My first two weeks with the Zonbu

Checklist ImageIt 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 good

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.

Conclusion

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.

-Mr. Zonbu

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16 Responses to My first two weeks with the Zonbu

  1. mrzonbu says:

    I’m not sure, can you access S3 with the FTP protocol? I thought it was HTTP?

    -Mr. Zonbu

  2. […] Zonbu, 10% Windows XP I realized I forgot to say something fairly important in my recent review of the Zonbu, chronicling my first two weeks with the […]

  3. Tim says:

    You say:

    “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.”

    And I know what you mean, but I think that “to be successful” that’s not “the bar.” I think that “the bar” is to be consistently profitably quarter-over-quarter regardless of desktop linux, windows, and mac os X. If it finds a good enough market to be a viable choice for *enough* homes, schools, non-profits, and/or businesses then it’s a success.

    I hope that they beat my bar, whether or not they ever beat your bar. 🙂

    Best to you all!
    Tim

  4. mrzonbu says:

    Tim,

    I couldn’t agree more- the real proof of the success of the business is in the profitability. But users aren’t interested in profitability, that’s not why they buy a Zonbu.

    You may be surprised to hear I’m a businessman first (by education and experience) and a technology person second.

    But you sort of missed my point. If the desktop doesn’t offer a compelling experience at least consistent with what I would demand of XP doing the same tasks, then it is not going to delight customers.

    No customers, no profit.

    I think we’re polishing opposite sides of the same coin.

    -Mr. Zonbu

  5. […] My first two weeks with the Zonbu [image]It has been over two weeks now since I started playing with the Zonbu. My first foray was under VMWare and then […] […]

  6. oldman says:

    This is all very nice, But why should anyone want to go back to the modernized equivalent of a dumb terminal? It is one thing to be internet connected as an option, it is another to be completely dependent on the network to get any work done at all.

    Unless one has been around long enough to remember what it was like when “the server is down” or “the network is down”, you really cant understand why this is such a bad idea.

  7. mrzonbu says:

    Oldman,

    You raise a valid point.

    I’ve been around long enough to remember those days, and I’ve also been selling broadband for almost 10 years.

    How many times in the last 3 years has your broadband connection been down? My record is about 2.5 years without an outage (excepting power outages).

    Also, the Zonbu device does function off the network. All the office apps and non-network apps work just fine and you can create and save documents to your internal flash card or to external USB drives and they with synch with the server when you are back online.

    Of course you can also load material from your external drives as well and work with it entirely offline.

    The Zonbu model, as proposed, is sort a hybrid between a full PC and a dumb terminal. It has substantial “offline” capabilities and storage.

    But all that being said, being able to remember the past needs to be balanced against he realities of today as well.

    I also remember acoustic coupler analog telephone modems, Commodre PET computers and 5.25″ floppy disks (and even old tape drives). But that doesn’t mean they have a lot of relevance to computing going forward…

    -Mr. Zonbu

  8. asdf says:

    It’s “without further ado”. Adieu is French for goodbye.

  9. mrzonbu says:

    Yes, it is adieu.

    And rather than make you wait until a future date, I finally got around to writing and posting it. I’m not a big fan of the “sorry I haven’t written much lately, I’ll write more at some future date. Bye.”

    The use of adieu was intentional.

    -M. Z

  10. Ben says:

    Thanks for the blog. Although you mention that Rhapsody doesn’t use local storage, by default it makes heavy use of caching. Under the program directory, check the size of “radfile.rcf” — that is the streaming cache file. Mine is at about 1GB right now. You can delete the file and Rhapsody will just start over and resume caching… and I’m not sure if there is a way to disable that caching.

  11. mrzonbu says:

    Ben,

    Great catch, thanks for letting us know about this.

    I can only assume it is “tuneable” somewhere, since the N800 tablet couldn’t sustain that size cache.

    It would definitely need tweaking on the Zonbu.

    PS – I’m using the web version right now, I wonder what it does for caching?

    -Mr. Zonbu

  12. Bob Wallace says:

    Let me make a pitch for those of us who live off the grid and generate our own power. We pay a lot upfront for our electricity and value each and every watt.

    The Zonbu looks to me to be an excellent web/music playing computer. It won’t be enough for heavy duty photo editing, but it will do many of my computer tasks and is amply energy efficient to leave on for extended periods of time.

    I assume that I could run GIMP for quick photo edits? If so, I could turn my desktop into a dedicated photo editing machine and use a Zonbu for my ‘connected’ stuff.

    (Get the bugs ironed out and I’ll start talking it up in the ‘off the grid’ community.)

    bob

  13. […] articles about the Zonbu: – Some Zonbu PCs Shipping with Double Flash Capacity – My first two weeks with the Zonbu – 22 Things to Know About the $99 Zonbu Linux PC View blog […]

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