A real Space Oddity arrives at PC Pro

27 Aug 2008
The Space Cube
The Space Cube

You may remember that, some time ago, I blogged about an interesting little computer curio called the Space Cube. Quite simply, it's one of the smallest PCs in the world, with each side measuring around 2 inches square. I wrote that it looked cool, ran on a 300MHz processor and that it probably wouldn't be sold outside of Japan, if at all.

Well, now, we've actually gone and got hold of one - the only Space Cube in the UK that's running Linux, in fact. In the flesh it's even more impressive than in pictures, inspiring awe and provoking disbelieving reactions across the PC Pro office. It's actually quite difficult to comprehend just how small the PC is so, for your delectation, we've been taking pictures of the Space Cube next to some everyday objects.

So, we've established that it's incredibly, impossibly small. But what's inside? There's a surprisingly capable CPU packed away in the tiny chassis with a top clock speed of 300MHz. It's arrived with us clocked at a slightly more modest 200MHz,but a simple jumper built in to the case enable the processor to be clocked up to either 250MHz or the full 300MHz that it's capable of.

It's fair to say that the Space Cube isn't overloaded with storage space, either. Sixteen megabytes of flash memory is included on-board, and the OS - a version of Red Hat, the popular Linux operating system - runs off a 1GB CompactFlash card that slots into the side of the Space Cube. There's also 64MB of DDR SDRAM that, admittedly, doesn't even match up to the lowliest of netbooks - let alone a desktop PC.

The Space Cube's chassis is, well, a marvel. It's utterly rock solid and made of metal - we were worried it was going to be a bit of a flimsy plastic prototype - and is clearly able to withstand more than a few knocks up in orbit.

Two sides contain the majority of the ports and sockets that adorn the Cube. A single USB port can easily be used for a hub - instantly adding three or four ports for a keyboard, mouse and more. There's a VGA output for connecting a monitor, and even a D-SUB RS232 input. And that's not all. An Ethernet p

ort allows for internet access, and a pair of jacks cater for speakers and headphones - proving that there's room for a few creature comforts amid the sheer functionality of this remarkable little PC.

There are a couple more unusual ports scattered around the diminutive Space Cube, too. There's the row of little jumpers that allow for a bit of overclocking - although Crysis may be out of reach - and a small, three-pin serial port. There's also the all-important CompactFlash slot that allows the OS to run.

Most intriguing, though, is the Space Wire port. It may sound like a mere science fiction fantasy, but this incredibly thin socket is a crucial part of the Space Cube's armoury. That's because it's a type of proprietary interface use by the ESA, NASA and JAXA when the Cube actually goes into space. It's useful for connecting various sensors and processing units to the Space Cube, as well as the complicated-sounding Downlink Telementary Sub-Systems, which sounds like something more akin to Battlestar Galactica or Star Wars than anything used in real life. It turns out that Space Wire is also used as a common interface for linking together modules and electronics that are often designed in different institutions.

For such a small and low-powered PC, the Space Cube is actually pretty nippy when you're navigating its own flavour of Linux. Bring up the command line and simply type 'ls /bin' to reveal a list of the few dozen functions that are available to use with the Space Cube. Typing 'xclock' reveals, well, a clock, and entering 'xeye' brings up a pair of comedy googly eyes that follow your cursor around the screen. We also speculate that putting a different, suitably low-power version of Linux on the CompactFlash card would allow for that OS to be used instead of the Red Hat that's installed here. It's a green machine, too: when running, the Space Cube drew a miniscule 5W from the mains, putting the 36W draw of the Transtec Senyo 610 to shame.

So, what is the Space Cube actually used for? Well, the Space Cube has been developed to control the various electronics that Space Wire connects to and, as such, manage and manipulate everything that's going on in an interstellar computer network. Pretty cool stuff, I think you'll agree.

The Red Hat operating system is able to use many common commands that are normally found on more standard Linux PCs. FTP can be used, as well as editors such as vi. GCC is also installed, so code can be compiled into executable programs - although, obviously, the lack of power available will mean that any applications are reasonably frugal in their power demands. The rpm command is also installed, so rpm packages for other applications can also be installed.

So, would you like a Space Cube? Tough luck, at least for the moment. Outside of Japan - where the Cube has been developed by the Shimafuji Corporation - your best bet is to keep watching the Star Dundee website. It's an offshoot of the Space Systems Research Group of the University of Dundee. They're planning to sell the Space Cube once a few technical issues are ironed out and, unfortunately, it'll be a bit more expensive than the price we found before - around $325. Instead, this remarkable PC will probably be going for around £1,500.

Still, we can see amateur robotics and rocket clubs possibly being interested - the open-ended Linux installed here will no doubt prove versatile and able to be used for a variety of suitably scientific purposes.

While we won't be sending the Cube into space any time soon - there's certainly not enough junk in the Labs to put together a rocket, at least yet - we're still absolutely blown away by the tiniest PC we've ever seen. It's pure science fiction blended with real life: a PC that you could practically fit on a key ring that's been designed to go into space and make rockets work. It's tiny, brilliant, and astounding, and we're huge fans.

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