CompuLab MintBox 2 Review

Update 30 July 2017: If you own a MintBox 2 or Intense PC your system is vulnerable to CVE-2017-9457. There is currently no planned fix for this vulnerability.

Update 6 June 2017: If you own a MintBox 2 or Intense PC, please update your system firmware to the latest version (21 May 2017). Your system is vulnerable to CVE-2017-8083.

CompuLab’s MintBox 2 is a small embedded computer designed for home, office or industrial applications that retails for $599 US. The MintBox 2 ships with Linux Mint 15 “Olivia” on it, which was supported until January 2014 (last month).

The specifications of the MintBox 2 are:
Intel Core i5 3337U (Dual-core 1.8GHz, 2.7GHz turbo, 17W)
4GB RAM (2x2GB; DDR3 1333 CL9 SODIMMs)
500GB hard drive (2.5″, 5400RPM, Hitachi HCC547550A9E380)
Dual Gigabit Ethernet (Intel and Realtek 8111F; both integrated)
Realtek 802.11b/g/n 2.4GHz WiFi/Bluetooth 3.0 combo card (RTL8723AE; half-height mini-PCIe)

Also present are two eSATA ports (SATA 300), a full size mini-PCIe which can also double as mSATA, DisplayPort and HDMI (CEC is not supported) video outputs, and 3.5mm audio in/out which also support S/PDIF (coax).

The MintBox 2 comes with a 60 month warranty (5 years), with the hard drive being covered for 24 months (2 years).

The shipping configuration uses legacy booting and partitions instead of EFI booting and LVM.

Disk /dev/sda: 465.8 GiB, 500107862016 bytes, 976773168 sectors
Units: sectors of 1 * 512 = 512 bytes
Sector size (logical/physical): 512 bytes / 4096 bytes
I/O size (minimum/optimal): 4096 bytes / 4096 bytes
Disklabel type: dos
Disk identifier: 0x16ad26de

Device Boot Start End Blocks Id System
/dev/sda1 * 2048 968752047 484375000 83 Linux
/dev/sda2 968752048 976773167 4010560 82 Linux swap / Solaris

Encrypting user’s home is supported and offers reasonable speeds, but since user data is stored on the same partition as the OS you may run into trouble if you try to upgrade Linux Mint or install another distribution.

The MintBox 2 supposedly supports up to 16GB of memory, and indeed I had no issues with the 4GB installed, or with an 8GB (2x4GB) kit from Patriot memory. I tried three different 16GB kits (G.SKILL, Patriot, Micron) in the MintBox 2, and all three were incompatible. As such, I highly recommend you consult the list of approved memory modules before purchasing a 16GB kit for the MintBox 2. I am awaiting a 16GB kit that was certified to work with the MintBox 2 and will update this post when it arrives.

People familiar with Linux Mint will know what the standard user interface is like, and the MintBox 2 does not deviate from it apart from a cheeky MintBox 2 wallpaper. Everything works out of the box, with ethernet and wireless configured for DHCP. Suspend to RAM works well and performance is on par with other dual-core computers running Linux Mint.

I installed Arch Linux on my MintBox 2 using EFI boot. This requires reformatting the hard drive completely to use a GPT partitioning scheme. An EFI service partition is required to store the grub boot loader, unless you opt to use the EFI stub in the linux kernel (which I did not). You will also have to boot from live media and use the efibootmgr tool to insert a boot record into EFI nvram to point to your boot loader or you will be sitting sadly in the [seemingly] useless EFI shell wondering why it won’t boot.

As with most other consumer electronics, there is little to no option to tweak in the EFI configuration utility (“BIOS”). There are no voltage monitors, and only the CPU temperature sensor is available over SMBus. Users do not have control over CPU speed, C-states, memory frequency or timings. There is an option for whether the full-height mini-PCIe slot is mSATA or regular mini-PCIe, and users can choose to enable or disable Virtualization (VT-x; VT-d is not supported by the HM76 chipset).

The December 2013 firmware update provides users with the ability to pre-define how much memory to share with the IGP (128MB, 256MB or 512MB) which is reserved and unavailable to the OS. I believe previous firmware versions dynamically allocate VRAM based on the Intel IGP driver requests from the OS.

Depending on the workload the CPU temperature can vary from mid-40s to mid-70s (Celsius), but is almost never hotter. This is average for a mobile CPU and well within safe limits. The stock RAM hits mid-60s in heavy use, but DIMMs with 16 chips (as opposed to 8) run in the mid-70s.

CompuLab support was a little lacklustre at first, but improved tremendously after I discussed my issues with the MintBox product manager. They issued an RMA and replaced the unit to see if the compatibility issue was isolated, but the replacement has the same issues.

Overall the MintBox 2 is a very nice computer. The MintBox 2 is a fanless design, which is very nice from a noise perspective but certainly won’t win it any awards in the design department. The connectivity options are very nice, and exceed what other manufacturers are offering in a small form-factor fanless PC.

I was torn between buying a MintBox 2 and a Mac Mini. I liked the MintBox 2 connectivity options, even though it lacks ThunderBolt, and the fanless design was a bonus. The MintBox 2 also uses a lower TDP CPU than the Mac Mini (17W versus 35W), but is clocked lower.

If you want to buy a computer that works out of the box with Linux and don’t mind paying a premium for it, then the MintBox 2 is an excellent choice. However, the Mac Mini does give you more connectivity options (4xUSB 3.0, FW800 and ThunderBolt) and is compatible with almost all 16GB memory kits available on the market.

Pros:
+ Low-power
+ Fanless
+ I/O options without purchasing expensive adaptors
+ 5-year warranty

Cons:
– Limited support for 16GB of RAM
– Limited I/O (no ThunderBolt)
– RMA requires shipping the unit to CompuLab’s US or Israel office which means about 2 weeks without your computer (as opposed to bringing the Mac Mini in to an Apple store and getting it fixed/replaced within a day or two)
Multiple security vulnerabilities present in the system firmware (added July 2017)

Update: I installed the Corsair CT2CP102464BF1339 16GB kit and it seems to be working well in the MintBox. I also measured the power usage of the MintBox. At idle the MintBox draws 11W (110V mains) and under full load it draws around 27W.

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