LAS VEGAS – When we first saw FXI’s Cotton Candy at CES 2012, the tiny dual-core computer on a USB stick blew our minds with its ability to take over either a notebook or a standalone screen and turn it into an Android station. Now, the Norwegian company has managed to port both Ubuntu Linux and Android 4.0 Ice Cream sandwich to its diminutive device while adding a micro USB port and working on an even slimmer design.
In an extensive demo session today, we had a chance to watch the device boot up the latest Android and Ubuntu environments and to see a demonstration of how easy it is to plug into either an existing computer or just a monitor and USB hub. Though the devices we saw were only prototypes, the company told us it working feverishly on a developer kit version that it will eventually sell online.
Since we last saw the Cotton Candy, FXI has ported Ubuntu, arguably the most popular flavor of desktop Linux, to the device. The advantage of Ubuntu is that it offers a very full-fledged PC experience with thousands of apps to choose from, many of which are good for content creation or coding. The operating system can also save its state in hibernation so when you take the Cotton Candy to another environment and plug it in, it will resume to exactly where you left off with your programs and files open.
When the Cotton Candy goes on sale to developers, they will have the option of installing either Ubuntu or Android when they authenticate the device through FXI’s site. Many will prefer Ubuntu because you can actually write code in Ubuntu and compile it, something you can’t do in Android.
Last time we saw the Cotton Candy, it was only capable of running Android 2.3 Gingerbread. How times have changed in a little over a month. FXI has managed to port Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to the device though the 3D graphics support needs work. We watched as an FXI rep booted the Cotton Candy into Ice Cream Sandwich and browsed through the home screen and apps menu, but images like the unlock ring moved slowly and suffered from some lag. The company is working to fix this problem before launch.
Svelte as the Cotton Candy is, FXI plans to slim it down even further before it starts selling the product. The company pulled the black plastic pieces off of its current model to give us an idea of how light and thin the final production unit will be. The company is still deciding on the exact industrial design it wants to use, so the white plastic box in our pictures is not exactly what it will look like. However, FXI told us to expect the device to weigh 21 grams or less.
FXI has also added a micro USB port to the Cotton Candy so you can plug in additional peripherals. Of course, the Cotton Candy still has its primary USB plug, which must be connected to a USB power source, but can also attach to any USB hub and access any peripherals via the hub. And the HDMI port on the other side of the Cotton Candy is still the primary way to attach an external monitor.
Attaching the Cotton Candy to a Mac or PC simply launches a virtual window on top of the host OS, which in itself can be useful for having your own private environment or doing testing. However, it’s even more impressive that the Cotton Candy can plug directly into a monitor, keyboard, mouse and power source where it acts as a completely independent computer.
We watched as an FXI rep plugged the Cotton Candy into an HDMI cable that led a monitor, into a USB AC adapter and via the micro USB port into a wireless dongle for the mouse and keyboard. As soon as the device received power, it started the boot up process and, within just a few seconds, we had our Ubuntu desktop and were able to start using the environment. A second time, we watched as FXI booted up Ice Cream Sandwich.
Even though the Cotton Candy has a single HDMI port, it has a way of supporting dual monitors. FXI showed how plugging the USB side of the device into a notebook and the HDMI side into an external monitor produced the same image on both screens, with the environment running in a window on the notebook and running full screen on the external monitor.
Right now, the device only supports mirroring of the desktop, but the hardware will make it possible to support extending the display in the future. Attaching it to a USB hub could allow for additional screens that are not part of a computer.
What happens if you attach two Cotton Candy devices to one notebook? We found out when we attached one each to either side of an old ThinkPad T61 and it opened two different virtual machines in two different windows. Since the computer was old and slow and the video signal is transmitted over as H.264, it was a little laggy, but the company assured us this would not be the case on a modern computer.
The Cotton Candy’s dual-core Samsung Exynos processor has more than enough oomph to handle demanding games. The company showed a 3D game running under Ubuntu with great frame rates. Though an attached controller did not work for our demo, FXI told us it should work with a different controller.