The case for a secondary motherboard OS


— 10:08 PM on March 26, 2009

It seems like every year, someone thinks that Linux is on the verge of making real inroads on the desktop. And every year, the alternative operating system's desktop market share fails to grow significantly. Yet Linux continues to pop up in new places, one of which should be of great interest to enthusiasts.

Flash memory prices have tumbled in recent years, which has been good for MP3 players, cell phones, SSDs, and the now-ubiquitous USB thumb drive. Falling flash prices have also been good for motherboards, allowing Asus to cheaply equip some of its latest models with 512MB memory chips that house an ExpressGate instant-on operating system that's—you guessed it—based on Linux.

ExpressGate is actually a re-branded version of DeviceVM's SplashTop operating system, which packs web browsing, music playback, photo management, chat, and Skype applications. It's a neat idea, and the bundled applications cover what most folks do with their PCs on a day-to-day basis. However, ExpressGate has always struck me as a little gimmicky. I find it hard to imagine that enthusiasts or even mainstream users are going to be willing to ditch the functionality of their full-blown desktop operating systems in favor of such a limited collection of instant-on applications. ExpressGate doesn't even have a file management utility, and that's sort of an important OS component. Still, I don't think it would take much to transform ExpressGate into a must-have feature for PC enthusiasts.

Now I'm not suggesting that ExpressGate could—or even should—replace a user's primary operating system. You can certainly squeeze a lot of Linux onto a 512MB flash chip, but as many alternative operating systems have proven over the years, it's tough to get even savvy PC enthusiasts to leave Windows behind. That doesn't mean that ExpressGate can't coexist with a user's primary operating system, though.

Perhaps the most obvious use for a secondary operating system would be as a backup for one's primary OS. If your primary operating system gets hosed, either due to a hard drive failure or a particularly insidious virus or malware infection, the ability to reboot into a flash-based OS immune to such issues would certainly be valuable. You're going to want that OS to pack more than just a web browser, chat clients, and a photo gallery app, though. To be a useful recovery tool, this OS really needs a robust file management utility that allows one to browse a system's hard drive (assuming it's still functional) and copy files to a USB thumb drive or other storage device. A virus scanner capable of cleansing an infected hard drive wouldn't hurt, either.

For system recovery, the combination of a web browser, chat client, file manager, and virus scanner is a good starting point. Web browsing and file management capabilities should also come in handy for folks setting up a system for the first time. I like to load up a thumb drive with the latest BIOS and drivers for a new rig before setting it up, and while that makes system setup a lot easier, it also requires a secondary PC. There's no reason why this job can't be easily accommodated by an OS embedded on the motherboard.

Of course, there are other elements to my system setup routine that could use a helping hand from an instant-on OS. I prefer to test hardware for stability before installing an operating system, especially when overclocking. An instant-on OS could easily include processor and memory stress tests, in addition to a basic system utility that tracks clock speeds, voltages, and temperatures. This sort of functionality would be useful not only for folks looking to find the limits of their hardware before installing an operating system, but also those who want to tinker with clock speeds and other variables without the risk of corrupting their primary OS.

Linux may have little chance of supplanting Windows, but that doesn't mean that desktop systems can't benefit from a secondary operating system. Quite the contrary. Asus has already proven the concept with ExpressGate, and all that's needed is a little tweaking to turn this novelty into a indispensible tool for enthusiasts. There's no reason why other motherboard makers can't get in on the action, either. After all, flash is cheap and Linux is free.

   
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