It’s a clever concept, if not exactly a fresh one: Sell or give away a PC, then make your money on a monthly subscription fee. The Linux-based Zonbu PC costs only $99 and promises to be “greener” than a typical PC, and it offers more than enough power for tasks such as browsing the Web, making Skype calls, or watching the latest movie trailers from QuickTime encoded in MPEG4. (Just keep them to 480p max.) But looks (or, in this case, price) can be deceiving. The Zonbu costs $99 only if you subscribe to its online storage (via Amazon’s S3 network) for $12.95 a month for two years. It costs $149 if you go with a one-year subscription. If you don’t want the online storage and all that it comes with, you can buy the system outright for $249. Sound familiar? Then you’ve probably purchased a cell phone in the past decade.
The Zonbu PC essentially has two versions. In the locked-down $99 version, users can’t access root on the Linux OS, which means they can’t do much damage, let alone change anything beyond the wallpaper or adding Firefox 2.0 extensions. The $249 “Community” version offers full access and the ability to add additional programs through the Gentoo package manager. (Linux enthusiasts will want to know that the Zonbu is built around Gentoo, kernel 2.6.17-ck1, using xfce as its desktop environment.) Zonbu requires a broadband connection for both versions.
The monthly fee covers tech support (online and via phone), along with online file storage at Amazon’s S3 servers. This makes it just about impossible to lose your data, which also can be accessed from any other PC. (This will probably require users to download an executable file onto those PCs, however.) It also means you’re stuck with only 25GB of storage unless you want to pay a bigger monthly fee: $14.95 for 50GB or $19.95 for 100GB. Beyond a 4GB Compact Flash card that stores the Zonbu’s version of Gentoo Linux OS and the host of applications, there is no local storage, though the Zonbu can access USB drives plugged into one of its six USB ports.
You’ll need to use one of those ports for a USB DVD drive if you want to play DVDs or rip your CD collection. There’s no space for an optical drive in the Zonbu’s 6.75- by 4.75- by 2.25-inch (HWD) case. Zonbu offers one for $49, though any should work; I had to experiment with how I plugged the USB drive into the tiny PC. I settled on stacking it underneath the machine and using one of the vertical ports on the back of the system because the USB cable was prone to slipping out of the external drive and crashing the DVD playback and jukebox applications. (Once I sorted that out, I never saw “Banshee Encountered a Fatal Error. Exception has been thrown by the target of an invocation” again.)
There’s much to be captivated by with the Zonbu, at least on paper. Built around the Gentoo Linux OS and running on a 1.2-GHz Via mainboard with 512MB of RAM, integrated graphics, and a 4GB Compact Flash card, the Zonbu is a silent (no fans) machine that consumes less electricity than most notebooks. (It used 8W in standby and 11W in use playing DVDs or making a Skype call, using our Kill-A-Watt power monitor.) The company has been waving a very green flag, touting its efforts to obtain full Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool (EPEAT) certification for the machine through the Green Electronics Council, which promises a considerably greener PC than one might purchase otherwise. EPEAT has “23 mandatory environmental criteria that must be met before a product can claim EPEAT-Bronze, the lowest “green” tier, including compliance with the European laws on reduced hazardous substances (RoHS), design for disassembly, labeling of parts for easy recycling, availability of a recycling take-back system, reduced and recycled-content packaging,” and more. Zonbu is also purchasing carbon credits to offset electrical usage by the machines.
The heart of the Zonbu is a 1.2-GHz Via C7 ULV chipset, hardly a barn burner compared with the 2- and 3-GHz Intel and AMD CPUs at the heart of most machines these days. We don’t have benchmark tests for Linux boxes at this time, but the machine was more than powerful enough for all the onboard applications we ran, despite the paltry-sounding 512MB of RAM (64MB of which is pooled with the integrated graphics; display output comes from a VGA port). The onboard MPEG2 acceleration helps prevent DVD playback from overwhelming the system, which had no problems feeding a 720p HDTV. Skype calls were crisp on both ends, and audio playback via the onboard 2-channel sound was considerably cleaner than we would have expected. The box had no problem ripping CDs into FLAC audio files, but did so at a very leisurely pace; it generally took close to 40 minutes to rip and encode a 44-minute CD. One area where Zonbu fell well short of our expectations was playing Flash video off the Web; sites such as YouTube were prone to stuttering playback. (We suspect this is a Flash/Linux issue and not a processor issue; we did have some luck playing back MPEG4 movie trailers from Apple’s QuickTime pages.)
That slow pace was also evident when I browsed a folder full of hefty 2.5MB photos from the 25GB of secure online storage included in the Zonbu’s monthly fee: I’d hit the next button on the file viewer and wait a few moments for the next picture to launch. Smaller files, such as Open Office word documents, or audio files played through Banshee, the onboard audio-ripping and jukebox software, launched instantly. The speed at which you can save files to S3 is totally dependent on the speed of your Internet connection, though Zonbu does appear to cache locally to speed up the process of moving files from, say, your digital camera to the Zonbu’s drive.
Though the hardware I tested was final, the OS and applications installed were a beta. Beyond the issues with CD ripping and playback, which disappeared after I sorted out the problems with the external USB drive, the unit was very solid. I did have two minor complaints: First, the log-in requires you to type in your complete e-mail address every time you log in. (Zonbu promises the system will store your address in a later version.) Second, every time I rebooted the machine, it displayed a network configuration dialog, even though our machine was still connected to the network. I’d rather not see “Offline: Please connect to the Internet your Zonbu box by following these steps” every time I restart the system.
Since users of the managed version can’t install additional applications, the quality of the preload is critical. I found Firefox, OpenOffice, Skype, and Banshee[[added above]], and Photo Organizer (which claims it can import photos from “more than 800 cameras,” supports JPEG, TIFF, GIF, and RAW files, and cover basic photo-editing chores, such as cropping, resizing, and red-eye removal) all to be excellent. The Totem DVD player was less impressive. Turning on deinterlacing caused a host of green artifacts to show up in our video. (Additional applications include GimpShop, for more advanced photo editing, Nvu for Web-page editing, Pidgin for IM via AOL, MSN, Yahoo!, ICQ, and IRC) and even a Azureus and aMule for P2P downloads. (Did I mention how small that 25GB of online storage looks?)
I didn’t have a chance to access the Windows importer tool that lets “Windows users import their data: documents, music, video, and e-mails, directly to their storage space.” I can say that the beta version I tested sorely needed additional help to ease Windows users into the Zonbu’s Linux environment. Little things, such as having to insert a CD or DVD to launch the appropriate application, since double-clicking on the disc icon does nothing, were a tad frustrating.
Is the Zonbu ready for a two-year commitment? For the most part, yes. There will be some transition issues for Microsoft Windows users, but those shouldn’t be too painful. Beyond my external DVD glitch, the system was fairly bombproof. More online storage would be nice for the $12.95 fee: 25GB could easily get packed with even a modest audio collection. My paramount concern is whether the company will stay solvent for the entire two years, so that the system continues to receive the promised automatic (and invisible) updates for the duration. Call us paranoid, but two years is a long time for a new business model.
The $249 Community version is a much easier sell: a low-power PC that could easily run your audio collection into your stereo, has more than enough power for homework or basic image editing, and is unlocked so you can load anything you want on it via Gentoo’s package manager. There are definitely things you won’t want to do on a Zonbu (editing video comes to mind), but for most things, you’ve got more than enough machine here.