The promise of a computer for any budget, for anyone in the world, has been tried before to limited effect. The One Laptop Per Child initiative, launched to great fanfare in 2005, showed the difficulty in creating a low-cost PC for the developing world. One of the major limitations is the availability of reliable Internet access to access information and applications. That’s something many of us are used to, but not everyone can take for granted.
The Endless Mini is a microdesktop intended for developing markets that combines a surprisingly sophisticated design and functional but rock-bottom specs with a wealth of preloaded content, much if it educational. That makes the Endless Mini a rare breed — a computer that still offers wide functionality even without Internet access.
Starting at $79 in the US (approximately £54 or AU$110), the base model Endless Mini runs an ARM Cortex A5 CPU from Amlogic, with 1GB of RAM and 24GB of solid-state storage. We tested the step-up $99 model, which moves to 2GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, and more importantly, adds a Wi-Fi antenna and Bluetooth (the lower-end model is Ethernet only). Both run Endless OS, a custom Linux operating system with a familiar phone-like tile interface. A larger, more powerful version, simply called Endless, starts at $189 in the US and runs off an Intel Celeron processor.
Both Endless Mini configurations, officially introduced at CES 2016, are now available to order online, as well as in retail stores in Guatemala, with other regions to follow. The company says that in addition to shipping its first units, it has closed on a new round of funding that will allow it to expand operations in Latin America, the Middle East and Asia.
The lightweight Mini comes in an attractive cylindrical cardboard container and looks like a much fancier product than its price or specs would lead you to expect. The chassis is a globe of white plastic with translucent red accents, flat on the bottom to sit on a desk. A single USB port is on the front face, while the rest of the ports and connections are on the back panel, allowing you to plug in power, an HDMI cable and a keyboard and mouse, routing all the cables to the rear and out of sight (I found some wireless keyboards did not work with the Linux-based OS, and eventually ended up using a wired keyboard and wireless mouse).
There are other low-cost desktops and laptops that offer better specs and more functionality, if you’re willing to pay a little more. The $159 Intel Compute Stick uses an Intel Atom processor and has Windows 10 as its operating system. The Asus Chromebit puts Chrome OS in handy stick form for $85. More self-contained is the HP Stream 11, an 11-inch Windows 10 laptop with an Intel Celeron, which is available for under $200.
But, all of those systems are of very limited usefulness without reliable Internet access. The Chromebit doubly so, as Chrome OS, the stripped down operating system from Google, is little more than a browser-based window to online services.