Thursday, January 2, 2014

Unboxing the Quo Computer

As fate would have it, I'm back to a nice pace of posts on the blog, especially since I've had a logjam of topics -- a bunch of ideas all came in at once.  This also means I get to usher my blog into 2014 on the very first Thursday of the new year, just in time for all the robots & spiders to come looking for new posts. ;)

Shortly before Christmas, I finally (and unexpectedly) received a Quo computer in the mail shortly before Christmas, just in time to install an ESX server right before the whole family came so they could have their own VMs on our server.  (They ended up bringing all their computers anyway, and used more electricity in 6 days than Stacy & I use by ourselves in a month. :-P)  Stacy pledged for this Kickstarter project back in March 2013, and for our particular system, the delivery date was expected to be June.  It still seems like we were one of the lucky ones to have received it by now.  The "unexpectedly" part comes in when, in early November, they finally sent us a tracking number, but the shipping company was waiting for the associated package for such a long time that we stopped even looking for updates there.  I was very surprised when it showed up at my door!

The biggest draw to the Quo computer is the relatively open firmware and UEFI BIOS, which facilitates the installation of Mac OSX and any other x86-compatible operating system onto the machine.  The Quo implementation of UEFI features not quite a graphical BIOS, but still keyboard and mouse-compatible, to facilitate setting up your boot order, chipset settings, and all those other goodies in the desired manner. It also provides the stock UEFI Shell for maximum flexibility and control, though it is a bummer to not have the scrollback capability to look at those extra-long printouts (like if you have a ton of hard drives and run the "map" command).

The legacy BIOS became obsolete probably 20 years ago, and a redesign was way overdue.  The mission-critical and enterprise space has seen UEFI going back at least 15 years with high-end HP/Intel servers, but it has only trickled down into the consumer space within the past couple years.  I could go on a pretty long diatribe about how UEFI is far superior to legacy BIOS (when done right, but it seems like most consumer hardware manufacturers were paid off quite nicely by Microsoft).  For one, you'll never have to tell the BIOS which drive to boot from; just set the UEFI Shell as the first boot option and go from there.  I'm sure most people like to configure GRUB to boot whatever OS they choose at that time, but I've always preferred changing that setting directly on the silicon.  Even better, though, is now you can choose your OS on the fly by simply navigating to the desired bootloader (yes, you can have multiple bootloaders), or even set up an "autoboot" to skip the UEFI Shell altogether and go directly into your OS of choice.  Autoboot was very easy for me to configure in my favorite flavor of Unix back in my days of messing around on big servers, but I haven't played around with setting it up in Windows, RHEL, Ubuntu, or any others.  (Granted, as a BIOS tester myself for enterprise servers at a very large computer company, I can attest to the many bugs Intel has in their UEFI reference code.  Oh well, we'll save that plus how to write UEFI Shell apps for another day as I haven't really put the UEFI Shell on the Quo through its paces yet.)  Though the UEFI Shell is basically its own OS, offering a robust command prompt, one of its few downsides is it's only single-threaded; you would need at least a very light operating system in order to take full advantage of your hardware.  Nevertheless, porting an NES emulator to UEFI is on my bucket list. :-D

I'll leave it to you to look at the specs of the "New Collector" edition that we pledged for, but we did ask for some additional upgrades including 16GB of DDR3 1600MT/s RAM and a nice Cooler Master(R) case.  The additional upgrades may have added to our wait time.  So, without further ado, here are pictures of the unboxing:

Not the box it was shipped in. :-P  I peeled that layer off first since it wasn't interesting.  However, as extra padding, they did box up the whole finished computer into the Cooler Master case box.

Also included was a pamphlet plus a T-shirt.  I think we already gave away the T-shirt to a relative.

Here's the top view of the system, now pulled out of the box.

The system has been removed from the wrapping.  This is not a small case.  The motherboard is laying flat toward the bottom of the grated area, and below it are four drive bays plus some additional 2.5" drive bays around the left side.  The system was pre-populated with an optical media drive plus a 1TB HDD.

Looking down from the top, you can easily see the motherboard.

This is a glimpse inside the case, where you can see the memory, CPU, and connectors.

Here's that UEFI Shell I was raving about earlier, complete with my little "UEFI Hello World" binary.  Even though there's definitely enough of UEFI that's open-sourced (through the EDK project), the toolchain to build UEFI binaries pretty much requires Microsoft Visual Studio.  Previously, I would test my binaries inside a special VirtualBox instance, but this ought to do me better.

And for those of you who were looking for a nice screenshot of this computer running OSX, perhaps with the results from some compelling benchmark test, sorry I made you read this far down only to tell you now that's not happening.  >-D  While I'm a supporter of running OSX on non-Apple hardware, I no longer have a reason to; in August, while awaiting this machine, my wife purchased this other computer at DEFCON for a very competitive price:

My real Macintosh

So there, the Quo will only be used for virtualization and UEFI experimentation.  Now, to just choose between Ubuntu Server Edition and Windows Server 2008, and which hypervisor to install underneath...

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