Zonbox: The $100 Green PC of the Future

I just got to mess with an incredible $100 PC that is being compared to Apple in terms of ease of use, uses Linux as its core OS (but conceals the complexity of Linux, much like OSX conceals the complexity of UNIX), and is at the outset, a Web 2.0 device leveraging heavily its connectivity to create the Apple experience for a fraction of the cost. It does have a monthly charge of about $13, which covers the online services and allows the initial price of the PC to get down to $99, but it may reflect the future of Web 2.0 computing, and it’s worth a look.

Zonbox: $100 Green PC of the Future

While I’ve historically not been a big fan of Linux PCs, this is because they aren’t that much less expensive, are generally more complex, and the tradeoffs are ugly. The Zonbu Zonbox caught my attention, because it actually comes very close to what Apple provides at a fraction of the price.

About the size of a Mac Mini and costing much less than what that system costs, this offering is close to complete and will even work reasonably well with your iPod (you can’t buy music off of iTunes, but since most don’t do that anyway, it isn’t a big problem).

Chris Pirillo did a long video (be patient; he is really wordy) on a beta of this product back in May, but it gives you a sense of how amazing this little $100 box is. (If you factor in all of the costs, it’s more like $400 over two years, or $250 without the Web 2.0 service plan, but that’s still cheap for what you get and similar to a cell phone model — or around one-fifth of the expected average two-year cost of the iPhone.) You’ll need a mouse, keyboard, and monitor too. The final product launched this week and existing reviews of it are of the beta, but the beta actually did rather well.


The Zonbox comes with the excellent Firefox internet browser (which has been pounding IE in the market) and Skype built in, so you can enjoy the web. The current generation of Firefox has parental controls, multiple search tools, a built in RSS reader, and security (anti-phishing) features. Skype is the most commonly used Internet Phone (VoIP) technology. 

It also comes with Evolution; created by Novell as an alternative to Microsoft Outlook, and has a very similar look and feel, will work with Palm devices, and has the typical calendar, contacts, task list, and mail features you see in Outlook. 

For instant messaging, it uses Pidgin, which will connect to AOL, MSN, Yahoo, ICQ, and IRC networks. You don’t have to manage separate buddy lists, and if your friends are on three or four services, you only need this one client to see them all (this is actually an improvement over what I use).

For general productivity, the Zonbox uses OpenOffice, which emulates Microsoft Office for word processing, spreadsheets, presentations, graphics, database, and math. It also includes a personal finance manager and Acrobat Reader for e-mailed documents.

The multimedia features are rather impressive for such a little box. As mentioned above, it behaves much like iTunes for managing and playing music and video files. The product is called MPlayer, and evidently, it has been favorably reviewed. It also has a sound recorder if you want to do your own podcasts and a recording level monitor if you want to play DJ.

While it doesn’t exactly have iLife, it does have some similar features in terms of a photo organizer called F-Spot. This product will connect to around 700 cameras and is tied to the online service, which allows you to almost instantly share your pictures with friends or family.

Moving to publishing, it has a photo editing product called Image Workshop, which allows you to edit and change your pictures.

If you want to work on a web project, as you would expect from a Web 2.0-based offering, it has a nice webpage editor called Nvu, which is somewhat similar to Microsoft Front Page and Adobe Dreamweaver. For more advanced work, it includes LinuxDevCenter, which is similar to PageMaker, and QuarkXPress, which can be used for newsletters, magazines, catalogs, and posters.

As for causal Games, well, you won’t get Warcraft on this puppy, but it comes with a relatively large number of arcade-style games like Breakout, board and card games like Chess, Sudoku, and Solitaire, shooters like Blob Wars, and simulators like Billiards.

I could go on, but I’ll just say this: it comes with a lot of stuff for $100.

The Hardware

The Zonbox has no fan or hard drive. It uses a 4 GB flash card to contain the software and much of what it uses comes off the web, so if you have dial-up, the experience is probably going to suck. If you have fast broadband, however, it actually seems to work all right.

It’s based on VIA and S3 for processor and graphics, so it’s no powerhouse, but it only pulls 10 watts of power, making it vastly more efficient than any other PC you are likely to buy. Port count is actually rather impressive, with six USB ports, 10/100 Ethernet, VGA, mouse and keyboard, and sound and microphone.

The thing is built like a tank and feels very solid, with little plastic and lots of what appears to be aluminum for the case, and passive cooling (it has no fan, so it’s dead quiet).

Wrapping Up

This is the first Linux-based PC that has impressed me. It came across as very Apple-like, forward looking, and complete. Personally, I wouldn’t use it as my primary box — I’m too much of a power hog — but I could see it as a near indestructible box for the kids, an inexpensive PC for the guest room or kitchen, or something that you could safely give to an aging parent or grandparent to get them on e-mail so you don’t have to write snail mail anymore.

In the end, this is the first product where it actually looks like someone tried to do with both hardware and software what Apple initially, and continually, tries to accomplish with the Mac, but at a fraction of the price and embracing the next generation of technology based on Web 2.0.

I don’t get impressed often, but this was impressive. Dell and others should take note; this is the way to do a consumer Linux box if you want to try for an iMac-like outcome. It’s not there yet, but it was far closer than I ever expected anyone to get. It’s actually worth checking out on YouTube, and at $100 — even with the service — it isn’t very risky either.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

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