Unless you’re particularly interested in green computing (i.e., computers that don’t use much energy) or the Linux operating system, you probably haven’t heard of Zonbu, a small computer company in California that sells ultracheap laptops. I came across them in one of the tech/business magazines I read (can’t remember which one) and was intrigued by their unique proposition. At the time, they sold one product — a tiny CPU that was about the size of the Bible that the Gideons leave in every hotel room. It didn’t run Windows (great for security!), but its system emulated Windows for the user (great for usability!). It came preloaded with about 20 open-source alternative programs, so you could pretty much do any sort of basic computer use that you wanted to do (email, Web browsing, word processing, etc.). Its operating system supposedly updated itself, there was some online storage that came with the package, and it was only $99. You had to pay $14.95 or something like that per month for their online updates/no-hassle service, etc. Oh yeah, and it’s also apparently very earth-friendly, uses a tiny fraction of the power that a normal machine uses, is a “zero-emissions” computer, and every time you buy one, an environmental necromancer hurls a windpower-generated lightning bolt into the sky and God throws a dodo bird back from the dead. Or something to that effect.

It was an interesting proposition, to say the least. At the time, though, it didn’t meet my needs. I need a powerful machine to do my work, and although it was an intriguing idea for my young daughter, Mia (she’s almost 4), the desktop model wasn’t going to work for her. She’s the type to lug a machine around with her, rather than be attached to a desk for her computer use. Alas, though, I checked back a few months later, and Zonbu is offering a laptop. It’s $279 for the machine, same monthly price for the software updates. Mia can use a touchpad perfectly and has been using my home laptop for months, so I figured I’d give Zonbu a go, if for no other reason to slow the accumulation of animal-cracker crumbs in my keyboard.

That was a mistake. An even bigger mistake was prematurely telling Mia that I’d bought her her own computer, and getting her hopes up before I bothered to receive the computer and be sure it was going to be a reliable machine. (If you’re scoring at home, this is what they call “foreshadowing,” kids.) It’s one thing to have your own expectations dashed by a crappy product; it’s quite another to do that to a 3-year-old. Not only because they hurt worse, but because you can’t pass the buck to the manufacturer. It’s all on you, Daddy.

To Zonbu’s credit, the machine arrived in record time. I live in South Dakota, and I think it arrived from California in three days. I would later put two and two together and realize that one reason it came so fast was because no one had bothered to put the most recent operating system software on the machine. It was several versions and many bugs older than the current version. But let’s not digress…

I fired up the machine, and it asked me for a username and password in order to activate or use the computer in any way. I didn’t know what the hell that was, and I had to go to another computer and dig out my purchase-confirmation emails to find out what that was. Apparently they’d told me in one of those previous mails that I’d need this username/pw to unlock the machine. That’s my fault for not reading them closely, but also partially their fault, for knowing damned good and well that no one reads those types of emails closely, guaranteeing that a host of buyers will have the same problem. But I got the username and password in, and the machine started up, found my wireless connection instantly, and we were off to the races.

I showed my daughter the machine. She loved it. She attacked kid websites so hard that she reminded me of Shawn Fanning on his 40-hour Napster coding binges. We had to pry her off it at dinnertime. The living room TV blared “Dora the Explorer” to an empty living room, and I actually felt sorry for the TV. Mia wasn’t interested in hanging out with it anymore, much the same way she’ll turn on me when she’s about 12, in favor of god-knows-what the middle-school kids will be doing 10 years from now.

It worked for three days, and then my wife called. “What’s wrong with Mia’s computer?” she said. I said I had no idea. I thought it worked fine. But, out of the blue, Zonbu lost its Internet connection. I would say that it lost the wireless signal, but that’s not right — it was only looking for hardwired connections. The entire wireless option was gone completely. Again, this sort of thing is frustrating to adults, but at least we can comprehend it. Try telling a 3-year-old who was in the middle of a hot game of Backyardigans Super Spy Adventure that “something seems to have gone wrong with the wireless hardware, or maybe the software that controls it, and that it’s looking for Ethernet connections only.” Yeah — she just wants to know where in the motherloving hell the Backyardigans went, and what you’re going to do to bring them back. Right goddamned now. This is Instance One of Zonbu Making Me Look Like An Asshole In Front Of My Daughter. (More foreshadowing there, kids.)

