The Zonbu desktop experience gets an A, but some more polish won’t hurt.

Let me preface this entry by giving credit where credit is due:

The Zonbu desktop experience is exceptional out of the box. Over the last three years I’ve tried literally hundreds of different attempts at Linux desktops for “average” users. While some are very good, none are as tightly integrated and smoothly functioning, especially out of the box, as the Zonbu desktop experience.

In it’s current state (and I’m using a developer build that I downloaded) I would give it an A.

A detailed review, screenshots and other observations will be forthcoming once the actual hardware arrives.

Congratulations to everyone who has worked on and contributed to the project, it’s no small feat. There is more than can be done however…

Some additional polish won’t hurt

As you’ve probably noticed from my other posts, I’m a very particular guy.

While I’m an experienced user, I’m assessing the Zonbu on it’s ability to function as a typical home desktop (replacement) for the average home user (the kind of customers I interact with on a daily basis).

In order to move from an A to an A+ there are a number of small improvements I think the Zonbu team can do to rapidly to add some additional polish and pleasure to the desktop environment. In my opinion addressing these items will help move it from good to great.

Attention to detail and responsiveness to things like this will help make or break the Zonbu story, in my opinion.

These are not in any particular order.

Desktop Utility

  • Right click to resize image should be included to help work with photos & make them more e-mail and IM friendly

Everyone is working with digital images every day, and this is one powertoy I don’t go without on my Windows machine or any other machine I touch. Should be fairly easy to implement, even if its just a call to a script that calls something like ImageMagick.

You should be able to pick from a short list of resolutions, or specify a new resolution, or under an advanced tab, even pick a new file format.

  • Setting desktop wallpaper needs more functionality

When I right click on the desktop and use the ‘Desktop Settings’ -> Background option, don’t assume I want to stretch my photo, maybe I want it centered, maybe I want it tiled etc. Let me pick a background color and center my image on it, or let me stretch it to fill, or let me tile it if I want.

If Windows offers it, then Zonbu needs to as well. This is one area almost every end user customizes to their taste. I didn’t like my vintage Porsche 356 photo being skewed to fit.

Even better would be a really nice smooth transitioning sideshow style background switcher like Mac OSX has. But that may steal too much processing power, although I don’t think it would.

  • Wide screen and laptop wide screen support is badly needed

My laptop has a 1280 x 800 screen. It doesn’t appear to be supported. Nor do any of the other standard widescreen formats. I’m not sure why, Ubuntu LiveCDs have had this for a while now, so its possible in XOrg configs. This definitely needs attention, if I have a nice 22″ widescreen LCD I’m going to want to see all of it.

  • Additional fonts would be nice

There is a reasoably good selection of fonts in the stock Zonbu setup.

Even better, someone has taken quite a bit of time to try and match the typefaces in things like FireFox to closely resemble those in windows. That is really appreciated and should make the transition easier for users.

With that being said, more fonts would still be nice. There have been a lot of developments in the font space lately, and I recall that RedHat and someone else (I read about it in the PuppyLinux blog) have put out some new free fonts.

More is definitely better for those of us who also need to do office work with our Zonbu.

  • Volume control applet needed in the panel, CPU monitor needs to have a different look

As a user, I expect the volume control to be present in my panel by default. I was a bit annoyed when I needed to go looking for it and to add it myself.

I was also a bit confused, because at first I thought the CPU load bar might be volume related.

The confusion didn’t improve when I added the volume control applet and it used an identical icon bar to the CPU load monitor (except it wasn’t gyrating up and down on its own).

Both in colour and style the CPU monitor should be different from the volume control applet, and they should both be present by default. I suggest there be a slide “handle” on the volume one and perhaps make it green and leave the CPU monitor blue. Also, you can lose the large “speaker” icon in favor of something smaller. Please don’t waste my real estate on big fancy schmancy icons when they aren’t necessary.

  • Kicker panel is too tall, and icons seem a bit too big, desktop gets cluttered fast even at 1280×1024

When I first noted this, I hadn’t yet discovered that there are a few handy options that allow you to select small, medium and large for the icons and panel size (Desktop Settings -> Sizes). Hmm, just found a bug – I was set to small for the panel size, and it was displaying a small panel but post re-boot it defaulted to “medium” in the selection box with no other visual effect. Otherwise these options work beautifully. I set the icons and panel to small and they suit me much better.

In this vein though, some kind of desktop theme/skinning might be appealing to end users who are otherwise non-technical. While the default appearance isn’t unattractive, I’ve seen nicer options on other X desktops, and there is a subculture of people who love to make new themes and dress up the desktop.

If you want to see what I mean, download the PuppyLinux 2.17 Live CD and then install the EZPup theme. (You can try all this in RAM with the LiveCD, no need to install anything on your hard drive) It’s almost Vista-ish (hey, the appearance of Vista is one thing I *do* like about it).

Firefox needs more optimization & seems a bit unstable

I’m going to preface this by saying I think some of these issues may be caused by the fact that I’m not on the official hardware yet and my sound performance is sub-par. However, Firefox does seem to be awfully resource hungry and could likely stand some more optimization.

  • Firefox needs to play nicely with servers that don’t send correct mime types

While I realize it is not “to spec” to assume a file type if the server doesn’t send a proper mime-type, the reality is that there are a lot of misconfigured servers out there and this will confuse end users if it isn’t improved.

