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Small Wonder: Zotac's HD-ND01 Nettop Review
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Date: Dec 07, 2009
Section:Gadgets
Author: Joel Hruska
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Introduction and Specifications
The market for nettops—small, highly-integrated, mini-ITX desktops, typically based around Intel's Atom—didn't explode off the block the way netbooks did in the past 18 months, but an increasing number of manufacturers from Acer to Dell have released new designs built around the standard, and the systems in question are steadily becoming more powerful. Zotac is no stranger to the mini-ITX market, but the company's line of mini-PCs aims to provide more than just a motherboard. Zotac now has two complete systems on the market—the HD-NS01 (Atom 270, 1GB RAM) and the HD-ND01 (Atom 330, 2GB RAM). We'll be evaluating the latter system today, with an eye towards the features and capabilities Zotac has packed into its MAG (Mini All-in-one Giant).


 
Zotac Mini All-in-one Giant (HD-ND01)
System Specifications

Processor
Intel Atom 330 (Dual-Core, 1.6GHz)

Motherboard

Zotac Custom-built ION

Operating System
None

Memory
2GB DDR2-800

Graphics Cards

NVIDIA ION

CPU Cooling

Heatsink/Fan

Audio

Onboard

Hard Drive

Toshib MK1652GSX (160GB, 5400 RPM)

Accessories
VESA-compatible monitor chassis
System Stand

Case
Custom Zotac design

Optical Drive
None


Power Supply
External

Available Expansion Slots
1 Mini-PCIe (in theory)

Front Panel I/O Ports

1 USB 2.0
1 Card Reader
1 Headset
1 Mic

1 USB 2.0 (Top)


Rear Panel I/O Ports
1 eSATA
4 USB 2.0
1 VGA 15-pin DSUB

1 HDMI

1 RJ-45 Gigabit Ethernet
1 SPDIF Digital Output

Warranty and Support

Limited


Price:
$299



In terms of specifications, the ND-01 is impressively capable for a system this small—let's take a look at how it's built, configured, and fitted out.
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Size Comparison


We've included a couple of photos of the Zotac HD-ND01 along with a couple similarly sized devices in order to give you a more visceral feel for the unit's size and shape. In the top-down shot below, the HD-ND01 is sitting on top of an XBox 360 HD-DVD player with the Nintendo Wii alongside. The Zotac system is shorter and more squarish than either the Wii or the XBox drive.



The same three devices from the front. Note that the HD-ND01 isn't actually completely squared-off on any side; the unit will balance on edge, but wobbles. Fortunately this is a non-issue; Zotac includes both a stand for the system and a VESA mount-compatible mounting frame for installation on a flat panel with the appropriate holes.



Same system, mounted to the back of a monitor. The system tucks away neatly behind a flat panel and comes equipped with wireless network connectivity, but unless you've got an ultra-short DSUB/HDMI cable and a full wireless setup you'll still have to accept a bit of wire-clutter.
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Exterior Design


The system's front panel is on display here. The only two audio jacks are up here, as are a card reader and single USB port. There's an additional solitary USB port on the top of the system as well (not pictured).



The system's rear-mounted outputs are plentiful. Here, we've a single eSATA port, four more USB ports for a total of six, both video ports (VGA+HDMI) an optical audio out, and the power jack. The notch  below the VGA port isn't a port of any kind, even though it's cut to look like one. Details on the next page.



Finally, our included accessories (such as they are). As we noted on the specification page, Zotac ships the system sans an operating system of any kind; the company doesn't even include a Linux-powered boot disc...but it includes a driver CD. And speaking of discs, this is a good time to discuss one of the system's key omissions—it lacks both an integrated CD/DVD and any internal headers where such a device could be attached. That means you'll either need a bootable flash drive (1GB will do for Windows XP, but you'll need 3-4GB for a Vista / Win 7 image), or an external CD-ROM. External optical drives—at  least the ones offered in a discrete package—appear to universally rely on USB 2.0—it may or may not be possible to roll your own external eSATA enclosure, depending on the characteristics of the bridge chip that's used.

Normally, a USB 2.0 device is more a physical inconvenience than anything else, but Atom doesn't exactly have a lot of processor power to spare. Media playback from a USB-connected optical drive is no issue, but disc-based installations and burning can both lag a bit (neither helped by the underpowered hard-drive, something we'll touch on later.)
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Interior Design


Here we have the internal components of Zotac's nettop on display. The plastic tab we took notice of on the last page is visible here, lower-center. Were we to remove it (and it pops right out), you'd see there's a defined location for a DVI-out port. Given that Zotac has already shaped the case to allow for one, it seems reasonable to think we'll see that feature once upon an update. Whether or not the company will retain both the VGA and HDMI outputs at the same time is unknown. If you look over the diminutive motherboard, you'll note the complete lack of external outputs, hookups or internal ports. What you see here is almost everything you get—there's a single open mini-PCIe port on the back of the board (the other slot is occupied by the system's wireless card.) Anything you might opt to install there would need to draw all of its power from the slot—there's not so much as a spare fan header on the motherboard.

