Zonbu Zonbook Review

Friday Mar 21st 2008 by Joseph Moran
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Zonbu's notebook -- also known as the Zonbook -- runs a version of Gentoo Linux rather than Windows and is sold with an accompanying subscription service.

The name may conjure up images of an evil galactic overlord, but fortunately Zonbu is not here to enslave us. Quite the opposite -- the company aims to offer freedom from many of the headaches associated with owning and maintaining a conventional (read: Windows) PC.

Zonbu's notebook -- also known as the Zonbook -- runs a version of Gentoo Linux rather than Windows and is sold with an accompanying subscription service. The pricing model is similar to that of the cellular phone industry: The longer you commit to maintaining your subscription, the less you have to pay up front for the hardware (whether the Zonbook or the small-form-factor desktop at left, offered under a similar arrangement).

A Zonbu subscription costs $14.95 monthly and gets you automatic, transparent updates of the laptop's operating system, drivers, and 20-odd preinstalled applications. Continuous, automatic backup using 50GB of online storage is also part of the deal, as is browser-based remote access to your data from Zonbu's servers. Zonbu also offers subscribers e-mail and phone support and promises same-day shipping of a replacement unit should your system go south.

The Zonbook can be had for $279 when you commit to a two-year subscription, but rises to $379 if you opt for a one-year commitment and $479 if you'd rather go month-to-month. The respective prices for the mini desktop are $99, $199, and $299. Subscription fees are billed monthly, even under the one- and two-year plans.

Don't Expect Speed Records

Built by Everex, the Zonbook offers the size, weight, and specifications you'd expect from an entry-level notebook -- it's no subcompact at 10.7 by 14.1 by 1.5 inches, weighing in at 5.3 pounds, but neither is it especially large or unwieldy. Zonbu rates the laptop's lithium-ion battery for two and a half to three hours' use between charges, and our test sessions confirmed that.

The notebook is powered by a Via 1.5 GHz C7-M processor and integrated-graphics chipset, with minimal amounts of RAM and hard-drive storage at 512MB and 60GB, respectively. (The fanless desktop features a 1.2GHz C7 chip and a 4GB flash drive in lieu of a hard disk.)

There are three USB ports, a DVD-ROM/CD-RW combo drive instead of a DVD burner, and 10/100Mbps Ethernet plus 802.11g WiFi. Topping it all off is a 15.4-inch widescreen display capable of 1,440 by 900 resolution, plus a VGA connector for hookup to an external monitor.

When you turn on the Zonbook, it takes a minute or two before it finishes booting and lets you log in to your Zonbu account -- given how long Windows can take to load, we were frankly hoping for a bit more speed. If no wired network connection is detected, a wizard will let you locate and connect to available WLANs -- we were able to connect to a WPA2-encrypted WiFi network with no difficulties.

Once logged in, you're presented with Zonbu's operating system desktop. Like many of today's more user-friendly Linux variants, this one looks and feels much like Windows, so if you've used Microsoft's OS for more than an hour you'll probably acclimate to the Zonbook without much difficulty.

For tackling daily computing chores, Zonbook comes with a host of applications preinstalled, many of which are familiar open-source tools also available on Windows: the Firefox Web browser; the close-to-Microsoft-Office-compatible OpenOffice.org productivity suite; and the multiprotocol Pidgin instant messaging software. Other programs include Skype, GNUCash (a Quicken-compatible personal finance manager), and the Evolution e-mail client.

Not All Work and No Play

In addition to workaday computing tasks, the Zonbook is also adept at handling multimedia content such as photos, music, and video via a host of built-in utilities. We didn't have any problems playing MP3 audio files or viewing JPEG images, MPEG videos, or recorded DVD movies.

In addition to playback tools, the Zonbook comes with software to organize (and often edit) various types of content. While the unit has only a single speaker, you can listen to stereo sound by plugging a headset into its unit's standard 3.5mm audio jack.

As with the Zonbu operating system, the bundled applications are roughly equivalent to their Windows counterparts, so the learning curve should be minimal for most. If it isn't -- the programs' capabilities and interfaces resemble those of popular Windows titles, but aren't necessarily identical -- customers having second thoughts can take advantage of a money-back guarantee during the first 30 days.

In a testament to the efficiency of Linux in general and Zonbu's hardware/software combo in particular, the Zonbook remained responsive when using and switching between several applications. Even when a half-dozen were running at once, about half the RAM was still available -- try that with an equivalent Windows laptop. (Actually, don't -- it's not pretty.)

Only video playback -- with clips more than DVDs -- seemed to noticeably tax the Zonbook, pegging CPU usage at or near 100 percent if more than one or two other applications were running.

As mentioned previously, the Zonbook sports a trio of USB ports for connecting peripherals such as printers and webcams. But because this is Linux and not Windows, you're not free to use any device you want. Instead, your choices are limited to those with Zonbu driver support, and a limited library of hardware drivers is a notable weakness of many Linux distributions.

To simplify peripheral selection, Zonbu maintains a list of compatible devices in various categories on its Web site. While there's ample support for things like keyboards, mice, and USB storage devices and decent support for recent name-brand printers, there's no support as of yet for scanners and Bluetooth accessories.

As it turns out, our HP OfficeJet 7310 was on the compatibility list, and we got it working with the Zonbook with no difficulty. The catch: Although the 7310 is a multifunction printer/scanner/fax, it's only supported as a printer.

Zonbu provides a decent amount of value and convenience for your subscription fee. For starters, our unit was updated with a new version of the operating system within 24 hours of our first boot. And because the Zonbu OS is Linux rather than Windows, it's not in the crosshairs of every malware writer on the Internet. That saves you from having to buy, install, and maintain any add-on security software such as anti-virus and spyware scanners. The Zonbu OS includes a built-in firewall that needs no tweaking because it's preconfigured for all the software installed.

Let Zonbu Do It

Zonbu's automatic backup feature worked without a hitch: As we began filling the notebook's hard drive with our own data files, they were uploaded to our free online storage account without any input from us. Since we weren't backing up operating-system and application files, the online capacity was more than enough to accommodate the Zonbook's 60GB hard drive.

You can get remote access to your backed-up files by logging into your Zonbu account from any Web browser, with no need to install a plug-in first. Similarly, if you'd like to make some of your files available to colleagues, drop them into the Public folder on your desktop and they'll be available via a personal page hosted on my.zonbu.com. Files published in this way are available to all comers, however -- you can't give specific individuals access to specific files.

So how does the Zonbook compare to a conventional Windows portable? An entry-level Windows notebook with specifications similar to the Zonbook's can be had for about $600 these days. (We'll skip assigning an additional cost to software, since PCs usually carry at least a few bundled applications and there's tons of free software in virtually every category, including Zonbu applications such as Firefox and OpenOffice.org.)

By contrast, the $279 Zonbook will have cost about $640 after two years of subscription payments, so the cash out of pocket is pretty much a wash. But while the Zonbook won't save you big money, it can save you something almost as valuable -- time and aggravation, by eliminating the need to find, install, configure, and update all kinds of software on your own. It's this convenience, combined with the data backup and remote access, that should make the Zonbook an attractive option for some users.

While the Zonbu approach will not satisfy anyone who likes to tinker with his or her PC or needs unfettered access to the widest possible range of software and peripherals, anyone looking for a reasonably priced, competent, and low-hassle laptop should give the Zonbook a look.

Adapted from HardwareCentral.

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