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22 Things to Know About the $99 Zonbu Linux PC

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Click to viewI got time with the Zonbu, a $99 Linux PC that is amazingly as simple to use as a Mac. That's because it's preloaded with best-of-breed open source software for almost anything you'd need, all managed via the other cool thing the Zonbu has: A 4GB CF card that acts as a cache for the 25-100GB of personal storage on Amazon's S3 servers. In other words, this machine syncs, swaps, and backs up your data automatically, over the wire. I love it.


Here's a complete list of apps, a video tour, along with a list of sweet surprises I discovered after a few days with the Zonbu.

•Zonbu's App list is extensive, including browser, email, cal, full office doc tools, finance, music library (with ipod syncing) video playback, skype, P2P/Torrent, IM, publishing, and a few games including Tron and Civilization.

•The install is efficient. Apps open slowly, but when they're going, I had no problem using multiple apps at once. The machine only bogs down when handling real- world tests. I ripped the soundtrack to The Life Aquatic to 128kbps MP3 files, and it took 30 minutes on the Zonbu, versus 7 minutes with other programs working on my 2.33 GHz Macbook Pro with 2GB of RAM. That's 4x slower, but at 1/25th the price. I can accept that.

•The PC isn't $99 unless you get a two-year Amazon S3 service plan. For $13-$20 bucks, you get 25-100GB of synched data. There's a one-year service plan, too. The plans include next day hardware swaps (a warranty), tech support, managed care.

•You can't install your own stuff on the Tweaked Gentu linux install. But Gregoire at Zonbu is a big Open source geek, so he's made the their data-synching version of Gentu available for free. Just download it, install it on your own hardware and get your own S3 account.

•Working with large files over a slow network could be a problem. But this machine is completely capable of anything up to that point, and considering the price, you'd have to be a real ass to complain about it. The connection is 128-bit encrypted.

•Zonbu's OS and local cache is stored on a 4GB CF card that is a 150x speed unit with a custom controller. It reads and writes at a respectable 30MB/s and 15MB/s. They'll sell an 8GB unit, and you can also expand the local storage by adding a USB drive. They also sell an optional $50 CD burner/DVD reader. A DVD writer is in the future.

•Windows are transparent when dragged, and the window close and minimize buttons are similar to Vista's. The GUI is extremely lightweight, despite the transparencies.

•3D acceleration uses 64 MB of system mem.

•There's hardware decode of MPEG-2. Even with average sized MPEG-4 files being played, CPU utilization stays around 15%. Very nice.

•Starting end of June, they'll ship 500 units to early buyers, but not at the reduced/rebated price with service. Around September, the Zonbu comes out of beta, and the $99 price will be there.

•Just in case you didn't realize it, no keyboard, mouse or monitor.

•6 USB ports, VGA, mic and headphone out. PS2 Mouse and keyboard plugs.

•Ethernet and support for Belkin USB WiFi Adapter

•When you log in, it checks Amazon S3 for updates. There is a Web-based client for your S3 data. Sync is manual coming down, but changes on the Zonbu sync upward automatically.

•Neato Apple ][ screensaver

•VNC client is particularly useful.

•They're planning a car and a livingroom variant. The car thing is useful, since the device is CF driven, so shockproof, but you'd have to find a way to get EvDo support. (EvDo to ethernet router seems like overkill compared to hacking USB EvDo driver in.)

•The fanless device gets hot on it's side, maybe freezing. But this is an early piece of hardware, so this could change.

•The 1.2GHz intel-compatible VIA chip is "green." No kidding, that's what happens when you have a low-power chip. That's like saying a 1.2 liter Civic is green.

• The design is fanless. The prototype box I had got hot and froze at one point, when I placed it on its side. Small gripe. The aluminum stand that holds it upright is slippery on the bottom. I worried that I'd trip on the mouse cable and smash the thing into the floor. Nothing some rubber bumpers from a hardware store couldn't fix.

•Zonbu's first 500 units ship end of June as part of a beta. But there won't be a rebate to bring the device to a $99 price point until September-ish. I think you can join the waiting list now.

•They'll be selling skins for the black faceplate. Or you can upload your own image and they'll ship you a custom sticker.


App List:


Browser: Firefox

Email and Calendar: Evolution

IM: Pidgin works with AOL, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ and IRC networks.

VOIP: Skype

Peer-to-Peer clients: Azureus and aMule. Bit Torrent and other standard protocols such as eMule and eDonkey.

Office productivity: Open Office. word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, draw, database, math, Acrobat, Personal Finance Manager.


Media Player: MPlayer

Music Library: Banshee

Photo Organizer: F-Spot

Sound: Sound Recorder and Recording Level Monitor.

Photo Editor: Gimp

Web Page Editor: Nvu


Action — Supertux, Tiltball, Tron

Arcade — Breakout, Frozen Bubble, Penguins, Pingus, Tetris

Puzzle — Blackjack, Chess, Crossword Puzzles, Solitaire, Sudoku, Swap Attack

Shooter — Blobwars, Chromium

Simulation — Billiard, Civilization

Mini Games — Ataxx, Five or More, Four in a Row, Iagno, Klotski, Mahjongg, Mines, Nibbles, Robots, Same GNOME, Tali, Tetravex



Ah, life's little conveniences, neatly packaged in your planet friendly Zonbu. Our accessories include a calculator, a CD-DVD creator, Image Viewer, Notepad, a screenshot program, a zip extractor to create and open compressed files including zip format and a Reference category with access to a dictionary, an encyclopedia, a thesaurus and a translation website.


Home Page [Zonbu]