Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Zonbu Thin Client Linux Computer in Australia

Delivery carton for Zonbu held by Tom WorthingtonThe Zonbu thin client Linux computer I ordered on 8 November arrived at the ANU Post Office in Canberra on 13 November, which is within the six days promised. Using USPS Priority Mail International had one catch, which is that a signature was required for collection. As a result delivery was delayed a day and I had to go to the post office. This may seem a trivial matter, but in the past I have had to wait a week until I could get to a post office to collect an item. If Zonbu could dispense with the signature requirement, that would be better.


The unit arrived in a cardboard box 280 x 225 x 160 mm weighing less than one kilogram. One of my colleagues who was with me was surprised when I told them this contained a computer with accessories. There may be an advantages in terms of security for the inconspicuous nature of the system. Thieves who do not notice you have a new computer, or recognize the device as a computer at all, will be less likely to target it.

Zonbu HardwareThe delivery box held the Zonbu unit in a cardboard box, slightly smaller than the shipping box, a Belkin USB WiFi adapter and Australia power plug adaptor. The Zonbu box had molded "egg crate" cardboard packing around the computer, power supply and stand. There was one A4 folded sheet of instructions and one A4 folded sheet of safety instructions. The box was delightfully free of the plastic bags, plastic foam pellets, CD-ROM disks, tapes and other extraneous packaging which computers usually arrive with.

The Zonbu computer itself is only 170 x 125 x 55 mm. The great surprise is how heavy the unit is. The case appears to be made from cast aluminum, rather than the expected plastic. The top and bottom are finned with recessed ventilation slots. The unit appears to have been designed to overcome the problem common to desk top TV boxes which are placed in a stack with other devices, resulting in a lack of ventilation. I was able to stand on the unit on one foot with no apparent harm and expect it would survive being driven over by a car. A stand for propping the PC up on end (as a mini-mini-mini-tower computer) was also supplied. This stand also appears over engineered, being a black anodized aluminum extrusion.

One problem is the case is too small to stand an LCD monitor on. Had the case been made 50% wider, ( 250 mm), it would then be ideal for putting under the monitor. This is a problem common to earlier thin client computers. Some years ago I suggested to Labtam that they put the thin client computers they were selling to us at the Australian Department of Defense in larger PC-like cases, complete with a false CD-ROM drive bay. This was partly a matter of perception, with the end user feeling they were not getting a proper computer, if they only got a tiny inconspicuous box. But there were also practical reasons for having a large box compatible with PC accessories.

The Zonbu's aluminum case may slide around the desk pulled by cables. Also the case is not completely flat and will rock when placed on a hard flat surface. The case is so heavy and solid these are unlikely to be serious problems, but rubber feet would be a useful addition.

Power supply

   International plug adapter - AustraliaThe Zonbu comes with a 4 Amp 20 Watt plug pack power supply which will run from 100 to 240 V AC and delivers 5 Volts. The power supply uses an unusual 3 pin DIN plug, which could make use of alternate supplies difficult. An optional US to Australian power plug adapter was ordered. The safety and reliability of this unit appears questionable and in practice it might be better to simply bend the pins on the power supply to fit an Australian, New Zealand or Chinese socket (subject to safety advice).


The Instruction sheet with the unit was the briefest for any computer I have seen. Diagrams showed the plugs and sockets on the front and back of the unit. The unit has a total of six USB sockets (five on the back and one on the front). There are also Ethernet, min-DIN mouse and keyboard plugs, VGA video, power and a microphone and speaker sockets (also used for VoIP with the included Skype software). On the back panel there is a "hard" power rocker switch and a "soft" software controlled power switch on the front.

A CF card slot holds a supplied SanDisk 4 GB flash memory card in place of a hard disk. The eject button for the CF card protrudes beyond the edge of the case and may cause the card to be antecedently ejected. It would be better if this button retraced into the case, as is common on laptops, or was omitted completely (the card should not be removed in normal use and can be prised out with a fingernail on the rare occasions this is needed).

The provision of old style min-DIN mouse and keyboard plugs is useful, allowing old peripherals to be used, although the generous number of USB plus would allow for USB keyboard and mouse to be used. Also the min-DIN plus may be confusing for a younger computer user who has never seen a non USB keyboard and it is not clear from the instructions if a USB mouse and keyboard can be used.

The provision of VGA as the only video connection may be limiting for some Internet Appliance applications. One very serious omission from the case is a security cable anchor point, such as a "Kensington Security Slot". Without a way to physically secure the unit, it would be very vulnerable to theft in the educational and corporate environment, as the unit could be placed in an overcoat pocket. But given the very solid aluminum case a security anchor could be added, or the unit simply screwed to a desk or wall.


The instructions have two simple steps: first to connect the cables and then to turn on the computer. At this point I was stuck as the last line says: "You should have received your login and password in a welcome email". But the computer was ordered via the ANU and so that message would have gone to the purchasing officer. It will take me a while to track down. Zonbu should point out when ordering that the user id will be sent by email.


Duncan Dodd said...


I tested my broadband speed with the Zonbu tester and got 44kb/s (When doing an Aust. based download I got 164kb/s). Accordding to the zonbu website this would be too slow for me to use a Zonbu. What speed did you get with the Zonbu tester?

Tom Worthington said...

Duncan Dodd said November 25, 2007 5:27PM:

"I tested my broadband speed with the Zonbu tester and got 44kb/s ..."

I got 53 KB/s using a wired connection and 45 KB/s using WiFi. This was using the ANU's 1 Gbps Internet connection, so I guess the bottleneck is at Zonbu's end of the link. ;-)

According to Zonbu at least 64 KB/s is needed and ideally more than 256 KB/s.

I assume these are measures of Kilo Bytes per second. Line speeds are more usually measured in kilobits per second. Thus the Zonbu limits would be 512 kbps for a minimal service and more than 2 Mbps ideally.

However, I found that the Zonbu worked okay at 256 kbps and even at home on my slow wireless link operating at an effective rate of about that of a dial-up line at 24 kbps.

It may be that because I had not created a lot of documents and so not yet filled up the local storage of the device, so it did not need to transfer much back and forth to the server, I had not yet encountered problems.

Tom Worthington said...

On my home wireless Internet connection the Zonbu speed test reported 2 KB/s (that is 16 kbytes per second). This is much less than the minimum 64 KB/s which Zonbu recommend.

Despite this, the Zonbu works fine, but may have a problem when the local cache fills up and it needs to transfer files from the server.

As I have exceeded my monthly limit the connection has been throttled from 256 to 64 Kb/s by the ISP. Also I suspect the latency on the wireless link is high which might show up as a slower link in the Zonbu test.

Duncan Dodd said...

Thanks Tom

So what happens if the Zonbu on board 4GB flash memory is full, and I am working on a document which is opened from an external flash memory stick plugged into the Zonbu?


Tom Worthington said...

Duncan Dodd wrote:

"So what happens if the Zonbu on board 4GB flash memory is full, and I am working on a document which is opened from an external flash memory stick..."

The temporary system files are on the supplied 4GB flash card. As far as I can see when this fills up the system tries to delete any files it can, including ones it has copied to the remote server.

Plugging in a USB drive would not help, as the Linux operating system would not put temporary files on that.

In practice, if you have a USB drive and lots of files, it would make sense to put your files on that, and keep the Zonbu's flash drive for temporary working files.

If you have a high speed Internet connection and pay for extra online storage, then you can keep your documents there.

But please note I have not tested these scenarios, I am surmising.