If you wanted proof that we’re now officially living ‘in the future’ consider for a second the amount of computing power you can cram into a device that fits snugly in your pocket.
From Intel’s NUC to the Raspberry Pi, no matter what your computing needs there is a small form factor PC that can handle most tasks. Now, a home-grown firm, CloudGate, is looking to put a local offering onto the small form factor market, and with it a price tag that’s a little friendlier to South African wallets.
CloudGate has three models available: the Circle, the X and the Square. The Circle is an Android-based media player, the X is a beefier Android-based PC and the Square is a Windows 8.1 PC.
The Square is the device under review here and it offers x86 computing at a fraction of the cost of a full-sized PC. But can it deliver the same experience?
Small but sufficient
The CloudGate Square is small. Very small. It bears a striking resemblance to the Apple TV, yet has far too many ports to be an Apple product.
It’s actually a re-branded Sunchip CX-W8 which uses an Intel Atom Z3735F running at 1.3GHz; that’s the same processor which appears in the Acer Aspire Switch 10E that we featured last week.
Because the Square is so small, you can’t expect it to be chock-full of goodies but surprisingly, it has a rather decent port selection: you’ll find an HDMI output, three USB 2.0 ports, a microSD card slot, Ethernet, Bluetooth and 802.11n Wifi accessible on the Squares edges. While none of them are particularly mind-blowing, they’re certainly enough to satisfy the needs of the average PC user.
The 2GB of RAM is has might not sound like a lot – and it’s not – but for a low cost PC crammed inside a form factor that makes a toasted sandwich look big, that amount is actually quite impressive. You will run into issues if you decide to run Google Chrome with 100 tabs open, but for everyday tasks 2GB will be sufficient.
The 32GB SSD is by far the best feature of this little PC. The Atom processor and 2GB of RAM is adequate but with an SSD the Square is responsive and boots up quickly. Simply put the SSD reduces the drawbacks and bottlenecks inherent with a low-cost system like the Square.
What’s not in the box
The CloudGate Square will set you back R3 000. It’s cheap, but I would honestly like to have seen a price tag of R2 500 or less which would have made it go from tempting to irresistible. For that R3k you get the CloudGate, an HDMI cable and the AC adapter, and definitely no screen, keyboard or mouse – those are for you to supply.
The cheapest HD monitor I could find online was an AOC 21.5-inch LED model with a price tag of almost R1 900. A keyboard and mouse bundle will set you back around R300 (R500 if you want cordless), so if you don’t have a TV with HDMI or want to set up the CloudGate in a room other than the TV room, you are looking at spending a total of R5,200. That is the about same amount of money you can expect to pay for a low-end laptop.
So in the ultimate battle for your hard-earned money which would win, a cheap low-end laptop or the Square? My money is on the CloudGate, thanks primarily to its 32GB SSD.
If you need more storage you can plug in external hard drives or a microSD card; you can buy whichever keyboard and mouse suits your budget and personal preference, and you still get all the conveniences of a laptop, namely Bluetooth and wireless network connectivity (WiFi).
The CloudGate Square is not the pinnacle of computing and it’s not the best tiny PC on the planet, but it does represent something that South Africa desperately needs: affordable computings. At R3 000 this little PC is very tempting, especially considering the Windows 8.1 license alone accounts for R1 300 of its price.
So while it’s not quite as cheap as I’d like, there’s still a lot of value to be had here; the Square provides home users with the option of an affordable general-purpose machine, and business owners compact and cheap point of sale/admin/reception PCs at a fraction of the cost of a much bigger desktop, and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Price: R3 000
CPU: Intel Atom Z3735F @ 1.33GHz
GPU: Intel HD 4000
RAM: 2GB DDR3
Network: Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Display output: HDMI
Audio output: HDMI, 3.5mm audio jack
OS: Windows 8.1 Single Language