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$100 Laptop, Meet The $100 Desktop
Jeremy Faludi, 14 Aug 07
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You've heard of the $100 laptop. What about a $100 desktop? Meet Zonbu: a new computer company making desktop computers that are both extremely green and extremely cheap. Impossible, you say? Not so. They've done it by using the Product-Service-System concept. I recently had the pleasure of testing out a unit they sent me, and I have to give it a thumbs-up.

Years ago, when the internet's first wave was crashing on the shores of society, there was an enormous amount of buzz about "the Network Computer", a device that would really be all about connectivity and services rather than being an isolated, standalone machine. It never really materialized, until now. The actual Zonbu box (smaller than a Mac Mini, or thereabouts) has very little inside of it -- no hard drive, no CD or DVD drive; just a motherboard and a compact flash card. (And, enough ports for any peripherals you'd want.) The company's description of how it works:

The Zonbu device does not have a hard disk. Instead, a 4GB compact flash (similar to what digital cameras and MP3 players use) stores the operating system and the application which have been installed. The remaining space of the compact flash is used as a cache to store local copies of files you've recently used; special software keeps these copies synchronized with the online storage servers. In other words, when you need to work on a file, the file is:
1. transparently downloaded to the compact flash cache,
2. modified locally using the appropriate application such as OpenOffice, Image Workshop or Web Page Editor and,
3. promptly uploaded to the server every time you save the file.
Since all your data is stored on the Zonbu servers:
* You can access the files from any Internet-connected device using the file browser — which initially works only on Windows 98, 2000, XP and Vista.

Having tried it, I can say it's seamless.

The reason that this is a greener way to compute is that it increases efficiency by sharing hardware. As we've mentioned before, having a rack of hard drives in a data center is more efficient than having lots of individual hard drives in people's homes, because you can eliminate all the unused space for data on the individual drives. In addition, having a rack of drives in a data center lets you use older, smaller, slower drives (keeping them out of the landfill) without losing performance, because such Redundant Array of Independent Drives (or Disks) (RAID) systems let you combine several small slow drives into what becomes effectively one large fast drive.

The Zonbu system is halfway to a "thin client" system like Sun's Open Work Practice (which Sun says can use a tenth of the power and reduce raw material usage by a factor of 150.) Thin clients are also called "dumb terminals," a phrase from the old mainframe days, when computers were enormous and expensive. Instead of each user having his or her own computer, multiple users shared the one mainframe computer by accessing it via their own terminals -- a keyboard and screen, basically, with no real brains or storage in it (and thus, "dumb").

Zonbu's system isn't quite the same: it offloads data storage to a server, but still has a CPU to do the processing locally. But Zonbu's system is a fraction the cost of Sun's. The computer itself costs just $100, and computing services are covered by a monthly fee. (The prices vary by how much storage space you want.) And this is a green model economically, because it begins to decouple making money from producing physical stuff.

So how good is Zonbu's green cred? The numbers look great:

At just over two pounds, Zonbu device consumes at least four times fewer chemicals and fossil fuels during manufacturing than conventional desktop PCs.

Zonbu also has a free take-back program, which includes everything -- even the original packaging the computer came in. The company got an EPEAT Gold score, which, while not the absolute highest score in computers (that honor goes to several models of Toshiba laptop), is nonetheless excellent.

Zonbu's online green page includes a little table comparing the unit's emissions to those of a "normal" computer. I'm not convinced by it -- at 175 watts, the estimation of normal is very high-wattage (for comparison, my Mac laptop uses about 30 watts unless it's really cranking away, and that includes the LCD screen, while presumably Zonbu's table just counts the power used by the box itself). But even if the efficiency is increased by only 50 percent, or a factor of two, that would still be something to be proud of. Plus, Zonbu offsets its carbon emissions through Climate Trust, hopefully rendering both production and use climate-neutral.

Zonbu is a Linux-based system -- but a nice Linux that's easy to use, with a clean Windows-like interface. It even auto-generates keyboard shortcuts for every menu item everywhere, the one thing that Windows does better than the Mac operating system. It also comes with a whole slew of productivity software, based on Open Office: word processor, presentation, spreadsheet, database, finance manager, drawing, equation editor, webpage editor, desktop publisher. Basically everything that most people need, and more. All of this is compatible with Microsoft Office, according to my quick tests. While the programs have a few bugs, for the most part they work well -- you can get things done with them. (And, unsurprisingly, they do some things better than Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, etc.)

There are also several games. The one I was interested in, Tron, crashed constantly, but hey, the Zonbu system is still in beta. The work-related programs worked, and that's the important part.

