Linux

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.

36 comments
CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

I've participated in discussions of the potential of Linux on home desktops. Many Linux advocates point out the power and flexibility of the OS, and I opine that many home users don't care and are happy with Windows, "settling for less". Originally I didn't think much of this machine, but I've decided I'm wrong. Just as not everyone wants to take advantage of the capabilities of a more sophisticated Linux installation, there are probably plenty of people who don't need more from their computer than this system. The famous "Linux is not Windows" equates Linux with a motorcycle and Windows with a car. This combined hardware / software system may qualify as mass transit. It's cheap and you don't have to worry about maintenance, but you may have to accept some trade-offs in flexibility. Jack, I take it back. If I hadn't just purchased a new Dell / XP box for him, I would consider this box for my father. The only downside is the lack of a dial-up modem. People who are buying this because it's inexpensive aren't likely to pay for a broadband connection.

water.zone
water.zone

I do not thick that this is a cheap device!

nshokare
nshokare

I Think this computer is a wonderful ideal and it will become one of the most used system soon.

Whing
Whing

Hmmmmm. Let's see "who is it for:... * Your grandparents. * Your mom and dad..." "had to search for the gstreamer-0.10-fluendo-mp3 plugin ....libgstflump3dec.so file. I moved that ....~/.gstreamer-0.10/plugins" Anyone else see the contradiction here? Sorry, boys. Give me a Mac or a Windows machine anytime. Any flavour of unix is unecessarily hard - throw in the inevitable problems with mass market add-ons and kit and they become completely unsuitable for the mass market.

d_baron
d_baron

Does look cool. Of course, one must buy the peripherals that might come with the $300 Dell. I would want apt-get if I am running a Debian/Ubuntu based distro, wouldn't I? Why make mp3 easy? It's illegal (joint the law-breakers club with everyone else).

chasmandocharles
chasmandocharles

Wal-Mart has a $200.00 Ubanto machine. Everex's TC2502 gpc is the first mass-market $200 desktop computer with a burner and 80 gig hard drive

htmapes
htmapes

I can do all of the things the Zonbox does with my cell phone, albeit with a much smaller display. If you can't add open source applications, then it is just waiting for the next generation of cell phones to displace it. And at $250 for a low-end processor with 512GB RAM and no display, it isn't even remotely price competitive with any of the low-end PCs. But, hey, if green floats your boat, enjoy. You could also just put your machine into hibernation or standby when you aren't using it and achieve the same result; but you can't show that off to your friends.

billnagel
billnagel

$249? The Zonbu website lists it at $299. The TechRepublic version of the Colbert Bump?

wszwarc
wszwarc

It seems like everyone wants cars that get better gas mileage but they keep buying SUVs. Same here, everyone talks green and security but when it comes to showing their neighbor what they just bought, it had better be the latest, greatest and biggest and best. Certainly this computer will find a niche for itself but I'm not calling my broker with a buy order.

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

I just watched a youtube video about it. I can only assume that Zonbu has watched it since their own site links to it. However It seems that in order to login it requires and initial -if not persistent- internet connection. If this is true I would never use one of these things.

sdougal
sdougal

We've just produced a series of videos that explore the Zonbu and its impact on modern computing from the point of two test dummies. It's all good family fun too. Take a peek. http://www.technovoyance.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=56&Itemid=1 Having used a Zonbu for the last few weeks, I can honestly say that it is a damn fine wee computer. It must remembered that this is the first of, what I see, a new breed of web 2.0 machines that take eco-responsibility very seriously.

trentreviso
trentreviso

I agree there are some people who might manage better with a device like the Zonbox. But having so much of my information stored online (and out of my control) makes me personally nervous. If someone breaks into Zonbu or I somehow fail to pay the bill, does my life get erased? I think the Zonbox would work better as a workstation at medium to large companies, where the apps and data are being accessed and stored on the company's local network servers, not the internet. This could be a very cheap way for companies to manage apps, data, and internet access in a very secure environment. Of course, that would require a very different revenue model for Zonbu. Even Windows apps could be run on the servers in a virtual machine, and accessed by a Zonbox over the local network. I can also imagine local ISPs offering Zonbox-like devices at no charge when you sign up for service, then charging users a monthly fee for access to apps and for data storage provided by the ISP on their local servers.

jlwallen
jlwallen

I found out from the maker that the Zonbu OS is based on Gentoo, not Ubuntu.

stevenmcnutt
stevenmcnutt

>>I had to search for the gstreamer-0.10-fluendo-mp3 plugin which included the libgstflump3dec.so file. That sounds like an easy piece of info to pass along to my grandmother.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

"Of course it?s not for everyone. But who is it for ... People on the go that need remote access to the their files but don?t want to lug a laptop around with them." Did I miss the part where you said it came with a screen? If not, why would someone lug a Zonbox, keyboard, mouse, monitor, power cords, etc. instead of a laptop? Sure, it's cheaper, but I certainly wouldn't want to go on the road that way. With the increase in the number of services offering free storage, remote access to your files is easier than ever. Sorry, I'm with the guys asking why this is better than spending $50 - $100 more for a conventional desktop. It's interesting for institutional uses noted in the survey (schools, libraries, other public access), but I wouldn't put one on my father's desk.

