Meet “Lizzy”. She’s a Dell Wyse 3040 thin client, designed to act as a dedicated remote desktop client (Citrix, etc). But with a quad-core Atom CPU, 2GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, she’s also perfectly capable of running a lightweight desktop OS.
I was very lucky to pick up one of these cute little machines at a considerable discount. New, but in an open box. The system logs indicated that it had been booted a couple of times in 2019, but everything looked completely new.
Out of the box, these machines come with something called ThinOS installed. It’s probably great for thin client duties, but as a desktop OS, it’s not much fun.
Selecting an Operating System
Shipping took longer than expected, so I tried a number of lightweight Linux distributions in Virtual Machines.
- Manjaro 18 XFCE
- Lubuntu 20.04
- Xubuntu 20.04
Manjaro and Xubuntu both use the XFCE Desktop Environment, and Manjaro makes it look very polished and sleek. It’s a very interesting distro, but I decided to go with something Debian-based (my personal preference, and I want to run some things on it that are developed for Debian).
Lubuntu disappointed somewhat, so I ended up choosing Xubuntu. It’s probably the lightest option of the three, and with a little effort, XFCE can be given a make-over to get rid of its tired default “Windows NT”-feel. I’m using the “Plano-Dark” Window Manager theme, the “Papirus” icon theme, and the Numix desktop theme (pre-installed). Much better.
I was expecting the Wyse to put up a little fight. According to Dell’s support documentation, the 3040 is “locked” to the OS it comes with (ThinOS), but it only took a couple of steps to break what little resistance it offered.
- Press F2 during boot to get into the BIOS.
- Unlock the settings using the default password “Fireport”.
- Reset the BIOS values to the factory settings and save.
- This automatically put my Xubuntu USB stick first in the boot order, but it’s worth checking.
- Exit and reboot.
Interestingly, Xubuntu’s installer recognized the existing ThinOS installation as Ubuntu 16.04, so it turned out to be “family”. I opted to complete reformat the 16 GB disk. Installation went without a single hitch, and Lizzy booted into Xubuntu after the restart.
Despite the manual specifying a much lower maximum resolution, Xubuntu makes use of all 3440*1440 pixels my monitor offers. With a 50Hz refresh rate, gaming is probably out of the question, but it’s nice to get a high resolution desktop.
Media playback is a bit of a mixed bag. YouTube works well, but as soon as you go full-screen, the Atom CPU can’t keep up. This is less of an issue at lower resolutions (I tried 1080p, playback was reasonably smooth). That being said, I don’t think this is a good Kodi machine.
As expected with modern Linux distributions, everything else worked out of the box too (audio, network, Bluetooth through a USB adapter).
You can tell this is a machine that uses just 5 Watts of power, but it’s not terribly slow. The little box gets warm after a while, but not hot. The whole thing is passively cooled, so this is expected.
I’ll have to look into why my Logitech K380 Bluetooth keyboard won’t properly pair with the Wyse, but other than that it’s an enjoyable little machine.