The 160GB Toshiba drive on the left can be removed by undoing the two screws on the bottom of the motherboard and sliding it off its connectors, should you wish to upgrade it. Zotac has not released any information to date on whether or not the motherboard has any power limitations in this regard; presumably any mobile drive or SSD will function properly. Alternatively, the system could be booted and run via eSATA, virtually without any performance difference as compared to an internal HDD (possibly faster, if you were to opt for a 3.5" HDD rather than a 2.5" model). There's a bit of a chuckle here—if you look closely at the photo, you'll see that the last sentence in the left-hand column of drive information reads: "Rattle Noise Is Normal."  For the record, our hard drive did not rattle. Despite Toshiba's reassurance, if your HDD is rattling loudly enough that you can hear it distinctly over the noise of the system, it's probably something you should check out.

The MAG ships with 2GB of DDR2-800 RAM in a 2x1GB configuration. The downside of this is that users who want to boost the system's memory past default will have to buy 2GB modules.



The CPU+chipset heatsink up close. It's a lightweight aluminum design, similar to those you might see on a modern low-end, low-cost video card. The bad news is, like such heatsink+fan designs, when this sucker spins up to full speed (at 6000+ RPM), it does so at a frequency not far below your average dentist drill. The good news is, the only time we heard it actually do that is when we told it to in the BIOS. CPU temps can climb into the 40°s when the system is under load, but while this is a bit high compared to a mini-ITX system with a larger heatsink, it's a non-issue—Intel's maximum thermal specification for the processor is 85°C. 



Remove the heatsink, and you've got both the Atom 330 and the ION chipset. Most of the heat (what there is of it) is generated by the chipset—Atom itself draws very little power, even in a dual-core configuration. The chipset and processor actually use two different thermal interface materials (TIMs), if that sort of thing interests you.

Swapping out the hard drive or adding a mini-PCIe card is possible, but we'd urge readers to take great care when attempting to disassemble the unit. The motherboard fits tightly within the plastic shell and will not come out even after the screws are removed unless you bend the sides of the case slightly. In addition, there are several wires that lead from the motherboard to the interior of the case—these are small wires, soldered at both ends, and while there's no reason to think they'd detach when using the system normally, pulling the motherboard out a bit too eagerly could yank one off. As for the shell itself, while there's no reason to think it's susceptible to deformation or cracking, it's also clearly not designed to be opened and tinkered with on a regular basis.
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Test System Configuration



We didn't have access to a system that precisely matched the capabilities of the Zotac MAG, so we picked up an Asus AT3GC-I as a representative for any Atom 330 products that use the Intel 945GC chipset. we're not directly comparing the AT3GC-I to the MAG HD-ND01 as such—they're two completely different animals—but we will be discussing the performance differences between the two platforms the products use. The Zotac MAG has several advantages over the Intel-based Asus board, including dual-channel DDR2 support, hardware-accelerated video decoding, and HDMI/DVI out (the latter provided via adapter.)


Our two test systems were configured as identically as possible. Both systems used the Zotac MAG's 5400 RPM drive for benchmarks and use 2GB of RAM. We considered Windows XP instead of Windows 7, but ultimately opted for the latter—virtually all the OEM nettops shipping now are using Win 7, and it's definitely the OS of choice if you've got the hardware to handle it. Discovering if both Atom-based systems actually did was a secondary goal. Since both of our testbeds are based around Intel's Atom, we're not going to focus much on CPU performance, but will instead look more at system performance as a whole.

HotHardware's Test Systems
Performance Comparisons


System 1:

Zotac MAG HD-ND01

Intel Atom 330
NVIDIA ION board
2GB DDR2-800@533MHz
Microsoft XBox 360 HD-DVD (Not included)
NVIDIA ION integrated graphics
160GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)
Windows 7 (Not Included)

Price: $299

System 2:

Asus AT3GC-I

Intel Atom 330
Asus AT3GC-I
2GB DDR2-800@533MHz
Microsoft XBox 360 HD-DVD (Not Included)
Integrated Intel 945GC Graphics
160 GB Toshiba HDD (5400 RPM, 8MB cache)


Price: NA ($89, motherboard-only)
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SiSoft Sandra



Preliminary Testing with SiSoft SANDRA 2009
Synthetic Benchmarks


We began testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, which stands for System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. For our purposes, it's the memory bandwidth and latency benchmarks that are of interest—an Atom 330 is an Atom 330, as far as mathematical calculation performance is concerned.





The results here were surprising; we didn't expect much of a difference in memory bandwidth given that both chipsets utilize 64-bit single-channel memory configurations. The Zotac makes considerably more efficient use of its 4.2GB/s theoretical maximum bandwidth.




The tables turn, however, when we check access latencies. As expected, both chips have identical latencies for their L1/L2 caches, but the Intel board takes about 10 percent less time to retrieve data from main memory. We'll see whether or not this has a discernible impact on any benchmarks as we continue.



