Is the grass greener on the other side? Part I

Green PastureI spent an obscene amount of time yesterday playing with different alternate Linux distros on the Zonbu

I had Ubuntu Feisty 7.04, Ubuntu Gutsy 7.10 (Tribe 4) and DreamLinux all running on my Zonbu.

I attempted Freespire 2.0, but never did get it work. There is a bootloader issue that I’m going to try and resolve later today.

So what did I learn? Let’s talk about Ubuntu. More after the jump…

A Feisty One

I started with Ubuntu Feisty 7.04, the current stable release of the best known Linux desktop distribution.

I ended up running the Gutsy Alpha, but it turns out it didn’t help fix my video issues so I’m just going to talk about my collective experience as it was very similar.

SanDisk Extreme USB 2.0 ReaderThe install was relatively straight forward. I used a SanDisk Extreme 2.0 USB CF card reader, which has a maximum state throughput of 18 MB/s. Damn skippy, it is quick.

The card I used for ths testing was a Transcend 8GB 120x speed card.

I booted the 7.04 LiveCD in my desktop, ran through the installer and, in advanced mode, directed it to use the SCSI device that the reader appeared under. It’s easy to find because you can see total capacity, so just look for the 8GB device.

The only trick is at the end you need to tell it that instead of putting the bootloader in the MBR of your harddrive, usually hd(0,0), you want specify the device ID of the CF card. In my case I told it I wanted the bootloader on /dev/sdg.

If you try this, be especially careful here or you could bork your master boot record on your main HD. If you do, look to SuperGrub to save your butt. Download that LiveCD first, in fact. It can restore both.Later, from the GRUB boot menu on the Zonbu you’ll need to hit ‘e’ and play with the device info. You’ll want to tell it to boot (hd 0,0) and the device is /dev/hdd1 that the CF-IDE adapter is connected on.

Feisty is well behaved

I have to admit, the familiar boot screen of Ubuntu was somewhat comforting.

The system ran surprisingly well, albeit noticeably slower than the ZonbuOS.

The speed difference is to be expected; Feisty is a large, multi-platform kernel with extensive hardware support. The Zonbu kernel is profiled down to not contain anything extra that the Zonbu doesn’t need.

The same magic could (and should) be applied to a kernel under Ubuntu.

Video support poor

Even with this extra girth, the machine ran acceptably fast.

The network connection worked out of the box and I was surfing immediately.

I was stuck in Vesa (minimal) video mode but at my native 1280×1024 resolution.

Support for the the onboard video, the Via CN700 chip, has not reached the main stream in the XOrg project, which is disappointing.

I followed some detailed instructions to try and get the vieo driver working, compiling from the experimental branch of the source code at, but I never did have any luck.

I actually think the driver performed worse than the Vesa driver. Clearly I was doing something wrong.

I thought I’d be cute, once I got the driver built, and I even copied my /etc/X11/xorg.conf file over from the Zonbu OS install, but that didn’t seem to improve things (although it did work without complaining).

Clearly, the Zonbu guys have spent considerable time tweaking and tuning the video so it works well on the box. This is one of the things you’re paying for, that kind of hardware specific expertise so you don’t need to worry about it. Arguably though, if you had a more mainstream chip, it wouldn’t be an issue in the first place.

Given the level of interest from the Ubuntu community that has been seen already, it would probably be a good idea for Zonbu to build some CN700 packages and share them back upstream.

I can’t hear you..

One thing that was missing from the stock 7.04 install was sound.

I actually saw a post on the support forums about how to upgrade the ALSA sound drivers and the kernel so that sound would work. I followed the quick and easy tutorial and had sound in no time.

Of course, I installed the Rhapsody plug-in and played music while I explored. That worked too.

The problem is, the audio driver fix involved upgrading to the newer ‘Gutsy’ kernel. I don’t like getting out of synch with the mainstream setup, it kind of defeats the purpose, but it did illustrate how easily the sound problem can be fixed.

Brown paper packages, tied up with string

I took great pleasure in running the Synaptic package manager and doing an update across the board.

As always, it identified everything I needed to update to current, downloaded it all and installed it.

All that work ground the machine to a halt for a good hour or more, but when I was done it was still quite snappy and I had that warm and fuzzy, freshly upgraded feeling.

I also wandered around and installed a few random packages to try them out.

