Review: Zonbu, the $99 Linux Computer

First Look: The company is positioning this diminutive device (in late beta) as a consumer product. But with its out-of-the-box simplicity, the Zonbu is an excellent choice for enterprise IT departments, too.

Good things come in small packages, they say. That's certainly true when it comes to the Zonbu, a diminutive computer about the size of pocket paper book, that comes loaded with Linux and a ton of free open-source software. At a starting price of only $99 with a two-year subscription, it's being marketed to home users. However, Zonbu certainly has more than enough utility to slide nicely into an enterprise setting, especially if your IT department is looking for a low-cost way to experiment with desktop Linux.

The subscription includes automatic backup to an online storage space, but if you are squeamish about the subscription model, you can purchase the unit outright for $249.

Zonbu is not flawless, but the beta version we tested worked reasonably well and required little tinkering or complex configuring to make it work. No fiddling with drivers, no issues connecting to the Internet. All in all, it was a very smooth experience.

Although the company imagines its product will be of interest mainly to consumers, after looking at the Zonbu, I think IT pros also could be intrigued.

Out of the Box The first thing you notice when you open the small box is the unit's size: just 5" x 6.5" x 2". It's hard to believe that this is a fully operating desktop computer, as it takes up the same space as many KVM switches; it's actually smaller than my Maxtor USB hard drive. The only other items in the (fully biodegradable) box are a power cord and a small stand. Documentation is limited to a pamphlet describing the ports, but it's so easy to set up you don't really need more.

zonbu_back_240.jpg

Looking at the computer from the front, you see a single USB port, the on/off switch and two LEDs: one for the hard drive, and one to prove the unit is on. Turn the unit around, and you find all the ports necessary to hook up keyboard, mouse, monitor, speakers, network cable and four additional USB ports. A CF slot houses the 4GB flash hard drive. The fanless unit is self-cooling and totally quiet, relying on its cover design to allow air inside, yet it remained surprisingly cool. The configuration includes 512MB of RAM.

Hooking It Up

Setup couldn't be more simple. You connect the keyboard, mouse, monitor, network (and other USB devices as needed) and turn it on. After signing on with a Zonbu-supplied log-in, it configures itself and opens amazingly fast.

Zonbu is based on Gentoo Linux and provides a very familiar looking interface, even for users who have never used Linux before. The computer is preloaded with open-source software, including OpenOffice, Firefox, Nvu (a webpage design application) and just about any application required for a standard desktop computer. Loading customized corporate applications could be an issue, which may be why Zonbu does not yet market to the enterprise, but you should have no problem connecting to Web-based applications, so long as users can access them with Firefox.

Zonbu recognized my printer as soon as I turned it on, and displayed a configuration window, but the operating system couldn't configure it automatically. I could blame this on beta software or chalk it up to a Linux driver issue. It's hard to know. When I connected an iPod Shuffle, the software recognized it immediately and opened the media player to review the music. I also immediately connected to the Internet without an issue.

The beta software setup had some issues in testing. It locked up at times, or slowed way down, requiring a reboot. But when I created test files, they were immediately backed up to my online storage space. Zonbu uses Amazon S3 as a backup space for files on the Zonbu computer, giving you the peace of mind of automatic backup along with the ability to access your files remotely via a Web interface. When the final version of the software is ready, you'll be able to organize your files by creating folders in S3, then dragging and dropping files into the folders.

There's a lot to like about Zonbu, including its three-year replacement warranty. With your configuration information and all your data backed up in the Zonbu online storage space, when you plug in, you can restore your machine instantly. As an added plus, Zonbu is environmentally friendly; the company claims the computer uses a fraction of the electricity of a standard PC, which will cut down on your company's electricity costs.

The Zonbu is scheduled to be released in late summer or early fall. Although it's a consumer-oriented machine, you may want to give it a try. At only $99, what have you got to lose?

About This Product

Zonbu

Price : $99 with two-year subscription (between $12.95 and $19.95, depending on size of online storage space); $249 without subscription

Operating System: Zonbu Linux (based on Gentoo)

Software: More than 20 open-source applications (all free) including the OpenOffice office productivity suite, Nvu for website design and the Firefox browser

Expected availability: Late summer or early fall

To comment on this article and other CIO content, visit us on Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
Related:
NEW! Download the State of the CIO 2017 report