The case for a secondary motherboard OS

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.

Comments closed
    • GreatGooglyMoogly
    • 11 years ago

    I have this on two motherboards. Never tried it. I never turn my computers off so it’s kind of pointless.

    If it had facilities for disaster recovery or similar things, then sure, it’s a good idea. But right now it just does nothing for me.

    • eitje
    • 11 years ago

    OEMs have had diagnostics and stress-tests built into their systems for years and years. 😉

    • xii
    • 11 years ago

    I’ve been using Linux since 1998. After one year it replaced even my Windows desktop. I’m specialised in Linux/Unix networks and security though, so I’m hardly an average end-user. Linux doesn’t necessary have to “gain market share”, in fact that’s not the right wording. Essentially it isn’t a commercial product and will not disappear if the number of users stagnates or goes down (except for some commercial distributions). There is no drive or pressure for it to take over the world and obliterate all other operating systems. That sort of traditional business mindset doesn’t really apply here.

    The good thing about Linux is that even if you don’t want to use it as your daily desktop, it’s there if you need it and will pressure commercial software vendors as well as hardware vendors to play a more fair game.

    It can run on phones, NAS systems, routers, netbooks, small systems, all the way to large server clusters and as virtualisation host and guest system. And it will show up in ever more products and technologies.

    People don’t need to feel threatened by or pushed into it. Use it if you like to, skip it if you don’t. There are no negative sides for end-users, only benefits. I don’t understand why many people have such strong opinions about something that’s as free to be used (or not used) as Linux.

      • travbrad
      • 11 years ago

      Well put. I’ve seen linux users that seemed almost homicidal at the mere mention Windows works well for a lot of things (and on the flip side Windows users bringing up linux issues which have been resolved for nearly a decade)

      I’m running Ubuntu, WinXP, and Win7beta currently. There are things I like about each of them, and they each have their pros/cons. It all depends what you want from your OS.

    • stmok
    • 11 years ago

    Geoff Gasior.

    Personally, I think open source based implementations created by companies like ASUS, Xandros, etc absolutely SUCKS ASS.

    The approach they’re going about it is all wrong!

    They’re basically doing what they’ve done with MS software, but replaced the software with Linux implementation. This isn’t right, and it leads to utterly crap solutions for the consumer. (Exactly like you have experienced!)

    They need to change the approach such that it uses the enthusiasm of the community.

    What I mean is:
    Put up an offer for a limited number of open source developers to be given the target hardware. The condition is that they actively help with the development of the software side. (This includes development and maintenance). In return, they get to keep the hardware, and the source code will be released under GPL.

    Result?
    * Hardware makers get their products sold.
    (And save on software maintenance costs!)
    * Open source developers are happy that the code is under GPL.
    * Consumers get solutions that actually work as expected!
    => Triple win.

    • PeterD
    • 11 years ago

    Add e-mail to Express Gate, and it will take off impressively.

    • WaltC
    • 11 years ago

    /[

      • BoBzeBuilder
      • 11 years ago

      Holy crap Walt. Man of few words aren’t you? However, well written. You should do blogs.

      • stmok
      • 11 years ago

      MS didn’t get where they are by technical merit or because people chose them purely for the reputation of their products. They didn’t choose for themselves, it was already chosen for them. They haven’t realised there is a choice, because of lack of technical inclination or ignorance…The masses don’t know what an OS is, and have yet to realise you can install others! What happens when they realise this?

      MS got there through bundling on pre-built systems and fierce business tactics.

      They really do compete like its a war: Every move in their playbook is played as standard operating procedure…From bad PR on their enemies, market-spinning the public, to ballot stuffing the ISO process in order to get their formats pushed through. Whatever it takes, do it to win. This is why they get caught into these Anti-Trust cases!…I’m still amazed even people around here defend their behaviour!

      Just think about the overall objective of heavily discounting their software licenses to young kids and adults in educational institutions. (ie: Get them while they’re young…Make them depend on you. Future income stream secured.)

      The only thing that’s keeping competitors at bay for MS is the proprietary APIs, protocols, formats, and the lack of support from third-party software and hardware makers. Without them, they really have nothing. This is why they value Patents so much…All that chant about MS’s OOXML being “open” is meaningless fluff. They can pull the plug anytime with a new release of MS Office. (They control the spec. They control the tempo of change. The point is, they’re in control…They change, you have to react to them! You don’t win by reacting! Everyone knows this!)

      Essentially, if one can bring an alternative to the world that will be a one-to-one replacement, would MS fans be boasting about marketshare of Windows in the long term? I seriously doubt it.

