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frugal technology, simple living and guerrilla large-appliance repair
Sun, 30 Sep 2012

Better-late-than-never review: The ZaReason Limbo 6000A desktop computer running Linux Mint 12

I get offered products for review here and there. Usually those products are hard for me to get excited about.

But a computer built for Linux, assembled in Berkeley, California, by the well-respected ZaReason?

That was exciting.

Cathy Malmrose of ZaReason contacted me through Larry Cafiero, Linux advocate and my Digital First Media / MediaNews Group colleague. Soon enough, the ZaReason Limbo 6000A was on its way to the L.A. Daily News office.

The lowest-priced Limbo 6000A runs a very reasonable . The box sent to me included a few key improvements that brought the price up to .

I know what you're thinking. I could put together my own box from Newegg/TigerDirect parts, or buy a cheaper computer from Dell, HP, Acer, etc. ...

But if you buy from ZaReason (or System 76, or the other Linux- and BSD-loading builder-dealers out there), you are getting systems on which all the hardware is guaranteed to work with free, open-source operating systems. You get actual support. And you don't run the risk of putting together a box from scratch that might not even POST when you turn the power on, not to mention fail to work with the Linux distribution of your choice.

(Rear of the ZaReason Limbo 6000A)


ZaReason computers are built with off-the-shelf parts selected for Linux compatibility. That means the chances of you being able to cheaply replace a dead motherboard or power supply are considerably greater than with a "cheaper" Dell box built with often-customized parts designed not to be replaced with anything but their made-for-Dell equivalents.

Sometimes saving a few bucks costs you many times more in the frustration, disappointment, endless tweaking, compromise and just plain fail.

I've met ZaReason co-founder Earm Malmrose at L.A.'s SCALE show, corresponded with Cathy via e-mail and have followed Larry Cafiero's Linux-related blogs for years.

And in the interest of full disclosure, Larry and I work for the same newspaper company and as such are kindred spirits in more than a few ways. I also admire Larry's many efforts to spread free software in and around Santa Cruz (where I went to college in the late 1980s), just as I admire all the good things Cathy, Earl and the rest of the ZaReason crew are doing not just for Ubuntu on desktops (as the company started out) but now for Debian, Fedora, Linux Mint, CentOS, Kubuntu and probably any other Linux distribution you care to ask for.

When I first met Earl, I asked him, "Is there a special ZaReason repository for your users to get the best software experience they can with your hardware?" "No," he said, telling me that ZaReason's goal is to work upstream as much as possible, with all the work his company is doing to make Linux run on different hunks of hardware benefiting not just ZaReason users but the whole Linux community.

You couldn't meet a nicer bunch of geeks.

(The ZaReason 6000A ships with a Linux sticker in place of the usual OS branding)


Now on to the hardware.

I'm not at all accustomed to the latest and greatest. I go for the free, the old and the cheap in roughly that order.

So it was a pleasure getting something modern if not top of the line (hence costing instead of ,000+).

Here's how the Limbo 6000A ZaReason sent me spec'd out -- and I did open up the case to see exactly what was inside:

  • OS: Linux Mint 12, 64-bit edition
  • Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-870A USB 3 (ATX size)
  • CPU: AMD Phenom II X4 960+ (four cores, 3.0 GHz)
  • RAM: 8 GB DDR3 - 1333 MHz made by Super Talent
  • Hard drive: Seagate Barracuda 500 GB SATA-3
  • Optical drive: DVD-RW drive (unknown brand)
  • Video card: Nvidia GT210 (plugged into a motherboard PCI slot)
  • Flash media card reader (unknown brand)
  • Power supply: 350 watts by Power Man

When I did crack open the case, I liked what I saw. The Gigabyte GA-870A USB 3 motherboard, a lower-end ATX-size model made me more confident in what this particular machine could do. In a box in this price range, I was expecting a cheaper, smaller micro-ATX board.

In addition to plenty of USB 2.0 plugs, there are USB 3.0 plugs in the back. The Gigabyte board offers the ability to run 6 GB/s SATA drives in addition to the 3 GB/s drive that shipped with the system. It makes this system one that is built for both the present and near future.

(Rear ports include a mix of USB 2.0 and 3.0)


(There are a lot of USB ports on the Limbo 6000A, plus an old-school keyboard port, prized these days by gamers)


The motherboard has four RAM slots, with two 4 GB sticks making up this machine's 8 GB. That means you have room for expansion. While I originally thought that most ATX-size motherboards had six RAM slots, a look around showed that four slots is more common than not.

The board includes 1 PCI EX16 slot, 1 PCI EX4, 2 PCI EX1 and 2 PCI slots. I can't say much about these, not being the type to plug PCI devices into motherboards in my daily computing rounds, but the Nvidia video card that took up one of the slots worked great and offered an HDMI output in addition to the standard VGA and newer DVI connectors. As for most of the components in the Limbo, other video cards are available when you order on the ZaReason web site.

