Notebookcheck
27.02.2010 09:48

BCC releases 'alex', a Linux-based operating system designed for novices

Category: other notebook news
By: Morgan Jones

alex, which requires a subscription is making its debut on the Clevo M760t, which BCC is selling for £399.52

The outdated Clevo M760t

The outdated Clevo M760t

Linux-based 'alex' is over-simplified

Linux-based 'alex' is over-simplified

BCC founder Andy Hudson

BCC founder Andy Hudson

alex's GUI

alex's GUI

The Newcastle based Broadband Computer Company (BCC) claims that 'almost 12 million people in the UK are confused by computers and feel they'll never get used to them'. This is a quote derived from a recent survey, and is apparently the genesis of BCC's new operating system (OS), 'alex'. There is clearly a need for simplification of human computer interaction (HCI), as many aspects of a computer user's experience are counter-intuitive. Is alex the solution to HCI-related confusion and frustration?

BCC launched alex on the 18th of February 2010 during a presentation at The Hospital Club, Covent Garden in London. BCC's Marketing Director, Harry Drnec, chuckled after joking with the attendees, that alex wasn't designed for them, but rather for someone they knew. BCC is hoping that a simple OS will assist the novices we know, in learning to use computers effectively and independently. One distinguishing feature of this OS is that it is subscription-based; its current price is £9.99 a month.

 

alex – the hardware

alex debuts on a Clevo M760t notebook, which is a rather outdated machine, and for BCC's price of £399.52, is far too expensive. It features a 1.66GHz Intel Celeron Dual-core T1600 processor, Intel's Mobile GM45 Express chipset with an ICH9M configuration and an Intel GMA 4500MHD GPU. It has a 15.4” WXGA (1280 x 800) TFT LCD, a 120GB SATA hard drive, a DVD+/-RW drive, and a 6 cell battery. It measures 359mm x 268mm x 24.8 to ~37mm (WDH) and weighs 2.6kg.

Expertreviews.co.uk reviewed the M760t and concluded that it was a relatively slow and over priced machine, with a low battery life of ~3 hours, despite the manufacturer's claim that it should run for at least 4 hours on a 6 cell 4000mAh battery. Apparently the redeeming features of the M760t include a large, comfortable, responsive keyboard; a large responsive touchpad; and a clear, bright display with a wide viewing angle.

The M760t's poor performance can be explained by the T1600 processor, which is ranked 164 on our processor benchmark list. It's an outdated processor, with a high TDP of 35W, although it does feature an 'Enhanced Speedstep' function, which lowers its clock speed when idle. You can find out more about the T1600, and see how it compares with other processors here. The Intel GMA 4500MHD GPU is a reasonably good integrated GPU, and it is ranked 169 in our GPU benchmark list. It should perform every task alex demands of it, but to see what it is really capable of, click here.

alex can also be purchased with an HP Deskjet F4280 (£39.99), but users wishing to install their existing printer should note that BCC can only guarantee that alex will work with a selection of printers. Although only one accessory is listed on the website at the moment (the F4280), BCC suggests that users will be able to purchase speakers, cameras and carry cases with an alex system. The hardware chosen for this OS' debut is probably more than capable of running it smoothly, although the battery life and the price of the M760t are particularly disappointing.

 

Features of the OS and first reviews

alex isn't riddled with innovating features, as they can be found in common OSs, and most OSs could be set up to work in a similar way to alex. The subscription pays for telephone customer support, software updates and backup software that automatically encrypts users' data and uploads it to an online digital vault. Users can't install new software, so they are restricted to the existing applications. alex can only run on the Clevo at the moment, but BCC is planning to release a version that could be installed by media for use on other machines for single or multi-boot configurations. The screen resolution can't be changed, which means accessibility options are limited in general.

Reviewers seem to concur that alex is over-simplified and shouldn't be subscription based. However, feedback from various users appears positive, although the fact that alex's simplicity can be recreated on other systems is apparently lost on users thus far. One advantage of alex cited by a user was its minimal set up time: as the user didn't have to choose 'time zones and locations' like 'Microsoft asks you to do'. This begs the question: has choosing a location and time zone with other operating systems ever been difficult or time consuming? I'm sure that almost every potential computer user will know their location and time zone when setting up a notebook – to think that alex simplifies setup significantly is a fallacy.

