It has been over two weeks now since I started playing with the Zonbu.
My first foray was under VMWare and then my actual hardware arrived.
I thought it might be a good time to get some summary thoughts and observations out, as much has happened during that time. Consider this my mid-term review of the Zonbu.
Without further adieu, the good and the bad of Real Life with the Zonbu Mini-PC…
It’s all about context
When I originally purchased my Zonbu, I believed I was buying it as a fully baked commercial product.
The company has since come forward and clarified that they consider the hardware to be final, but that the software is considered “Beta” at this stage.
This is an important distinction, as it tells us the lens through which we much view the current status of the product.
The Zonbu lives up to most of its major promises.
It is utterly silent, something I value more than I expected. Now if I could just quiet the fridge, the A/C, the water cooler and my ceiling fans. Why does no one talk about noise pollution?
It uses very little power, consuming only mildly more, when running, than my desktop PC does when in standby.
With that kind of savings I can afford to leave the unit fully powered on when I’m home, and only power it down at night. “Instant-on” access to the web. Eco-friendly meets instant gratification?
The performance I experience, in sharp contrast to the WSJ Mossberg review, has actually been very good. Applications start quickly, I can do some basic multi-tasking (provided I’m not playing back video), and the system feels responsive. There has not been any material delay in getting my work done.
The software selection is reasonable, although a number of updates are needed (and expected soon) to bring things up to current.
The box seems best suited as a day-to-day Internet access device, with the office applications and other plug-ins supporting all the typical tasks you might experience over the run of a week.
I’ve not attempted to do any serious office work with the device yet, although I have been maintaining this blog from the device.
If your work is primarily web/Internet based, including opening office attachments, PDFs, etc. then the device is hard to beat for the money.
I’m happy with mine, pending a few updates.
Areas for improvement
Let me say, at the start of this section, that in the world of desktop Linux the Zonbu has moved the bar.
When I went back and tried Ubuntu and Freespire on the same hardware, as well as DreamLinux, I was reminded about the promise and frustration of almost every other desktop implementation.
Desktop Linux just never seems to get “all the way there”.
The Zonbu isn’t there either, yet – but it is a heck of a lot closer.
However, and this is a major issue, other desktop implementations of Linux are NOT the bar.
Windows XP and Mac OSX, the two most widely deployed desktop OSes in the world, are the bar. They are the OSes to match and to beat.
While the Zonbu OS stack is headed in the right direction, it appears to need a few more months of work to bring it closer the reference standard.
Bug hunting & stability
More aggressive bug hunting and regression testing is needed.
Accusations of desktop and application stability problems are overblown, but not entirely untrue.
More field testing is needed once the internal QA cycle is beefed up. Also, an (optional) bug reporting tool should be included to report all application crashses back to Zonbu during the “Beta” phase.
Remember who the target audience is
Dialog boxes need to be checked for consistency and readability, keeping the target audience in mind.
Everything must be in “plain English”, especially error messages and dialogs for configuring network connectivity and other user unfriendly tasks.
Any chancg needs to be checked against the “Mom Test”; would your Mother understand what do to if confronted with the problem/dialog?
And don’t make me bring up the need for a “welcome wizard” again…
Online storage improvements
More testing and experimentation needs to be done with the online storage model, both by the company and by reviewers (including myself).
Last night I tried to set an MP3 file from my documents folder as a file to be played when contacts come online in GAIM. I wanted to see if it would work. When I selected “Preview” in the appropriate GAIM menu, it started to download the file (presumably because it had been flushed from the local cache).
Oddly, when it was done, it started over at the beginning, downloading it again. It looped and looped like this until I stopped it. It never did play the file and I have no idea what happened. I had to use the Task Manager to term the (GAIM) process.
That may be a unique bug, or it may not be, but waiting 2 minutes for it to download and then having it loop and fail, did not make me feel great about the storage (which has otherwise worked well for me, I do have to say).
Making Storage more useful
I also think there needs to be a nice, polished, dual pane, midnight commander/ftp style Firefox extension developed to access to Zonbu online storage.
This would add considerable value to the storage when I am away from my unit, and help me justify paying the on-going fees. I could back-up key documents from work and access them from the Zonbu.
Webcam support needed
Webcam support needs to be added, it is a “must” in the IM space today.
If it means only specific cameras (a la Logitech QuickCam series or similar) are supported, then that is acceptable, but it needs to be there.
That may mean that Pidgin/GAIM needs to be replaced or augmented on the IM front. aMSN does offer webcam support, at least for the MSN network.
While we are at it, how about a “technology/application roadmap” published for the beta users to consider and comment on?
Let the music play
A native Rhapsody music player would be ideal, and add 3M+ songs to the box without requiring any storage space.
The Rhapsody philosophy of not using local storage ideally mates with the Zonbu philosophy of network connected computing. Convince Real Networks to port the application developed for the Nokia N800 to the Zonbu and you have a compelling value proposition for any music lover. I’d buy one just for Rhapsody, and I know others who would too (as long as it could also stream out to other UPNP devices).
Also, the current Rhapsody plug-in for Firefox seems to have some stability issues and frequently crashes out. I don’t think it is a Zonbu specific problem, but it needs the involvement of the Zonbu team to resolve the problem. And while you’re at it, figure out how to let the Rhapsody plug-in share access to the audio mixer instead of blocking all other apps, please?
MPEG Playback needs to be fixed
I beleive we will see a fix for this soon, perhaps as early as this week, but as I previously reported the playback of MPEG2 files is not functioning. Thats not cool, especially since the unit has an on-board MPEG2 decoder chip (to offload the processing load from the main CPU). I’ll be happy when this is working again.
Video Driver Stability and basic Compiz Fusion?
There appears to be some room for improvement in the area of the video driver. I, and others, have reported some strange lib error messages when screen savers start and other video intensive things happen. While they may technically be harmless, they don’t belong in a formal commercial product either.
Also, while full support for the Compiz Fusion 3D desktop is unlikely on the Zonbu, there are a number of basic effects that I suspect could be implemented in the interface. Eye candy is very popular right now and it will help the Zonbu appear modern and hip. I know it sounds like a waste, but everyone loves a sexy desktop and eyecandy.
I’m happy with my Zonbu.
I enjoy using it, and I think that over the next few months the company can continue to improve it so that it lives up to its full potential.
There is a lot of work to be done, but it is early days for the company.
A regular and consistent update cycle (I would suggest something like a max of every 2 weeks every fix that is stable gets pushed out) will go a long way to making me comfortable that we’ll make it from Beta to finished product in a reasonable timeframe.
Updates require good documentation explaining fixes and notification that they have landed. I would be overly verbose on this right now.
Congrats on the Zonbu team on what has been done to date, now the real test begins.