Mom defused that, though, and I got home to check it out. Sure enough…no connection, and no ability whatsoever to even entertain a wireless connection. I restart the machine — no change. I’d try to update the software, but I have no connection, so I can’t. I Google the error message, and find a Zonbu FAQ page. It says I should update my Zonbu software — you know, that software that supposedly updates itself automatically whenever it needs to be updated? Like, perhaps, it could’ve done anytime during the initial three days during which I had no problems?

I’m discouraged at this point, but I realize that you get what you pay for, and that it’s a new technology and a new idea, and I’m willing to tolerate the hassle for a bit longer. This machine is for my daughter, after all, so I have to try harder, go the extra mile, etc. I plug in to an ethernet connection, which the Zonbu finds, and attempt to download the updated OS. Zonbu tells me it’s downloading, and that I’ll be notified automatically when the download is done. After an hour, I’ve been notified of nothing. I give Zonbu the benefit of the doubt and consider that the patch I’m downloading may be absolutely huge, hundreds of megs. I leave the computer, and come back a couple of hours later. Nothing. My specific complaint here is this: Zonbu says, in effect, “hey, we’ll let you know when the new software is downloaded!” and did no such thing. So I restart the computer, and I restart the download process. I leave it overnight. Like a turkey on Thanksgiving.

I come back the next morning, and there’s still no message whatsoever indicating that new software has downloaded. After an overnight download, I’m no longer considering the possiblity that I haven’t waited long enough. I restart the machine, and bang! Zonbu says…it has automagically (their not-cute and not-funny word, not mine) updated the software for me! I laugh at this, since Zonbu’s definition of “automatically” apparently includes me having to hook up an Ethernet connection, make multiple manual attempts to download the software before having to leave it overnight to do so. Automatic! Presto change-o!

But when I fire it up, it does indeed see the wireless connection, and we’re back in business. I head back upstairs, the conquering hero, cradling the freshly repaired laptop as if it were a unicorn foal left on my front porch in a basket of woven purple silk. Mia, your computer is fixed! Mia nearly explodes with joy. She would’ve traded at least one of our dogs for that laptop to be working again, and possibly both of them.

Literally 30 seconds later — no wireless connection. I manually re-establish the connection — success! And less than 30 seconds later — no wireless connection. Connected! Connection dropped. Connected! Connection dropped. This is Instance Two of Zonbu Making Me Look Like An Asshole In Front Of My Daughter, and it’s worse than the first time. She’d already played with the computer and loved it, and was patiently waiting for me to fix it — to once again deliver the good times. And the moment I got her hopes up — they were dashed. This is from the Zonbu website:

The perfect addition to any child’s life without the hassle

and also, this:

Zonbu makes the perfect addition to any child’s life. It’s easy to use and virtually indestructible. Its compact and sturdy structure allows it to take the occasional knocks kids can deliver. And since Zonbu software is unbreakable it can handle stray keystrokes from little fingers, too. In the worst case scenario, just reboot Zonbu and it repairs itself.

I don’t know about the keystrokes and little fingers business (You mean toddler fingers don’t crush the keys? Eureka!), but my experience with Zonbu refutes every other sentence here. It didn’t repair itself worth a damn for me when it was broken, it wasn’t easy to use, and it most certainly does not make the perfect addition to any child’s life. In my opinion, it is a terrible thing to buy your child, and you should never buy it for yours.

I emailed for my RMA, and got one. That was easy enough. They told me to send it back in the original packaging, which I (again, foolishly) had destroyed, assuming I had bought a product that was as trouble-free as its manufacturers advertised it to be (Go ahead, laugh at me. I deserve it.). They said they were gonna charge me $10 for the packaging. At this point, I couldn’t care less, really — as long as the cursed object is out of my house. Because of the 100%, absolutely, positively hassle-free guarantees plastered all over the site, I will assume for now that I’ll get my money refunded swiftly and without difficulty (although most of my Zonbu assumptions have been faulty, I’m trying to stay at least a tiny bit positive). I’ll update this post when I hear more.

Oh yeah — I bought Mia a pink Dell to replace the Zonbu paperweight. It hasn’t arrived yet, so the TV isn’t lonely anymore.