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Low budget Cuelux computer

01.02.11

By: Maarten Engels

Cuelux lighting control software is available for all three major platforms; Mac, Windows and Linux, This gives us quite an opportunity to design a small, budget-friendly computer, specifically for the use with Cuelux.

Unlike lighting controller software only available on PC or Mac, we have the freedom to select our pieces from any computer part or operating system. This article discusses how to build your Cuelux machine on Ubuntu for only 215.

Mini-ITX

I prefer my computers to be small. Going from gig to gig you don't want to carry too much. And when you're controlling the lighting on a trade show booth you always need to hide the computer, so a small, neat unit allows you to tuck it away in a cupboard or utility room. This is were Mini- ITX comes in; it's a standard dimension (“form factor”) for computer motherboards. With 17 by 17 cm it's quite a bit smaller than the normal ATX boards. There is a wide selection of motherboards made for this size and it is also easily available, unlike even smaller but more industrial form factors.

When using a Mini-ITX board you need a Mini-ITX enclosure. I really like the M350 from Mini-box. It is well built, has lots of airflow and various mounting options including DIN rail.

Atom

The processor of my choice for this type of computer would be Intel's Atom. It's not the world's fastest CPU but it is energy efficient. Consuming less energy, it will also generate less heat. And less heat is what we want. It means our enclosure can be more compact as it needs less air flow and therefor less or no fans. It always feels good to get rid of fans because they are noisy and they are one of the last remaining moving parts; the more solid-state the better.

Fortunately, there are nice Mini-ITX boards available with the Atom chip already on-board. This saves us some handling and assures us of their compatibility.

Ubuntu

By choosing open-source Linux we immediately save the cost of the operating system, however, this OS can save even more as it requires less resources.

In the old days (as in pre-2011) we were able to put Windows XP on a Intel Atom board with 512 MB Ram running just fine. But nowadays the shops have stopped selling XP and we need to resort to Windows 7. Windows 7 on an Atom is no fun, it is just too sluggish. In my experience, even with 1 GB of memory you would still need a more expensive Celeron processor to get Windows 7 to start running smoothly.

So the difference in cost between Linux and Windows is not only the OS costs ( 74 for an OEM license) but also a more expensive processor (approx. 40) and more memory, although those costs are trivial. In the case of Windows you would also be using a fan, as the Celeron would need it.

Why don't we consider Mac OSX for our purpose-built computer? Well, we are not allowed to. The OSX license prevents us from installing it on any machine other than Apple's.

So we have a winner; let's go for Linux and more specifically let's go for Ubuntu. Ubuntu is the Linux distribution with the largest market share, meaning that there are more people out there with experience of Ubuntu that can help you if you have problem.

Even if you have never used Linux before there is no need to worry. The Ubuntu install is as intuitive and user friendly as Windows' and so is the Cuelux installation. After that the only thing you need to do is start the Cuelux application. So actually there is little to none knowledge of Linux required. The cool thing is that you do not even need to worry about USB drivers for the CueCable because just like on Mac OSX there is no driver used on Ubuntu; just plug & play. Very unlike Windows.

Doing the shopping

So let's spend some money. Below is a list of all the parts we bought for this computer and a link to the supplier. We bought our parts at Dutch and German online computer stores. If you're based on the other side of the globe, I would of course recommend you try buying the parts more locally to save on shipping.

It is a total cost of 214,51 excluding sales tax (VAT).

Solid State

Our system is not completely solid state, we still have one moving part; the hard-disk. As it was our main objective to create a low-budget PC we did not put in SSD (Solid State Disk). But if you like to become completely solid state than of course you can change the disks. The nice thing is that we don't need a large disk; it only needs to fit Ubuntu and Cuelux which takes up about 6 GB. Replacing our disk by a 16GB SSD would cost approx. 16 more. You might want to Google around to see if your Ubuntu system needs some tweaking for better a performance and longer lifespan of the SSD.

Touch screen

One possible downside of this system is that we haven't yet found a touch screen monitor that is compatible with Ubuntu. A quick Google doesn't yield many options, however, hopefully if we dig a little deeper we might find a solution in the future.

MIDI

If you would like to expand your Cuelux system with more tactile control then you are free to choose from quite a wide selection of Midi control surfaces. Our page at http://www.cuelux.com/features/#midi shows a nice overview of the supported controllers. Their costs varies in the range between € 40 and € 400.

Assembling

For help on assembling all the parts and installing the software please read an illustrated step-by-step tutorial written by my colleague Bart van Wunnik.

Conclusion

You do not need to spend a lot of money to get a small, decent and stable Cuelux computer. Even though we have selected Ubuntu as our operating system, hardly any knowledge of Ubuntu is required to set up.