Not only does the mini Zonbu PC run Linux, maintain itself and store your files on-line, it's also one of the greenest machines out there.

Although you may not yet find preinstalled Linux too easily at your neighborhood computer superstore, our beloved OS is bubbling up in more scintillating ways, including in the recently released Zonbu PC. Zonbu is a mini, fanless Gentoo Linux-driven PC that, with its on-line storage (sans hard drive!), functions with a “computing as a service” ethos. In addition, Zonbu is one of the few PCs that markets its green “street cred”, aiming to provide us concerned citizens with a means to reduce our energy consumption and thus our impact on the environment.

Figure 1. Zonbu Front View

Figure 2. Zonbu Side View

The Zonbu Concept—Does It Add Up?

Zonbu plugs itself as a “compact, totally silent, ultra-low-power mini with all of the bells and whistles”. Although true to a degree, the Zonbu arrives on your doorstep in a compact box with simply the machine and a power cord. You'll have to purchase, or more likely scrounge for, the requisite monitor, keyboard and mouse. Zonbu also lacks the monstrous hard drive to which we've accustomed ourselves in PCs these days. Instead, the machine includes a 4GB CompactFlash card containing the Gentoo Linux OS and a local cache (around 3GB) for a limited number of files. The bulk of your files likely will reside on your on-line storage space.

Figure 3. Zonbu keeps recent files in its 3GB local cache. Other files reside in on-line storage if you subscribe to a storage and maintenance plan.

Here is where the “computing as a service” ethos comes in. Yes, you could purchase a Zonbu outright for $249 and go your own way, simply taking advantage of Zonbu's free upgrade service and storing your files on a Flash drive. What Zonbu would rather you do is pay for the convenience of its subscription service, which includes secure on-line storage space of varying sizes, secure backup, 30 days live support and e-mail support thereafter, and transparent upgrades of the OS and installed applications. You can pay full price and subscribe on a month-to-month basis, or if you prepay for a subscription, Zonbu will kick in a discount of $150 for two years or $50 for one year.

At the time of this writing, you can subscribe to a plan with 25GB of storage for $12.95 per month, 50GB for $14.95 or 100GB for $19.95.

The on-line storage system is nice, as Zonbu transparently manages the interplay between the 3GB local cache and the larger storage space. You also can go on-line anytime from any computer with a browser and access your files.

So, let's take a look at what we've got here with Zonbu. Consider that you're getting a machine loaded with a 1.2GHz low-power Via C7 processor and 512MB of RAM, but no hard drive, mouse, monitor or keyboard. Let's also say you purchase the 50GB of storage/service plan for two years, as well as the optional Wi-Fi dongle and CD-RW/DVD drive, all of which will set you back around $500. Then, consider that you will have to renew your subscriptions after those two years, or else drag all of your files down onto your own storage device.

From another angle, consider Zonbu's conveniences, such as its diminutive and quiet presence and letting someone else worry about backup, security and updating tasks. In addition, if you're bouncing around the globe, think of how nice it would be to log on from any computer in the world and access all of your files. As always, the trade-off is time or money. Personally, I would pay for this convenience when getting less geeky friends or family running Linux and minimizing their support requests to me.

Don't forget that Zonbu is a power-miser, consuming roughly 10–15 Watts, depending on the load, which compares well with laptops. Most PCs of similar robustness (without monitor) will gulp 60–100 Watts or more, depending on numerous factors. Zonbu's marketing folks say you'll save more than 1,200 kilowatt hours over the course of a year, which seems generous given their assumption that a typical PC averages 175 Watts, but let's be conservative and assume a savings of half that amount—that is, 600 kilowatt hours. I currently pay $0.07 per kilowatt hour, which would save me $42 over the course of a year.


James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.