Hardware Observations and Alternate Sources

I don’t think the Zonbu team originate their hardware.

I’ve been playing with small form factor PCs and embedded systems for some projects I’m working on and in the process have run across many different options that appear very similar. In fact, while a lower processor spec, this appears to be very similar, including the case, to the Zonbu branded product:


In fact I just found a link to a box even closer, and I noted the one of the images on the Zonbu site was named “eBox” so I’d say we’re close… http://www.compactpc.com.tw/ebox-3854.htm

That being said, I have no issue with the idea of OEMing the hardware. You can generally get it better/faster/cheaper in Taiwan and its surrounds, so why not. The real value is in the operating system, the tools, the support and the optimizations that they do to ensure a consistent and convenient experience. The “eco-system” if you will.

Interestingly, Zonbu is also not hosting the data storage, choosing instead to outsource that to the Amazon S3 data center cloud. A smart business decision that will allow them to scale nationally and internationally very rapidly without any of the up-front capital costs and with very linear operating costs. Besides, don’t they sound big and official when I say they outsource to the Amazon S3 cloud?

Note that the Zonbu has beefier specs than the unit I link to above, their website lists these specs for the unit I ordered:

“Zonbu device
Zonbu is a compact, ultra low power mini PC with all the bells and whistles:

* Intel-like ultra-low power CPU
* 512 MB RAM + 4GB flash-based local storage
* Graphics up to 2048 x 1536 (16 million colors, 75 Hz).
Hardware graphics and MPEG2 acceleration
* PC-compatible ports for keyboard and mouse
* 6 USB ports to plug-and-play all standard USB accessories
* Broadband ready: 10/100MB Ethernet built-in.

Zonbu is $99 with a two-year subscription plan. With month to month plan, Zonbu is $249.”

Zonbu is sporting a faster processor, more USB ports, higher graphics resolution, more USB ports etc. I’d say the Zonbu is the bigger brother to the unit I linked to.

And of course, 4GB CD cards aren’t free either.

According to DealRam a basic, generic, 4GB CF card is still $43 as I write this. That’s a hefty chunk of the overall cost, and the unit actually runs a fairly high performance card, with read and write speeds that far exceed those of the cheapest CF cards on the market. I don’t have any stats on hand at the moment, but we’ll dig in to that once the unit arrives.

No doubt iPod hackers and serious digital camera enthusiasts will have designs on picking up units, scavenging the flash card and disposing of the rest of the unit. We’ll see how that plays out, it’s been an issue for similar ventures in the past.

Overall the hardware initially seems to be a reasonable value for the price. Or is it?

I think the real threat to Zonbu will come from ever cheaper laptops. I recently bought some nice Acer units for $500 from Buy.com and I saw a new HP on DealNews the other day for $450 (and no rebate hassles).

Given that I’m already out of pocket over $300 for the Zonbu + subscription, and I still need to supply a screen, keyboard and mouse (I ordered a USB keyboard/mouse switch so I can use my existing units as well as leave my XP box connected), its not a reach to buy a laptop for $450 “all-in” and have more flexibility, and portability and Wi-Fi. Of course it will use more power, have a regular hard drive that can fail and I can’t brag to my birkenstock wearing, tree hugging friends from the north-west that I’m more eco-concious than they are…

Desktops can be had for even less, but the monitor market has been amazingly stable, price wise. So even if you get a desktop PC around $300 you’re still out another $125+ for a monitor, which takes you back up to the low-end laptop price range.

Frankly, outside of gamers, who wouldn’t want a laptop and its flexibility instead of a desktop? Especially with the nice widescreen displays they have these days… That is going to create a real economic challenge for the Zonbu marketing team.

However, low-end laptop pricing may not even be the biggest cat stalking the Zonbu.

Another device I’ve been keeping an eye on is the Asus 3epc that was recently announced. This is a full flash based laptop, including a 7″ screen and Wi-Fi, running a light Linux desktop. Very similar in idea to the Zonbu, except it isn’t a locked down machine – it’s still up to the end user to take care of things and not wreck thier operating system.

The killer is that its supposedly going to be available for right around US$200. If it hits the market at that price point, I think its going to put a serious kink in the Zonbu sales plan.

That is, unless Zonbu expands their model line to include the Asus 3epc.

And maybe that will be exactly what happens. If the Asus 3epc emerges as a solid hardware platform (and admittedly Asus has a good reputation and I’ve personally had excellent experiences with their motherboards and accessories) Zonbu may be well advised to port their “eco-system” to the unit and offer it as an alternative. It does have the advantage of being a fixed configuration (like the Zonbu box and all Mac products) which makes supporting it considerably easier. Also, they are talking about bringing out a second model with a larger 10″ screen as well, for when the 7″ model just won’t do. Stop snickering ladies.

It’s really all about the screen.

I think there is a significant, untapped market around the $300 price point. However, it needs to be an “all-in” set of hardware, regardless of the operating system, to really move the needle.

There are lots of options that start under $300 but they’re really $425+ solutions. The screen always adds that extra $125. Whoever solves that problem will be the first one to tap this market.

In that vein, its probably worth watching what is going on over at the One Laptop Per Child wiki. They have some very interesting hardware as well, especially the new screen that their CTO Mary-Lou Jepsen invented. Supposedly it uses substantially less power than a traditional LCD, supports reasonably high resolutions and has both colour and black and white modes that allow it to be read in daylight. Whats more, it can be built on existing LCD production lines.

If they license this to the general market, perhaps it will allow a new generation of cheap displays to catch up with the almost cheap hardware we’re seeing from Zonbu and its peers. That would really change the market.

Until then, we’ll await our test unit and keep you posted on our progress.

-Mr. Zonbu


4 Responses to Hardware Observations and Alternate Sources

  1. […] Shopper builds a $250 Linux PC Well, considering my recent ruminations on the low-end PC market (and the still high expense of an LCD monitor), it was timely to discover that over at Computer Shopper they’ve put together a complete PC, […]

  2. […] Partnering with Broadband operators is definitely a key avenue for driving volume shipments of the Zonbu platform but it is never easy dancing with an elephant when you’re a startup. That being said, if you are doing well and you don’t partner with the operators, either someone else will or they will do it themselves. After all, we all know the hardware is out there. […]

  3. wjl says:

    Excellent market review.

    I am constantly on the lookaout for things like these, and also reported about the 3ePC already. I will be one of the first people to buy that and put Debian on it (replacing the Debian-based Xandros it will probably carrying).

    Price-wise, someone just found this:
    http://blog.thedebianuser.org/?p=193 (Linux machines from $135)

    So here if you add your $125 monitor, you end up with $260 (plus keyboard and mouse). But still, a $200 or $300 laptop will IMHO be the next cool thing. Very clever from Asus.

    Kind regards,

  4. For me personally I don’t need a whole lot of power to stay satisfied. I use my laptop mostly for web use and word processing. I could see more homes having a $99 computer in use in the future. The hardcore gamers and professional video editors will always require the latest and most expensive technology but who knows maybe the power of the PS3 will be available for pennies on the dollar in the future.

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