How I learned to stop worrying and love the Zonbu

by davidnielsen

What makes more noise, a pin dropping or my computer running at full load. You might think the computer, those things have fans and all manners of evil moving parts but no. It’s actually the pin, I checked. The reason is that for the past few days I’ve experimented with a new machine called The Zonbu

The executive summary for those who can’t be bothered with reading what is probably going to be a long blog post. The Zonbu is a small machine that runs off a compact flash card, it ships with every application a normal users might want be in Office tools, web browsers, instant messaging, Voice over IP (using Skype), photo management, personal finance management and even games. It’s entirely silent, and I don’t mean that in the same sense that your average Dell PC is sold as silent, as side a tiny whirling sound when you start it up there is no sound what so ever emitted. As the compact flash card shipped with the box is only 4GB the main storage is done online (using the Amazon S3 service), this is made entirely transparent to the user and aside giving you redundancy previously unheard of on home computers it also gives you the chance to take data with you everywhere. At work and need that spreadsheet you were working on it’s available to you from any machine via your browser. So what do you pay for all this glory, 99$ for the hardware and 12.95$ as a monthly fee (starting fee, scale with the amount of storage you want) for the online storage and updates to your system, if your box should ever break your data is safe and they will simply ship you a replacement. The machine uses far less power than an normal computer so the savings in utilities should even out the budget nicely, and to keep with the green line Zonbu buys carbon offsets for each machine.

The Zonbu is great, it’s by far the most fun computer I’ve ever used, it promises to be indestructible and to give me safety and privacy with regards to my data. I love it, infact I love it so much I replaced my AMD64 X2 machine with it (as a comparison the harddrives in that alone are about twice as expensive as the entire Zonbu and it uses around 10-15 times the power).

They even took time to make the interface sexy, there’s a window decoration that looks like Vista’ by default, it has decent looking icons and backgrounds and they took time to enable effects by default so windows are transparent when you move them and such. Sexy adds to the fun of using the machine on a day to day basis which is always welcome.

The machine (or indeed the concept)is not without it’s problems though, it’s still in a beta phases so problems are to be expected, even considering that it is a machine I would let even my technophobic mother use unsupervised.

The worse has to be that they are not ready for the international market, they shipped my box without a power converter to fit danish power outlets and worse still there is no way currently to change the keyboard layout so I am developing a kind of COBOL fingers trying to type as if my DK keyboard has a US English layout. The same goes for the text in the interface, all in English and since it runs Linux I would have expected this to just work as it has done for years. I’m told they are working on this, which highlights another great aspect of the Zonbu experience, they are friendly and admit when things suck, they are not however good at giving a time frame for fixes.

Secondly there’s an inherent problem with the remote storage idea for certain workloads, including mine, I have all my music ripped in perfect FLAC quality, that means at least 70GB of data. firstly the maximal storage you can currently buy from Zonbu is 100GB which would then proclude my plan to rip all my movies and store them. It would simply following their price scale cost way to much to do so. Then comes the second problem with such a plan, I might have a decent internet connection but it’s still ADSL with an upload speed of only 512 kbit, it would literally take years to upload all that data and it would also need to be stored somewhere as producing data takes shorter than transferring it. Before internet connections gets faster and storage gets cheaper the only solution to a use like mine is additional storage such a local network storage or a USB harddrive. If your requirments is photos, a bit of music in a compressed format like Ogg Vorbis or MP3 and assorted documents the Zonbu is a perfect fit, luckily this seems to be the vast majority of users.

Thirdly it boots slower than it should, for a machine of this sort where you know all the hardware and you control the software I would thing the first thing that would be worth making work would be suspending. I’m hoping this is being worked on and made as transparent to the user as the remote storage is.

On a personal note I would have liked to see the Zonbu run Fedora as I think the Zonbu would be the perfect platform to develop the Online Desktop for as a prototype, it would also mean that my software wasn’t 1 year behind upstream and that hopefully a lot of smaller bugs could be solved with the help of the community. In fact it would enable a developer community which currently does not exist, I would classify that as a shame since I’m sure plenty of people would find it an interesting desktop platform and worthy to a bit of attention and love. This is largely a personal preference though and should not matter to an average user, the applications are there, improvements are being made and the Zonbu works great. I however will be canceling my storage subscription and installing Fedora on it then compliment the machine with a nice USB harddrive for what I would call a great every day machine, the beefy AMD64 can be taken out for a spin when gaming or other pointless macho-geek tasks are required.

Buttomline the Zonbu has changed how I use and think about computers, and I’ve only had it in my house for a week. It’s all the machine I need for 99% of my tasks and I love the silence. I cannot recommend it enough, sure it has rough spots but it’s fun to use and it does everything it’s supposed to.