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Zonbu: the Zipcar of personal computers

This two-pound, pay-by-the-month Linux PC could be the most eco-friendly computing option.

The tiny Zonbu is built for eco-friendly, no-frills computing.
The tiny Zonbu is built for eco-friendly, no-frills computing.

You can find a decent computer for a lot less than $1,000 these days. But what if you want to pay even less without splurging on software, and can't stand to deal with that oxymoron called "tech support" when something goes awry?

The pay-as-you-go Zonbu PC is a novel new option. This book-size, two-pound desktop lacks a hard drive, instead storing your data on its servers using 128-bit encryption (hands-on here). Zonbu's 4GB flash memory is loaded with Linux and open-source apps.

Similar to cell phone or cable TV service, you'd pay $99 upfront and between $13 to $20 monthly to use Zonbu with either 25GB, 50GB, or 100GB of remote storage. That would add up to a maximum of some $520 after two years, not counting the keyboard, mouse and monitor you'd buy separately.

By contrast, this green laptop is built to get kids wired around the world. One Laptop Per Child

The makers of Zonbu say it uses one-tenth the power of most PCs, or one-third of what a lightbulb burns. On Friday the fanless, silent device became what might be the greenest desktop computer yet by meeting the highest, "gold" EPEAT rating from the nonprofit Green Electronics Council. Only two desktops from Dell and one from HP bear that gold rating. Plus, Zonbu is billed as carbon neutral.

Zonbu is advertised as a plug-and-play device that works with many printers, digital cameras, and USB storage gizmos, as well as iPod and Creative Nomad MP3 players. However, there's no support for Wi-Fi, Bluetooth devices, scanners or Web cams. In addition to Firefox and Skype, Zonbu comes preinstalled with the OpenOffice word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation applications. Desktop publishing, web page design, and an iTunes alternative are among the other apps. Want to add more software? Sorry, look elsewhere.

I see Zonbu as kind of like using the Zipcar car-sharing service instead of owning a vehicle; it may be eco-friendly, but you're still missing out on conveniences. However, Zonbu would probably be just fine as an extra household computer for surfing the Web. It seems like a natural fit for devotees of webware who don't play games, edit films, or rely on other processor-taxing activities. Maybe as Web-based applications become heartier and more secure, more people will turn to modest devices that follow Zonbu.

It's cool to see more alternatives emerge to costly, energy-hogging PCs. For instance, the $100 Linux laptop from the nonprofit One Laptop Per Child is built to serve schoolchildren in the developing world. Intel, which produced the competitive Classmate PC, just merged with that project, apparently burying a bitter rivalry. I wonder if a rental payment model similar to Zonbu's would work for adults left on the wrong side of the digital divide.