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One week with Zonbu

Blogger Peter Glaskowsky reports on his initial experiences with an inexpensive Linux-based PC--and whether it's ready for the mainstream.

After my July 26 post about the inexpensive Linux-based PC called Zonbu, I was contacted by a public-relations agent working for the company.

He put me in touch with Zonbu CEO Gregoire Gentil, and I met with Gentil on August 22, prompting another blog post on the topic of flash drives.

Last week, I received the loaner system Gentil promised me, and I've been using it since. (It's small enough to be shipped in a standard U.S. Priority Mail box.)

On Wednesday, I read an article by Walt Mossberg of The Wall Street Journal. The piece's title conveys the subject as well as Mossberg's conclusion: "Linux's Free System Is Now Easier to Use, But Not for Everyone." I figured that made today a good day to post my initial impressions of the Zonbu system.

Zonbu PC
The Zonbu PC. Zonbu

Mossberg tested a Dell laptop that came preconfigured with the Ubuntu distribution of the Linux operating system. He had problems with devices and multimedia playback that Dell probably should have dealt with before shipping the system. Ultimately he recommended that "mainstream, non-technical" users should avoid Linux.

In my first week with the Zonbu machine, I saw a couple of the same problems. My new iPod apparently uses a filesystem that Banshee, the open-source music player Zonbu included with the system, doesn't comprehend. So I wasn't able to do much with the iPod on the Zonbu.

I also found some videos that wouldn't play on the system, and high-def videos (720p or larger) from Apple's QuickTime HD Gallery don't play acceptably because the Via processor in the Zonbu just isn't fast enough. (Also, the Apple site presents clickable links in the form of tiny embedded QuickTime movies, which confused the Firefox browser as configured by Zonbu. I suspect this issue will be easily fixed.)

Now, "mainstream" users would encounter these issues just as I did, but that doesn't mean the Zonbu is only for experienced Linux users. I think it comes down to how you intend to use the system. Gentil told me that Zonbu is seeing interest from people who want a simple system for basic office tasks--Web browsing, e-mail, word processing and so on. He said that for many people, the Zonbu is a second system, backing up a Windows PC or Mac.

In fact, that's how Gentil was operating in his office when we met: he had a Windows laptop alongside a Zonbu. (He was also running the Zonbu environment in a virtualization program on his laptop, which is an option the rest of us don't have.)

I already have a tablet PC at the office, which I use along with my MacBook Pro on a daily basis, so I added the Zonbu to the mix, connecting it to an LCD I sometimes use as a second display for the Mac or PC.

Getting started
The first thing that struck me when I turned on the Zonbu was that almost nothing happened. Aside from an LED turning on, and a brief buzzing sound I still haven't localized, there's no noise; the system is essentially silent. That's actually quite nice for a desktop system.

The first thing the Zonbu does is ask the user to log in. Zonbu had provided me with log-in information, so that was easy.

I did need to change the default screen resolution to match the physical resolution of the LCD I was using. The system ought to do that automatically, but it was easy enough to figure out. And even if I hadn't changed it, the system would have been fully functional.

And that was the end of the setup process. Zonbu systems are shipped with a full collection of applications to perform all the most common tasks. They're not all as slick or as capable as the best commercial applications, but this is one of those cases where you get a lot more than you pay for.

Although the software is "free," the hardware isn't. As I described in that first blog post, Zonbu still describes system pricing as "from $99", but you can't get anything for $99. The minimum up-front payment is $249, which gets you the hardware and a free version of the online service that is required to keep the machine running. The free service, however, comes with only 2GB of online storage.

For more storage, you pay...a minimum of $12.95 per month. To get that nominal $99 price, you have to pay at least $370.95 up front.

This isn't a bad deal if it's what you want, but I still think Zonbu needs to bring the price down to a point commensurate with the low-end nature of the hardware. Customers will inevitably compare the Zonbu with low-cost PCs, and the comparison won't look good unless the customer appreciates the value of all the software Zonbu provides. (Under the circumstances, the term "free software" is somewhat unfortunate. To paraphrase Robert A. Heinlein, there ain't no such thing as a free program.)

I'll keep using this machine for a while longer, and see if there's room for it in my computing life, or if it seems suitable for anyone else I know. I'm not sure it will be--but here, I think the problem is precisely that my friends and I are not "mainstream" users. That's the market where the Zonbu will fit in best--at least, once the pricing, positioning and capabilities of this system are brought into line with mainstream expectations.