The OS even has a couple quirky little features: emblems instead of label-colors for marking files, and a "select by pattern" function to get to a group of files at once. Since the OS is read-only, it should have excellent security and virus-resistance. And to round things out, because the data storage is all server-side, it can be automatically backed up every day.

As for style, Zonbu has a skinnable case with over a dozen designs to choose from. It would be nice to lose the aluminum fins all over the sides in favor of a sleeker, Mac Mini-like look, but hey -- give the company time.

All in all, the Zonbu is both green and cheap, and it should satisfy the needs of the 90 percent of computer users who don't use super-fancy engineering software or other specialty tools. It would also be a good first computer for someone who isn't tech-savvy -- something I've never been able to say about a Linux box before, or even about the $100 laptop.

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Huh. Does the Zombie -- sorry, Zonbu -- come with a monitor & keyboard? If not, that jacks up the price & footprint...

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 14 Aug 07

Nope, not included.

Posted by: Jeremy Faludi on 14 Aug 07

Similarly the Apple Mac Mini does not come with a monitor, mouse or keyboard. The idea is that most people will already have these and therefore there is no point forcing people to buy a full package including these items, doubling up with what they already have.

Posted by: Nev on 15 Aug 07

So your assumption is "people will already have the monitors"? In other words my assumption while reading this and thinking how wonder full this will be for all those low income children without computers was incorrect. Or do you plan on donating the monitors, printers, etc. to these families? Now that is wonder full.
Here's the 411 brother the company will go under if it thinks the people with the gear to begin using these is going to give up their current tech abilities for this "green" machine.
My suggestion is do something truly good for the planet add a monitor and begin giving these to the needy, first here in the USA and then branch out to the rest of the world. I'm sure you'll find plenty of money to back your venture - at least that is my assumption. Mexico will be a good second stop but make sure you teach it spanish first.

Posted by: Kim E. Swiger on 15 Aug 07

At a $100 price point, you aren't giving up much. Granted, as a designer I could never use one, but for the average office worker or home user or just needs Internet, e-mail, and word-processing, this seems pretty ideal.

An LCD monitor and keyboard might add $150, so for a total outlay of half what the Mac Mini box alone costs, you have a simple, stylish, low-impact machine. I hope it catches on (though institutional use, as you mention, would also be a good way to get some market volume).

Posted by: Androo on 15 Aug 07

At a $100 price point, you aren't giving up much. Granted, as a designer I could never use one, but for the average office worker or home user or just needs Internet, e-mail, and word-processing, this seems pretty ideal.

An LCD monitor and keyboard might add $150, so for a total outlay of half what the Mac Mini box alone costs, you have a simple, stylish, low-impact machine. I hope it catches on (though institutional use, as you mention, would also be a good way to get some market volume).

Posted by: Androo on 15 Aug 07

Actually, it's a $249 desktop. The $99 price point is only available if you subscribe to their system for 2 years (minimum total cost $370.95 and that's for only 25 GB)

So for $370 you're locked in to a proprietary OS, your data storage is all remote, you're stuck with applications that are buggy, and you only have 29 GB storage space. What's the attraction?

Posted by: Mike Rigney on 15 Aug 07

I think we're being a little pessimistic here looking at the one extreme of gadget freaks (i.e. everyone commenting here) not seeing this as useful to them personally, and the other extreme of hypothetical poor people who don't already have old PC parts laying around.

CRTs, keyboards, and mice are virtually free - there are plenty of computer recycling centers that sell them for under $10 and even have to charge a disposal fee for CRTs. Most of these operations offload their surplus hardware via programs that bring them to those who can't afford computers.

The $370 initial price tag is rough, but I suspect the company will form institutional partnerships to get large numbers of units out the door rather than depend on people biting at that price.

175 watts for the average computer sounds reasonable, even conservative, especially if you're going to be fair and compare desktops to desktops. I guess a broader analysis should consider what these guys are replacing in the market - $100 laptops, or hypothetical desktops that are mostly unaffordable to those who would use this product?

25 GB isn't a movie library, but it's all the documents you want, a photo library and a modest music collection. I think networked storage to replace general-purpose hard drives is brilliant for all the reasons mentioned. Personal large hard drives should be for media collections; people without media collections should be able to do without them.

If you take out the hard drive and can put up with metal fins, then you've removed all the moving parts, and that is a very good thing.

Posted by: Charlie Matlack on 15 Aug 07

One very large cost that you have not included is Internet access, the most expensive component of computing these days. One year of broadband Internet access is $600 these days, a reoccurring cost that isn't computed with this "$100 desktop" offer.

Fair to say its not in the "$100 laptop" offer either, which is one reason OLPC News considers it a $1,000 laptop:

Posted by: Wayan on 16 Aug 07



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