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.