System76 Meerkat: God of small things

This little Linux powered mini PC is capable of doing desktop grade work.

meerkat top
Credit: Swapnil Bhartiya

I run a file and media server at home to host all my files. It’s a very important machine for my work and personal life. And while I do use public and private cloud to collaborate or share files with others, I don’t use the public cloud to save personal photos or work documents. Everything lives on my local machine away from the prying eyes of spy agencies and companies.

The regular self-assembled PC I used as my file server was taking up too much space and generating too much heat. So I started looking for something similar to Apple’s Mac Mini.

But while I love Apple hardware, when it comes to serious stuff, I don’t trust anything but open source and Linux. Running Linux on Mac Mini is a painful task, and being a locked down device it also makes it hard to upgrade hardware components.

That’s when I found Meerkat by System76. System76 is a small company that sells Linux powered machines. They specialize in Ubuntu and all their devices come with Ubuntu pre-installed.

But there is no vendor lock. Users are free to wipe the hard drive and install any distro of their choice. When I contacted the company, they made it clear that installing other distros doesn’t void the warrantee, just that the company only has specialization in Ubuntu so they can’t offer support for other distros. Fair enough.

System76  loaned me a Meerkat review unit for a month so I can play with it and see if it can replace my home server.

Look and feel

The device comes in a simple brown box, and includes a power supply. System76 also sent a  mounting plate so you can attach the Meerkat behind a monitor and make your own iMac.

The device is user serviceable: you can use a screwdriver to unscrew the bottom plate and upgrade RAM and storage. It came with a 120GB SSD stick, but there is a slot for inserting a 2.5 inch SSD or HDD.

meerkat internal Swapnil Bhartiya

User replaceble RAM and storage.

meerkat sata Swapnil Bhartiya

Slot to insert a 2.5" SSD or HDD.

So if you are looking for upgrading storage while keeping the OS on an SSD stick you can feel free to do so.

The hardware

Meerkat is a 4.5”x4.5” device and is roughly 2” high. The machine that I tested is based on Intel's NUC Kit. It has a dual core 3.4GHz i7-5557U CPU (with Intel Iris Graphics 6100), 8GiB of  1600MHz DDR3 RAM and 120GB M.2 SSD. The device has four USB 3.0 ports, out of  which one is powered. For audio/video output it has 5.1 channel (Mini HDMI, Mini DisplayPort), 3.5mm headphone/mic jack. It has built in WiFi, Bluetooth 4 and comes with an Ethernet port.

meerkat back Swapnil Bhartiya

Back of the Meerkat

meerkat front Swapnil Bhartiya

Front of Meerkat

System 76 allows buyers to customize the machine during ordering  and you can bump up the RAM, CPU, storage and also add peripherals. This configuration was priced at $866. A Mac Mini with a slower, dual core processor and the same configuration will cost you more than $1,199.00 -- and you can’t run Linux on it.

Meerkat is so small that you can even put it on a bookshelf. Here is a comparison between my current file server and Meerkat.

meerkat vs pc Swapnil Bhartiya

My current server vs Meerkat

Since I have over 10TB of data, I will be buying a high-end hard drive enclosure and plug them into the USB 3.0 port.  That raises a legit concern about data transfer speed over USB 3.0 vs SATA. But as this one is going to be a networked system where I access data over wireless, I am assuming there won’t be any significant impact on the data transfer rate. Either way when I work on audio/video editing I copy files to local machines.

The software

Meerkat comes with the OEM version of Ubuntu. When you boot into the system for the first time, you can configure the language, keyboard layout, create user account and you are set.

Everything was smooth except for one issue.

I reviewed Google’s Chromebit last week, and I can’t resist comparing the two from the user experience point of view. I was planning to use a wireless keyboard and mouse with the Meerkat and I was disappointed that, unlike Chromebit, Meerkat didn’t give the option to first pair bluetooth devices with it. I had to hunt down a wired mouse and keyboard.

Note to System76 developers: Take a page out of Google's book and offer users the option to pair wireless peripherals if wired peripherals are not detected. Same should be the case with networking. There should be a dialog box asking users to connect to a wireless network if an Ethernet cable was not detected.

Since I was allowed to wipe the hard drive and install the OS of my choosing, I tried Arch Linux, openSUSE Leap, Fedora… every distro that I threw at Meerkat installed without any hiccups.

I settled on openSUSE Leap because that’s the distro I plan to run on my file server. I chose Plasma 5 as the default desktop environment and that’s where the devices shines.

It’s a very powerful device and using it just for Web browsing and working on LibreOffice files wasn't taking advantage of its power.

Its dual core CPU and Intel GPU was powerful enough to play Steam games, handle transcoding of high definition videos on Handbrake and edit RAW images using Darktable and DigiKam. My main concern was Plex, but that worked great, too.  I was impressed with how gracefully it handled everything that I threw at it. And while it did all this heavy lifting it was almost noiseless compared to my server PC.

Since this one is a review unit, I have to send it back. But I will be placing an order for Meerkat so that I can replace my server with it. This is a decent device that can be used as a home server; it can be screwed behind a monitor and used as a family/kitchen pc; it can be used in schools. The possibilities are immense considering the price and the fact that it comes with a Linux-based operating system. So if you are looking for buying a ‘mini PC’ this Christmas, look no further than Meerkat running Linux.

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