Is alex offering users anything new at all? Apparently not. One user appreciated the 'simple' instruction manual that is supplied with the OS, which includes setup instructions and photographs of the equipment in use. Also supplied with alex is the 'latchkey', which is a USB memory stick (with storage space) that is required to log in to the system as a particular user. Every user needs their own latchkey to log in to alex, and the USB devices store the user's personal details as part of a roaming profile, which can be launched on any alex-based system. Therefore, in order to log in to alex, one must plug in the latchkey and enter a password (chosen by the user during set up). Whilst this is a novel security feature for standard users of OSs, it's not unique to alex and can be done elsewhere, for free.

alex's GUI has an array of always-on-top icons, which are displayed on the right hand side of the screen; these comprise single click links that launch the main functions and applications used with alex: 'E-mail', 'Office' (word processor and spreadsheet), 'Photo' (photo editor and manager), 'People' (contact manager), and 'Play' (media player). The OS has comprehensive tooltips, and computer terminology has been replaced where possible, with supposedly more lucid terms. As one user states, the term 'web browser' is replaced with 'web'. This is another flimsy example of the OS' accessibility, one can't claim to have simplified the computing experience by merely shortening computer terms.

The overall appearance of the GUI is much like any other Linux distribution or Windows OS, with a desktop, which includes a customizable desktop background; some pre-determined tabs, named 'My news' (which links to preset news feeds and those added later by the user), 'My calendar' and 'Add a note'; and the aforementioned buttons on the right hand side of the screen. Applications load directly into a full screen mode, with the position and size locked. This leaves novice users of the OS without any training in basic, and intuitive skills such as resizing and moving windows, which are essential tools for multitasking.

Users have also expressed their joy at other features that alex happens to share with almost every other OS: its web browser loads common websites without any problems; its word processor and spreadsheet recognise Microsoft formats, autosave regularly, and contain templates for commonly drafted documents (including entering personal details in advance if necessary); and 'confusing options' such as 'cc' in the email application are hidden until requested by the user. Sending links, documents or images via e-mail is simplified, in that users can click a 'send' button at any time, which links the current image, website etc to a new email; this isn't unique to alex as most OSs could do this with a macro.

 

Is alex needed?

Is over-simplifying an OS to accommodate individuals who feel they have neither the time nor ability to learn how to use an existing OS, patronizing, condescending and presumptuous? Many of us may know someone who is a computing novice, and who has a steeper learning curve to climb than the average computer user. Few computer users will every be able to understand every aspect of a computer system, due to such systems inherent complexity.

The danger of paying BCC a lot of money and every month or year thereafter, simply to use a computer, is that one could become dependent upon this company and its OS. Customers of alex are limiting their experience of computing to their detriment, and will find migrating to another OS difficult. Every computer user may want a system that 'just works', yet this is an ideological fantasy. We may come to realise perfect computing one day, but for a company to state that they have solved the frustrations of the aforementioned ~12 million confused computer users is laughable. alex can't possibly be error free now and forever, and users encountering an error are instructed to ring BCC, which isn't a new strategy, so why should it work? Of the ~12 million people surveyed, how many have already called someone to solve a computing problem? Possibly all of them, so why would ringing alex be a significant improvement, over ringing a friend, family member or obtaining help online?

The developers of alternative OSs may need to work harder to introduce novices to the simplicity of their software. Linux-based OSs used to be the province of confident PC users, but OSs like Ubuntu have made this platform extremely accessible. Windows 7 has managed to retain the simplicity established with older versions, such as XP and setting it up shouldn't be a burden for anyone. There is a need to continue to improve the accessibility of every OS, but I don't think restrictive simplification and subscriptions is a positive step towards accomplishing this.

 

Specifications

Processor

1.66GHz Intel Celeron Dual-core T1600 (667MHz, 1MB L2 Cache)

Chipset

Mobile Intel GM45 Express with ICH9M configuration

Memory

1GB DDR2 (up to 4GB with 2 x SODIMMs)

Graphics adapter

Intel GMA 4500MHD

Display

15.4” WXGA (1280 x 800) TFT LCD

Hard disk

120GB SATA

Audio

HD audio; 3D stereo enhanced; built-in microphone; S/PDIF; two speakers

Connections

3 x USB 2.0; VGA; HDMI; audio-in; audio-out; S/PDIF; RJ11; RJ45; Kensington lock; 7-in-1 Card Reader (MMC/RSMMC/SD/Mini-SD/MS/MS Pro/MS Duo); ExpressCard /54(/34) slot; 2 x MiniCard slots with USB & PCIe interface (1st for WLAN module, 2nd for Intel® Turbo memory / 3.5G module)

Networking

LAN 10/100/1000; 56K FAX/modem; WLAN 802.11 b/g (AcureWave AW-GU701)

Optical drive

DVD+/-RW

Battery

6 cell Lithium-ion 4000mAh (> 4 hours)

Webcam

1.3MP

Dimensions

359mm x 268mm x 24.8 to ~37mm (WDH)

Weight

2.6kg

Color

Black and white

Additional features

Supplied with mouse and 'latchkey'

Operating System

alex

Warranty

Not specified

Clevo M760t price

£399.52

Subscription price

Basic subscription: £9.99 per month, or £109.89 annually (when paid in advance)

Subscription with broadband: £24.99 per month, or £274.89 annually (when paid in advance)

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Author: Notebookcheck, 2005-09-20 (Update: 2011-05- 3)