I’m not sure whether Internet Explorer (and FF on windows?) checks the registry if there isn’t a mime-type and then associate it with the appropriate application or how it works, but many sites with videos, especialy mpeg and wmv files, that didn’t send mime-types, did not display and/or seemed to crash the browser.

  • Some mpeg video files, even with the correct mime type, made Firefox hang

On multiple occasions I had mpeg sample files start to download, some kind of plug-in launched (I think it was MPlayer but due to the crash it never told me what it was) and it gives me a progress bar and some buffering information. If I let the file reach 100% completion, Firefox froze and I needed to use the task manager to kill it in order to be able to continue.

I’ll be more scientific about this in the future, but it appears to be something the developers might need to dig in to (or perhaps it is my hardware?).

Pure Rhapsody – the killer app for the Zonbu?

  • Get Rob Glaser on the phone, and get a 30-day Rhapsody trial on the desktop ASAP

As you know, I am a huge fan of the Rhapsody music service, as is everyone I know who has used it. I’ll talk more about Rhapsody and other potential partners in a future post, but suffice it to say that I think a Rhapsody subscription may be the killer app for the Zonbu.

Access to a growing catalog of over 3M songs and no need for local storage? Works in a plug-in inside the Firefox browser? You can’t beat it with a stick.

Even better, Nokia has already convinced Rhapsody to do a Linux application which is available on the N800 tablet. Zonbu is also a fixed hardware config so they might want to find-out what is involved and get the actual Linux application running on the box, rather than just going with the web interface.

That would really give the Zonbu bragging rights and something to set it apart. I think it could even up a larger part of the second PC/hobbyist market. I’m sure there are some DRM hooks they want in the kernel or what-have-you but thats the benefit of a closed loop system.

By the way, I hate to beat a dead horse, but the N800 runs a Debian derivative, and you already know Ubuntu is a Debian derivative… So the package is already out there (or dot deb as they call them). It’s a shame Zonbu can’t leverage all the work being done in the Debian world. Nokia picked it for a reason. As I’ve said before, I think Gentoo may prove to be an obstacle to leveraging the momentum in the embedded space.

Miscellaneous hardware observations

  • DVI digital video output is a must

You have to think not only for today but for tomorrow as well and DVI output (or at least as an option?) is a must. CRTs are going away fast. A big part of the target audience has started down the path of the slow decline of their vision.

My mother has a beautiful HP 20″LCD Panel and I got her a DVI cable and card to make sure it was easy on her eyes. I’m not going to move her to a Zonbu to go back to fuzzy text and lesser quality on that screen.

  • Make a LiveCD/LiveDVD with broad hardware support

I’ve talked a lot about this already. You want the widest possible audience to get acquainted with the Zonbu product/service concepts. A LiveCD is one way to make this happen. Trying to get things running on my test system was days of work and it still isn’t right. I won’t go on about it here, but I put this in on the off chance someone at Zonbu prints out this list to discuss internally, I don’t want it forgotten.

Miscellaneous Application Observations

  • Gaim/Pidgin not the latest version?

This may be because I’m on a development build, but I was shocked to see that the instant messenger client isn’t the latest version. It is an older version of GAIM, which has recently changed its name to Pidgin and improved its UI. Wecam support is still missing from the latest version, I talked about that here.

  • Firefox not the latest version (it’s, is out)

To be fair, I didn’t use my login to do all this testing, so perhaps it has been updated since they last updated ther “free edition”, but regardless, there is a security fix out to FF that bumps it up a .0.0.5.

If the point of the Zonbu is to keep people safe and secure, I’d like to see the newest version of apps as soon as they are available for general release. For this reason, I’m looking forward to getting the hardware and logging in. (Yes, I could login now but one step at a time).

  • To many file types and list ordering in Gimp and others

This is really nit-picky but also important. Because I couldn’t center my wallpaper photo (see above) I decided to try to use the photo editing software (Gimp) to create a desktop size image and put the photo on top of it.

When I went to save it, I was hit with a dropdown menu that had about 50 file type options under “save as”. Great. Except I had never seen half of them before. Most people won’t know any of them either.

If it all possible, in cases like this, moving common options like “jpeg” and “gif” to the top of the list will make life far easier for the end user.

Again, a small thing but its the kind of polish that really makes for a professional install.


I’m very impressed with what Zonbu has achieved with ther Zonbu desktop. I think they have a real shot at becoming a viable desktop replacement for a large part of the market. I’m looking forward to receiving my box so I can get the full immersive experience.

Partnerships are going to be critical to getting mass market appeal, and the first one Zonbu needs to look at is an online music service like Rhapsody. Since they already play in the Linux space with Nokia, it makes the most sense.

And one last reminder. I think the box is 90% of the way to being a perfect Internet/basic office terminal. I’m not easy to please, thus the suggestions above, but don’t be fooled. It really is very good already.

At around $300 to dip your foot in the water, including the first year of online storage, you should give it a try.

-Mr. Zonbu


3 Responses to The Zonbu desktop experience gets an A, but some more polish won’t hurt.

  1. […] Musings after 8 hours of continuous use [EDIT: If you’re interested in this post, you probably want to go back and read my initial post after using the desktop in my simulator as well.] […]

  2. […] The device also needs proper wide screen resolution support, as I discussed in this initial overview. […]

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