, a CD with a copy of Xubuntu 14.04.2 64-bit edition was also included in the box, in case a reinstall is needed.
If you prefer, you can choose not to have an operating system at all. This is a great option if you want to do your own thing like create a dual booted machine with Windows and Linux.
There are a lot of rear ports as well: 4 USB 3.0, 4 USB 2.0 (2 in rear and 2 in front), 2 HDMI, DVI, 2 ethernet, optical audio + S/PDIF audio out, 6 analog audio I/O jacks, headphone and mic jacks, and PS2. All of these ports make up for the lack of included media streaming software. Intermediate and Advanced users can really put them to great use with a little extra time and effort.
Usage and Performance
There were only two steps needed to get the MediaBox up and running: connect the power supply and connect the TV via my own HDMI cable.
Upon turning on the MediaBox, I noticed a very fast boot-up. It took around 3-4 seconds for the login screen to show up after the GRUB menu. When I logged in, it looked just like any other fresh install of Xubuntu and included all of the basic applications needed for daily use – Firefox, Mousepad, Ristretto Image Viewer, Thunderbird Mail, PulseAudio, Xfburn, Parole Media Player, etc.
I did notice the resolution was a bit off, and I couldn’t go any higher than 1280×720 on my 32″ TV. So, all sides were cut off. This, of course, is an issue due to my TV (not the MediaBox); it’s an older TV (around 6 years) so I didn’t expect it to look that great.
Besides the top panel being cut off and practically invisible, due to my horrible resolution, navigating the system was really easy and worked as expected. Luckily Xubuntu has two convenient Application Finder launchers (Alt+F2 and Alt+F3), so I really didn’t need the panel.
A few issues I had were with the audio and WiFi. The audio wouldn’t work at first, but a quick look in Volume Control (via Sounds Settings) fixed the issue. I just had to switch the audio output source to the proper one. The WiFi was a major issue for me and probably the worst thing about the MediaBox. For some reason, the speeds were extremely slow. It literally took about 45 minutes just to do an update! The second time I turned it on, the Wifi wouldn’t connect at all. I have a very fast connection (175mbps, mostly 130 – 150mbps on good days); so, I’m not sure why I had the issue. As soon as I connected the ethernet cable, though, there were no problems and the speed was up to par.
The main pros to using the ZaReason MediaBox 5440 are:
- Speedy boot-up and shutdown times, along with an overall speedy OS experience (not sluggish).
- You can customize everything: hardware, distro and optional accessories.
- Lots of ports for Intermediate and Advanced users to have fun with.
- No compatibility issues to worry about. Everything is meant to work effortlessly with the OS. If you are using Linux on a Windows machine or Mac, you know what I mean – not all hardware is meant to work with Linux and can cause issues.
I could only find a couple of cons:
- This may not be the best solution for newbies since it doesn’t come preinstalled with media streaming software.
- The WiFi speeds are horrific. I’m not sure if it’s a bad wireless card in general, or if I had a faulty one.
Although it’s not ready for media streaming use right out of the box, the MediaBox 5440 has a lot of potential due to all of its ports. If you don’t mind customizing it to suit your needs, then it’s perfect. If, however, you’re looking for a plug-and-play media streaming server, this isn’t the best option.