The Excel gPC, distributed by Protac, isn't an ordinary PC. From the outside it looks like a typical mini-tower-based PC, but its odd-looking 16in widescreen LCD monitor is the first clue that you're getting something different.
This difference is also evident when you switch it on. Instead of Windows, it loads an Ubuntu-based distribution of Linux called gOS. Its tailored desktop has shortcuts to all of Google's most popular online applications and services, and it has OpenOffice, an open-source office suite, installed.
It's almost a complete departure from the Windows environment and is aimed at savvy users who take advantage of online tools for their everyday work, and who may want a very inexpensive system that's got more features and a larger screen, and is easier to use, than a notebook computer.
However, understandably considering its $499 price, you won't get a PC that's very fast. Rather than an Intel or AMD CPU, the gPC has a VIA C7-D 1.5GHz CPU and a VIA PC2500E motherboard with integrated VIA UniChrome graphics. This technology prioritises energy conservation, rather than speed. The gPC — complete with 1GB of DDR2 SDRAM, a 160GB SATA hard drive and an IDE-based DVD burner — consumes up to 55W of electricity when it's under a full processing load, which is very economical.
But you won't want to put it under too much of a load. It already feels sluggish when changing from one application window to another, so anything more taxing, such as ripping a CD, is going to take a long time to complete (it took us well over 30 minutes). You can, however, listen to music while you work without affecting the performance of the system.
The 16in widescreen monitor isn't a hallmark of user-friendliness either. It's very small for a desktop monitor, with poor vertical viewing angles. Its native 1366x768 resolution feels very cramped when working with office documents and Web browsers. A screen with a 4:3 ratio would go some way to overcoming this.
Physically, the gPC is a little perplexing. Its motherboard has a compact micro-ATX form factor, so it's quite small. However, it has been installed in a tower case that feels flimsy and isn't very nice to look at. A more compact design would be welcome, but that would impact on the low price of this system—its major drawcard.
With a free operating system and open source software at its disposal, the gPC is ready to go straight out of the box. It has six USB 2.0 ports and a 10/100 Ethernet port, including two USB ports on the front of the case. It has space for another internal hard drive and one more stick of RAM, if more performance is required. But the main issue with the gPC is usability. If you're used to Windows XP, then gOS will be annoying until you get used to its menus and settings.
All up, the gPC is a somewhat haphazard attempt at creating an energy-efficient and inexpensive PC for basic office applications and Web browsing. It could use some physical refining and a screen with a higher vertical resolution.