(There's plenty of room in the case for the full-sized ATX motherboard)


The RAM was Super Talent brand. I'll confess I've never heard of it.

The hard drive was a Seagate Barracuda -- a solid choice.

The CPU cooler looked like whatever AMD shipped with the chip. As a faithful reader of Maximum PC magazine, which has an aftermarket-CPU-cooler fetish of sorts, I could complain about the lack of a massive aftermarket cooler. But I totally understand that if the box runs well -- and cool -- with the stock cooler, it's perfectly OK to let it ride. And my tests, mainly rendering video in OpenShot, showed the system running cool the entire time. Adding an aftermarket cooler -- if it fits -- is an easy modification for those who are worried about such things.

(The Power Man power supply)


I wasn't terribly impressed with the 350-watt Power Man power supply. But again, the system ran cool and quietly. And beefier PSUs are available in the dropdown menus when you order your own Limbo from ZaReason.

I couldn't determine the origin of the Limbo's mid-tower case, but it held the hardware nicely. The wiring was clean -- better than I could do. I had a lot of confidence in the build.

(The door to the Limbo 6000A case includes these air-access areas)


About my only real complaint with the hardware was with the front-panel power button. It was hard to press. The rest of the case seemed to flex a bit in the process. It was difficult to determine whether the box was actually about to boot or not. Annoying? Yes. A deal-breaker? No.

My actual use of the Limbo 6000A over a few days of web production, video editing, e-mail and general web browsing -- was just short of revelatory for someone used to more anemic hardware.

Linux Mint 12? Let's just say I'm not a fan.

As a general Firefox- and Thunderbird-running machine under whatever Mint was doing to GNOME 3 in the "12" cycle, the box barely broke a sweat. It had more than enough CPU and way more than enough RAM to do anything I could think of. It was nice. Real nice. And it made me pine for just such a desktop box as my regular production machine.

(There is a lower-end Nvidia graphics card in the Limbo I received for review. Pricier cards are available. It's interesting that ZaReason paired a CPU from the ATI-owning AMD with a graphics card from rival Nvidia)


I expected the OpenShot video editor to render my videos faster than they did. But in my unscientific test (read: I didn't run formal benchmarks because I don't know how and generally wouldn't have the time if I did), video rendering wasn't much faster than on my dual-core, less-GHz-capable CPU. This could have been due to poor distribution of the video-rendering workload in the Python-based OpenShot across the AMD Phenom X2's four cores.

Still, the system kept its cool, and the 8 GB of RAM was more than enough to get the job done. We should all have this much RAM in our computers.

(The rear fan)


Tons of USB ports of both the 2.0 and 3.0 variety were added bonuses.

My complaints about Linux Mint 12, expounded upon in a previous review ("good luck in finding this," I say to myself; "I'll link to it if/when I do," I say to you) included:

  • General lack of maturity and bugs in the release's version(s) of GNOME 3/Cinnamon. I'm sure Cinnamon is better in Linux Mint 13 just as GNOME 3.4 is better than 3.0 or 3.2.
  • Lack of audio in .mov videos exported from OpenShot
  • The FileZilla FTP client crashed whenever a file transfer was attempted
  • Progress bars in the Nautilus file manager don't work
  • In Mint's Software Center, the window doesn't update to say that an app is actually installed

I think my experience with the Limbo 6000A would have been better if it had arrived running Debian Squeeze, Ubuntu 11.10 or Fedora 16. Luckily you can get the Limbo loaded with just about any Linux distribution you desire. I bet a call to ZaReason would result in just the box you want.

(Outputs from the Nvidia card include VGA, DVI and HDMI)


For me, this week anyway, that would be this very box with a beefier (say 2 TB) hard drive and Debian Squeeze (at the time, but now Wheezy; it's been that long since I started this review) with encrypted swap and /home. I'd prefer to install the OS myself, benefiting greatly from knowing that it would really, truly just work (and only I would know the encryption passphrase).

ZaReason offers two things you won't get with a Dell, or almost any major-vendor desktop or laptop system:

  • Every bit of hardware will work in Linux without days or weeks of hacking on your part
  • You get a system, assembled from off-the-shelf components, that is easily repairable and upgradable

If I were buying a Linux desktop, laptop, network or server -- or a couple hundred of them for a company, ZaReason would definitely be at the top of my vendor list.

(The machine came in this box)


(Side view of the shipping container)


(The box open with the spec sheet on top)


(The box open with the spec sheet removed; the computer is well-packed in bubble wrap and cushioned by a lot of foam packing peanuts)


(The spec sheet; the box prices out at )


(The case sports a front card reader and audio ports)


(Sorry about the blurry image; here are the rear ports, not including video)


(The video card outputs are visible here)


(I couldn't get the camera to focus well here, but you can see the hard drive mounted in a front bay. There are plenty of cables for additional drives)