I even installed the controversial Automatix installer and put some extras on like the video codecs, Acrobat, and various other things the Zonbu includes by default.

Again, I was haunted by sub-standard video performance, but everything did function.

I was also reminded how nicely multi-media plays out of the box on the Zonbu.  Kudos to the Zonbu guys for getting that (mostly) right, from the start with the Zonbu OS.

Have Zonbu run Ubuntu to compare?

My experience and observation would be that the Zonbu hardware can comfortably run Ubuntu.

I wasn’t even running the XFCE version, I had the “full fat” Gnome version going.

Because the Gnome version is the most mainstream, I wanted to stick with it. The theory is that the XFCE version should be much lighter weight, but its always been my opinion that the most polished version is the Gnome version, so I used that to test.

I wonder if the Zonbu team have run a full install to compare? It worked much better than I expected, and that was before any profiling.

Zonbu should take a closer look…

I would humbly suggest that someone be assigned to get XUbuntu running, profile down the kernel and do all the major tweaks that were done on the Gentoo side.

Get the video and audio driver support going, and explore just how easily the experience could be replicated on Ubuntu. Bring some of the Zonbu polish over and then maybe pass it out to a limited test audience to compare and contrast.

If it goes well, share the appropriate packages with the Ubuntu community and watch what happens, see what that stirs up.

Earn some credibility and equity for that participation.  Some good viral participation could go a long way.

Momentum and community, you can’t beat it, Or, Don’t swim against the current

I’ve detailed the reasons before, but I’ll say them again. Ubuntu has the momentum and the brand.

It has the mind-share.

If you look at the sparse traffice in the Zonbu forums, a bunch of people are already running Ubuntu or KUbuntu. Now go look at interest in VIA itx/mini-itx boards over on

Or just the general interest in anything related to desktop Linux.

Fighting that interest and sticking to a base OS that doesn’t add any value for the end user, may not be the best way to go.

Even taking a small hit on the performance side (which I’m not convinced is the case) to go to Ubuntu, could well be worth it for the business and community win.

It also means that those “power” users who can evangelize for the platform and the storage model, can add their own familiar packages without putting any burden on the Zonbu team.

Time to market

It also means one more important thing.

When a new package or bug-fix drops, the “full fat” version could be quickly tested and released to users, ensuring they have the latest and greats and/or are properly protected from security risks.

Then, as time and resources allow over the following weeks, the program can be stripped, examined, recompiled for the C7 processor, profiled and generally massage to optimize it, and then released as a Zonbu specific version.

That has real value.  I’ve been waiting for about two weeks for an upgrade to fix various things, and have no idea when I can expect something.

Judo the situation guys, use the weight of the community to accelerate things.

Enthusiasm and Evangelism

I think a lot more enthusiasm and involvement would emerge if the Zonbu embraced Ubuntu. Heck, the users are doing it already.

And that enthusiasm and involvement is what the company needs to help bug-hunt and polish. Tap the much larger bug hunting Ubuntu community and get some great product management ideas.

There is a reason Dell has Ubuntun PCs and laptops in its catalog now.


In the end, I was happy to slide my original Zonbu OS CF card back in the box and boot back up

It is familiar to me now, its very fast, its easy to use. It still holds all the original promise, even if it needs a lot of bug fixing.

I’m writing this from the Zonbu stack, listening to my music, chatting with a friend about Linux distros and enjoying the overall silence.

The Zonbu team have done a good job and I have confidence they can deal with a lot of the outstanding issues.

What I would like to see if that effort mated to the momentum and enthusiasm of a large base of users to develop an even greater, more stable, more extensible product and platform.

I hope a skunkworks project emerges to showcase how versatile the Zonbu equipment can be, and most importantly, to bring the online storage magic that is central to the business model, to the Ubuntu masses.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

-Mr. Zonbu


3 Responses to Is the grass greener on the other side? Part I

  1. Bob Boerner says:

    You should give Puppy Linux a try.

    See this URL:

    I have used this on very low-end hardware and it works quite well.

  2. Chad says:

    Any idea why I’d get a kernel panic error trying to install Gutsy Tribe 4 on my Zonbu? I’m using the Live CD with the USB optical drive I purchased from Zonbu. Feisty installed just fine, but Gutsy goes into a kernel panic error the second I click on the install option.

  3. Chad says:

    FYI, I get the very same kernel panic error when I upgrade to any kernel past the current one in Feisty.

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