      IF gamers can run all their games on a completely different OS, would they really bother with Windows? Not likely.

      MS would chuck a hissy fit and throw a gauntlet into trying to stop this threat. People would jump ship as soon as they realise it works for them, but without the nonsense. (Activation, Genuine Advantage, forced UI choices, all those various licensing conditions, etc).

      No, I don’t think there will be a Year of the Linux. And I thank god for it. There will never be a discrete period of Linux taking on the desktop market. Things happen slowly over time…That way, they last far longer.

      Marketshare is really a meaningless measure to Linux. Linux, unlike Apple or Microsoft, isn’t a business. Its not about making money to satisfy shareholders. If it were, then yes, marketshare would matter in a big way. (As its an indication of future income to be made.)

      Sure, you can make money from Linux, but it doesn’t fundamentally work on an income. It lives based on how much developers care for the code. ie: For the love of it. They will discuss, argue, and eventually settle for something that works well. (Its working pretty well so far).

      Aside from the whole world imploding, Linux keeps getting developed and improved. No one is laid off, their jobs outsourced, or face the fear of another economic meltdown.

      Is it for everyone? No it isn’t. It currently covers most of the basic stuff without too much issue. Email, web browser, Youtube, ripping and burning stuff on media, etc.

      But it isn’t complete. It still needs to have its HD video playback completed and matured, not to mention have open sourced 3D drivers resolved for Nvidia and ATI cards. (Which will offer better “out of the box” support)…Intel, AMD, VIA, etc are helping. Others like Creative Labs and Nvidia are NOT. (Nvidia is providing proprietary support only).

      There’s also Wine…Which is basically a compatibility layer for Windows apps. I’m generally not fond of this approach as a long term solution. I would rather spend time on native Linux apps. But for the short term, its still a quirky solution on some apps.

      Why are there 300+ distros? Because no one person is alike. Everyone has their own interpretation of “what’s best”. Overtime, the stuff which really suck is left dormant and archived, while the good stuff continues to thrive. (Archiving unused crap is important, because one may re-use the idea someday…Just re-implemented better.)

      Think about it…

      Is it better to have one solution trying to be everything for everyone in a “one size fits all” manner? (With changes in each iteration until everyone is happy.)

      Or is it better to have lots of variations that satisfy everyone’s tastes, and discard the ones that no one wants?

      The biggest difference between Apple, Microsoft, and Linux community is this:

      You pay Apple and Microsoft, such that they are responsible for handling the technical details. It also means you give them control of what changes and when. They won’t know what’s good or bad until its released. (Where the consumer judges the product via sales made or lost). You also accept what they give you for the time being. It also means you have to wait if you don’t like the current solution. ie: You depend on them!

      In Linux, nearly everything you need is free ($0). However, responsibility rests on YOUR shoulders. You control when you want to do what. You spend more time in getting over the initial learning curve in the short term, but it pays off in the long term. (You become independent). If you don’t like something, don’t wait, change it NOW! If you wish, you can pay for help in the form of money or beer. (Beer is generally more acceptable in non-business support scenarios).

      Open source software (which Linux is), isn’t like your traditional software approach. Its a big change. The technically inclined are far more likely to jump on it, as it offers things that matter to them. Its largely meaningless for the masses until its “adjusted for their level”. That isn’t the responsibility of Linux devs. That’s a distro dev responsibility.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Fanboyism and religious zealotry are hard to distinguish.

      • just brew it!
      • 11 years ago

      q[

    • Convert
    • 11 years ago

    If only -[

    • Freon
    • 11 years ago

    I have Express Gate on my current board. It isn’t half bad. If I do hose my OS it does have a halfway decent web browser and it boots very fast, probably under 10 seconds from power on to loading something like yahoo. Of course, I currently have it disabled.

    • Ruiner
    • 11 years ago

    If it got me into a browser as fast as I normally see a post screen on a cold boot, I’d be thrilled.

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    These would be much more awesome if there was a way to program or flash them with your own OS and programs. I would totally see the utility in being able to put a bootable recovery OS on to one of these from a thumb drive or disk.

    • indeego
    • 11 years ago

    I was going to play around with Expressgate on one of the last systems I built for a friend but the limitations of the product were too much. No RAID/AHCI supportg{<.<}g

    • Shinare
    • 11 years ago

    Would love to have a dedicated OS that just folds that I could easily boot into from an F-Key at startup. That way if I want to play games and *ahem* … work… then I can boot into windows. When I am done, I could reboot into this chip and get some -smp creamy folding goodness in a linux boot.

