Open Source

Zonbu: A simple computer for everyone

Recently, I was sent a box with a Zonbox inside. What is a Zonbox you ask? Simple: A Zonbox is a tiny form-factor PC (made by Zonbu) with no moving parts, no fans, no hard drive, and an open source operating system but with most of the bells and whistles people have come to expect from a computer...and more.

The company, Zonbu, started with the idea of making a "green" PC. What they created was a device that uses a fraction of the energy that regular PCs use (to the tune of nearly $10.00 per month savings) and is totally carbon-neutral.

As I said, the device is fanless so it's absolutely silent. Getting rid of heat is taken care of by the heat-sink-style case enclosing all of the components. The case does get warm but not so warm that you could burn yourself.

But how does it perform?

I've put the little machine through some testing (no benchmarking because at this point in the game benchmarking is reserved for high-end server needs and gaming), but only taking this open source-based device through the paces of the average user. What can it do and what can't it do?

Surf the Web: Check. The Firefox browser was set up out of the box with all necessary plug ins (why can't distributions do this????).

Check email: Check. Evolution does the trick. The only thing necessary was to plug in the account details.

Office: Check, check, and check. Word processing, spreadsheets, and presentations all with Open Office, PDF with Scribus.

Graphics: Check and check. The Gimp and Mplayer do an outstanding job. Mplayer, unlike from most distributions, worked out of the box.

Audio: Banshee connects to your iPod without hassle. Biggest problem: no MP3 support. Problem is, I couldn't install the needed plugin for MP3 support. Why? Because your apt-get is NOT FOUND!!!! Okay, so that's a big limitation.

Games: There are some, but nothing astounding. We're talking about your usual minesweeper flavor of games.

Networking: Networking came up without so much as doing a single configuration. I was even able to simply connect to my Samba network by entering the username/password and voila! More space to save files.

Breaking it down

This little gem of a PC is one of those items most would overlook. But the thing is, you shouldn't. For the average user who only wants to surf the Web, check e-mail, and do the occasional document, this thing is perfect! The setup couldn't be any easier. You plug it in, turn it on, and log on to your machine. That's it. As soon as it's done booting the user has nothing more to do than to enjoy the experience. And it's tiny (about 4"X6"X2")...and fairly powerful. Here are the specs:

  • Intel-compatible ultra-low power CPU
  • 512 MB RAM + 4GB flash-based local storage
  • Graphics up to 2048 x 1536 (16 million colors, 75 Hz). Hardware graphics and MPEG2 acceleration
  • PC-compatible ports for keyboard and mouse
  • 6 USB ports to plug-and-play all standard USB accessories
  • Broadband ready: 10/100 Mbps Ethernet built-in
  • Wifi
  • CF card reader
  • 2 PS/2 ports

The price is fairly reasonable as well. What Zonbu has done is set up a system where you can do one of two things: Buy the machine outright for $249.00 for the device and then you can purchase one of four plans for your device:

  • Free: Disaster proof storage. I believe this will back up your operating system only.
  • $12.95 per month: 25 Gigs of storage, free automatic software updates, and a hardware rebate of $150.00.
  • $14.95 per month: 50 Gigs of storage, free automatic software updates, a hardware rebate of $150.00, and Remote file access (from any machine, anywhere).
  • $19.95 per month: 100 Gigs of storage, free automatic software updates, a hardware rebate of $150.00, and Remote file access (from any machine, anywhere), and overnight free hardware replacement limited warranty.

At first you may think this is a scam. But it's not. I've tried the device and the plans. I've loaded files and downloaded files from various locations. The device works flawlessly (with the exception of MP3 support) and the remote access is superb. The OS is based on Ubuntu so it enjoys that same reliability.

I know there are plenty of naysayers out there who are probably thinking, "Why not just pay around $300.00 and get a standard desktop machine?" Simple: If you're really looking to cut costs you can think outside the standard PC-Box and add in the energy savings you will enjoy with the Zonbu, as well as the added safety of suffering  no-virus-no-malware-no-trojan-no-worms. You won't be kicking yourself saying, "Dude, why'd I get a Dell?"

Of course it's not for everyone. But who is it for:

  • Students
  • People on the go that need remote access to the their files but don't want to lug a laptop around with them.
  • Your grandparents.
  • Your mom and dad.
  • Temporary employees.
  • Anyone on a low budget who needs a computer for the basics.

Because of its size, simplicity, and reliability this little machine could serve anyone who needed to handle basic computing tasks. It's not perfect, but it's as close to the pull it out, plug it in, and use it that PC manufacturers have been questing for all these years.

Of course, my only niggle with this is, since it is open source, why doesn't the machine have apt-get? Maybe Zonbu would offer a developer-type version that would allow using apt-get so people could put applications on the machine they might have overlooked. After all, MP3 support is fairly important in a machine that claims to "take the hassle out of manually connecting accessories like printers, DVD drives, and digital music players." I don't know about you, but my MP3 player is filled primarily with MP3 files.

I highly recommend you check out the Zonbox from Zonbu. I'm writing this blog from my Zonbox and so far, I have truly enjoyed it.

UPDATE: I did manage to get MP3 support working. I had to search for the gstreamer-0.10-fluendo-mp3 plugin which included the libgstflump3dec.so file. I moved that file into ~/.gstreamer-0.10/plugins, fired up Banshee, and MP3 support was there! Now finding the gstreamer-0.10-fluendo-mp3 plugin wasn't easy. I had to create an account on the Fluendo Web site.

About

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website getjackd.net.

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