Walt Mossberg

A $99 Desktop Comes With Software, Backup and Too Many Catches

For just $99, you can now buy a desktop computer that’s preloaded with full versions of 20 popular types of software. This computer comes with free, automatic, online backup of your files, and a design that cuts energy use way below that of a standard computer.

It gets better. This new PC, called Zonbu, from a new company of the same name, automatically receives free updates of its software when new versions come out. It doesn’t require antivirus or other security programs because it runs on the Linux operating system, which has attracted very few viruses or spyware programs. And it takes up almost no room — it’s a tiny little box.

Zonbu’s overall goal is to vastly simplify the process of buying and using a computer. The idea is to make it not only more affordable, but also much less of a hassle and much more energy efficient.

I’ve been testing the Zonbu, and it does work. Its software is still in beta, or test, mode until next month. But you can buy it right now at Zonbu.com with free software updates into the future. However, there’s a catch — several catches, in fact. Some have to do with the machine’s design and pricing, and others with its performance. Taken together, they prevent me from recommending this computer, despite its intriguing price and concept.

The biggest catch is that the Zonbu computer doesn’t include a hard disk for storing files (that’s one reason it uses so little energy). Instead, all of your files are stored online on the company’s servers. That offers several advantages, such as the fact that the files are automatically backed up.

But you have to pay for that online storage. In fact, to get the $99 price for the Zonbu computer, you have to commit to a two-year contract at prices ranging from $12.95 a month for a relatively small 25 gigabytes of storage to $19.95 a month for 100 gigabytes. If you opt to pay month to month instead of two years in advance, the Zonbu will cost you $249.

To get the Zonbu for $99 with 100 gig-abytes of storage, it will cost you $517.95 up-front after the discount of three free months that the company is currently offering. And the Zonbu doesn’t come with a monitor, keyboard, mouse, Wi-Fi adapter, speakers or DVD drive.

By comparison, you can get a Dell Inspiron 531s for just $529, after rebate. It has twice the memory, a DVD drive and a much better processor than the Zonbu. And it comes with a screen, keyboard, speakers and mouse — oh, and a 160-gigabyte hard disk that requires no monthly fee.

To be fair, the Dell doesn’t come with a full-fledged office productivity suite, while the Zonbu has OpenOffice, a competitor to Microsoft Office, preloaded. To get OpenOffice on the Dell, you must download and install it.

Also, the Zonbu monthly service fee is offset by some savings. The $99 machine uses so much less energy than a typical PC that the company claims you could save noticeably on your electric bill. And you might also save the cost of subscribing to security software updates.


Because the Zonbu stores your files on a remote server, you can also use them remotely, at no extra cost, from another Zonbu or from any Windows PC.

To speed things up — and guard against an Internet service outage — the built-in programs are stored locally on the computer, and Zonbu includes a small 4 gigabyte memory card in the machine to cache your documents. In my tests, this allowed me to keep using the Zonbu even when I unplugged it from the Internet.

In addition to OpenOffice, the Zonbu comes with the Firefox Web browser, an Outlook clone called Evolution, an iTunes clone called Banshee, the Skype Internet phone software, and a bunch of other programs for organizing photos, playing video and more. There are also some casual games.

To Zonbu’s credit, the machine is capable of recognizing lots of printers and digital cameras, out of the box. It worked well with my Kodak camera and Hewlett-Packard printer.

But there are three other big problems with the Zonbu, problems that belie its goal of eliminating hassles. First, you aren’t allowed to install any added software. You’re stuck with what the company provides. And that means, for instance, no video-editing software, for now at least.

Second, a lot of this Linux software is rough, below the polished level of Windows or Mac programs. In my tests, various programs crashed or froze frequently. While the Banshee program is supposed to work with iPods, it failed to work properly with both of the iPods I tested.

Finally, I found that the Zonbu crawled much of the time. Folders took forever to open, email took way too long to appear, and so forth. And I was testing it on a very fast Internet connection. This may be because of the very wimpy processor Zonbu uses to save money and energy.

I strongly support Zonbu’s goals of making computing simpler, cheaper and more energy efficient. But this product has too many compromises.

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