      • TheDude3874
      • 11 years ago

      Why can’t you just let the machine fold in windows in the background all the time (except while gaming of coarse)? The it could fold while you *work* too.

    • Tarx
    • 11 years ago

    I wonder what the security implications are (e.g. if it can get hacked into), how it gets updated, etc.
    As it is, I checked it once and never bothered again. Just not enough useful functions.

    So I currently use (outside of the Windows 7 OS):
    – Ubuntu 8.10 installed on a fast USB flash drive (OCZ rally2 4GB).
    – UBCD on a cheap USB 1GB flash drive.

    As a side note, if it could access files, that would make it a lot more interesting. Especially since Linux ignores security settings for files in a NTFS partitions (obviously if not otherwise encrypted).

    • Forge
    • 11 years ago

    I have a PXE boot of a customized WinPE recovery environment available on my LAN. Do I use it often? Not really. Do I need it badly sometimes? Oh yes.

    While I wouldn’t expect anyone to do the setup I did, I do expect to see something like this showing up on devices similar to Windows Home Server sometime in the next generation. I expect that will end up being the marketable offspring of today’s SplashTop novelties.

    • SomeOtherGeek
    • 11 years ago

    Well, obviously, I don’t speak for others, but I like it at times of need.

    I have a Asus P5Q Deluxe (P45) and I have it set to come up the first thing when the computer is turned on. (I know it is 3 seconds of wasted time on full windows bootup…) A splash comes up to enter the Linux OS. And if so, you go in and you get a full blown Linux OS. Well, enough of the OS to do more than 5 things. Web (Firefox), Skype, Control Panel and Image viewer to name a few. Can even see all the drives too.

    I love it cuz sometime in the AM before work, I need to browse for something and it is ready to go in 5 seconds! Totally awesome at times.

    You can even mount or setup a RAID with it too.

    So, I think it is beneficial for me. It was not something I asked for, but I like it all the same.

    • Anonymous Coward
    • 11 years ago

    I would like to see memory and CPU testers bootable from the mobo, OS not required.

      • Corrado
      • 11 years ago

      My BIOstar mobo has memTest86+ built in. It caught bad memory for me. I applaud this feature.

    • Pax-UX
    • 11 years ago

    Seams like an excuse to charge more for something that’s not needed.

    • Bensam123
    • 11 years ago

    You know the most helpful thing they could’ve added to these little worthless chips is the ability to make a driver disk for Windows XP installs.

    My friend got one and it was absolutely worthless. As was said, you can’t even browse files. Even if it doesn’t have the drivers built in, being able to move them from a CD to a floppy would be insanely helpful.

      • Xylker
      • 11 years ago

      Either that, or being able to emulate a floppy in hardware so that the “press F6 to load drivers” sees this as an A:\ or B:\ drive

        • Flying Fox
        • 11 years ago

        Or time to move on from XP? /shrug

          • Usacomp2k3
          • 11 years ago

          That was my thought.

    • Hance
    • 11 years ago

    Its not fast but a linux live cd has this beat by miles for the stuff your talking about.

      • MadManOriginal
      • 11 years ago

      Exactly what I was thinking. The only downside to that is it needs to be prepared ahead of time which Geoff mentions in the second to last paragraph.

        • Hance
        • 11 years ago

        I actually keep a couple of them handy for just that purpose. I don’t need them very often but they are really handy once in awhile.

          • MadManOriginal
          • 11 years ago

          No doubt that’s the thing to do, but they don’t appear out of thin air 😉 Having one should be sufficient for disaster recovery but if you need things like pre-install drivers or what have you you need another PC.

          File-system browsing with the ability to use optical and USB drives, web browsing, and the ability to run programs off of a CD/DVD or USB drive would be sufficient and useful for this type of onboard OS. Having extra programs like Skype etc is not especially useful imo.

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    Actually, you could do most of this with utilities installed into EFI.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 11 years ago

      Yet another reason OS-makers should make the switch to EFI-based operating systems.

    • jonybiskit
    • 11 years ago

    When I had trouble with my first ibuypower computer I used express gate to ask about it on the forums, so there you go.

    • Skrying
    • 11 years ago

    If your OS gets hosed then you shouldn’t be wasting your money on building your own system. The programs included with these instant-on OS systems are horrible. Do you really need multimedia applications for an instant-on OS? No, you don’t at all. You need a web browser and recovery tools, that’s it. It should be functional and you can easily tell by how they’re done that recovery was hardly the first goal in mind.

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