jlwallen
jlwallen

just go to the website: www.zonbu.com

jlwallen
jlwallen

even though dial up is quickly become a thing of the past, there are those that still must (for one reason or another) depend on it for access. and as for the comparisons - i think a lot of that is in the past. i think the comparison could be updated as such: Windows and Linux are both like cars. the biggest difference is that the Linux car comes with a complete repair and maintence kit and all the upgrades you would need built in. The Windows car requires you send the car in for repairs and comes with only basic features. Both cars are now as pretty as they can be: BUT, the Linux car allows you to change the appears of the car at will. The Windows car will always look like a Windows car.

sfpienaar
sfpienaar

Am I the only one that is totally stoked that this little box has almost an invisible environmental footprint? Surely in today's world that should be at the top of everyone's agenda. I have read through all the posts and there is hardly any mention of this little fact at all. Not to mention their recycling program. Anyone that has had to dispose of IT equipment knows what a big pain it is. Many recycling programs simply dump the old equipment in landfill which is of course a major environmental issue in itself. Of course there is always a downside. I have to admit that I'm not totally thrilled with the 'hassle-free' plans. The price does seem to creep up considerably especially if you're considering a roll-out for medium to large business. Does anyone know whether you can load a Citrix client on the box? This might be a consideration for our organisation as we are looking to be more green. We are in the process of building a carbon-neutral building for our head office and this little green box could possibly be a nice addition to that!

jlwallen
jlwallen

it's based on gentoo - not debian. so it does have apt available. but no apt-get.

jlwallen
jlwallen

wal mart very quickly sold out of those PCs. that was a great move on wal marts part. i'm not a big fan of the super chain but that's a good way for people who would not know their OS from a hole in the ground to be running an alternative OS.

jlwallen
jlwallen

sure i have an application on my treo that will open and edit documents (text, spreadsheet, etc) but it sucks using it. typically the formatting is fubar'd and the application is slow and kludgy.

dave.g.johnson
dave.g.johnson

There's lots to like about this concept, but price is not one of them. The monthly subscription puts this over the top.

goldenpirate
goldenpirate

.... what if you set up your own server and made the box 'think' it's connected to the internet? The only other question i have is how easy is it to up-date the os or even to replace it?

jevans4949
jevans4949

I may be mistaken, but that's what it looks to me. OK, maybe not totally thin, but definitely undernourished.

jlwallen
jlwallen

can you imagine how well an isp would do if they offered such a service? not only would they be able to offer reliable, safe services, they could also control what their users were able to do. no more would they have to worry about things like Limewire and such. great idea.

Penguin_me
Penguin_me

Since it's based on Gentoo does in infact have emerge - as opposed to apt from Debian based distros - installed, with some repositories setup ?

jlwallen
jlwallen

i would venture to say if the average computer user used Zonbu for audio they would be importing from CDs. in that case the default file format would work in Banshee. my collection, however, was primarily mp3s. so someone starting from scratch wouldn't have to worry.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i am pretty much talking about people who bounce from one computer to another. you upload your files to the zonbu server and access them from anywhere. and i have to disagree with you. i would certainly put one of these on my fathers' desk. he messes something up you simply restore the default system and he's back to square one. of course the chances of him messing something up on this system are slim.

sonicsteve
sonicsteve

One thing about computers that we currently use is that they can be repaired. What happens to these little Zonbus when the flash drive wears out, what if the mainboard blows a capacitor, goes flakey, or simply dies? You won't be repairing it. It will become a disposable computer. That's hardly green. This little Zonbu will take all control away from your ability to know what's inside your computers. Around my school we buy only quality parts, we don't have any idea what kind of quality control these little Zonbu's have or what parts they have or who made them. Sorry but I will not use these unless they become forced down my throat. I would like to applaud them however for their use of Linux. That is something that they did right. However, it also seems that they changed it so significantly that it might hardly be linux anymore.

jlwallen
jlwallen

to you and your company for being environmentally responsible. one of the best aspects of this little machine is its carbon-neutral footprint. there are very few companies out there following this kind of lead. i hope more do. keep up to date on what your company decides to do.

jlwallen
jlwallen

i am going to see what happens if the system is off the public net and only connected to the private net. i have it set up to see my samba shares. as far as updating the OS - that is automatic. i rebooted one day and the OS was automatically update. it's pretty slick.

CharlieSpencer
CharlieSpencer

It puts the responsibility for service on the ISP. If they can't quickly talk you through resetting it, they can swap the whole unit out for another one.

jlwallen
jlwallen

the typical audience member for these lil' devices won't be like those of us who either build their own machines or continually repair the ones we have. these devices are given to those who either wouldn't know the inside of a PC if it jumped and yelled "HAPPY BIRTHDAY" or those of us intrigued by unique-ness of a gadget.

jevans4949
jevans4949

Does it run on solar power or wind power? What about the energy used in making the components? Sorry, but as far as I'm concerned no manufactured product can be carbon-neutral. Carbon trading is just a big con!

mellsworth
mellsworth

I like this, actually, I have several neighbors who this type of service would work perfectly. One other thing about it is they could allow full speed access to the content server, and normal speed to the internet. Apps for the device could be stored nominally on the centeral server(s), and customers would have more of what they need.