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PCMark Vantage

Next, we ran the test systems through Futuremark’s latest system performance metric built especially for Windows Vista, PCMark Vantage. This benchmark suite runs through a host of different usage scenarios to simulate different types of workloads including High Definition TV and movie playback and manipulation, gaming, image editing and manipulation, music compression, communications, and productivity. We like the fact that most of the tests are multi-threaded as well, in order to exploit the additional resources offered by dual and quad-core processors. We used the 32-bit version of the benchmark and defragmented the hard drive immediately prior to running it. The test was looped 3x.

One thing to keep in mind when comparing PCMark Vantage results is that the benchmark's margin of error can fairly wide—we'd estimate a few percentage points at least. Relevant factors include  whether or not the hard drive was defragmented immediately prior to the run and whether Vantage was run immediately following OS+driver installation, or only after a full suite of tests and other benchmarks had been run.
In order to generate the cleanest results possible, we tested Vantage immediately after OS installation and defragmented the hard drive immediately prior to benchmarking.


Futuremark PCMark Vantage
Simulated Application Performance




The Zotac nettop is in the lead by some 17 percent here, and the gains aren't all from the "gaming" subsection. This is actually the sort of test where the video card's ability to quickly refresh 2D images can also be called out on the mat—with an 8MB framebuffer and its weak integrated Intel GPU, Asus's AT3GC-I has trouble keeping up in multiple subtests.
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Gaming: Torchlight, Call of Duty 4, Left 4 Dead
 
Torchlight    
3D Gaming

Torchlight is a recently released 3D action/adventure RPG strongly rooted in the original Diablo—if you close your eyes and listen to the musical score, you'll almost swear you're back in Tristram, with Deckard Cain inviting you to "Stay awhile, and listen." More importantly for our purposes, Torchlight is a modern game that's fun, good-looking, and has modest system requirements. Intriguingly, Torchlight also offers a "Netbook Mode" under its "Settings" menu. One click, and the game closes and reloads itself with a distinct set of pre-selected GPU features activated. It's not clear if this option also changes anything about how Torchlight caches level data or creature rendering, but it's a great option to have in-menu.

Torchlight doesn't require high frame rates; the Zotac's 23.7 fps rate listed below means that in practice, the game ran smoothly with a discernible slow-down when huge numbers of mobs were on the screen (but no hiccups or outright stuttering.)


Unlike some of the other games we tested, Torchlight ran and rendered normally on Intel's GMA 950, but we can't say it ran particularly well. 7.3 fps is acceptable for running around in town, but as soon as the action gets heavy in a dungeon map, the framerate falls to 4-5 fps. Framerates also plunge when entering new areas, or when subterranean levels become visible below the area you're currently exploring. (Torchlight uses this trick to give the impression of depth within the game—the areas you see below don't actually correspond to the level you'll find.) Lowering the resolution to 640x480 didn't help the Asus board—framerates remained identical, which suggests that the performance bottleneck here is either related to the size of the GPU framebuffer or Atom's inability to quickly perform certain calculations in software that ION is handling in hardware.

 
Call of Duty 4
3D Gaming


Call of Duty 4 is a first-person-shooter in the popular Call of Duty series that puts you in the shoes of military personal from both the US and Britain in a modern setting rather than the World War II locales the games have become synonymous with. We play through the "Game Over" mission in Act III. Because this mission takes place on a rail (with the character required to maintain focus on certain areas in order to clear them), it's easier to guarantee that multiple playtests will render nearly identically. Unfortunately, we ran into a bit of a snag with this one—the Intel GMA 950 isn't capable of running Call of Duty 4 because it lacks the necessary hardware vertex shaders. There are applications out there that can trick games into thinking the vertex hardware exists while performing the necessary calculations on the CPU, but Atom doesn't have the computational power to spare for this approach.

Instead of comparing the MAG HD-ND01 against the Asus, therefore, we compared it to itself. The game benchmark was run at two separate resolutions and detail settings. For 1280x1024, we disabled all optional settings (Shadows, Specular Mapping, Ragdoll, Bullet Impact, etc) and turned all tune-able options down as far as they could go. We opted for trilinear filtering, but kept texture details set to "Low."  In 640x480 we kept the optional settings off, but raised model detail, water detail, and texture detail to normal.


The takeaway here is that while you'll never be able to play CoD 4 as though you were running it on a high-end desktop, frame rates are high enough to give you some options regarding how you want the game to look. By dropping to 640x480 we traded a higher resolution for more detail and a smoother framerate—at 30fps on average gameplay is fairly smooth.

Left 4 Dead
3D Gaming

Left 4 Dead is a co-operative, survival horror, first-person shooter that was developed by Turtle Rock Studios, which was purchased by Valve part-way into development. Like Half Life 2, the game uses the Source engine, however, the visuals in L4D are far superior to anything seen in the Half Life universe to date. The game pits four survivors of an apocalyptic pandemic against hordes of aggressive zombies.


After Call of Duty 4 refused to run on Intel's GMA 950 we were surprised to see that Left 4 Dead was willing to launch and enter the game. To Valve's credit, when they built the Source engine, they baked in flexibility—games will often fall back to earlier DirectX levels seamlessly when confronted with hardware that doesn't support certain feature sets. In this case, the feature set when playing Left 4 Dead on an Intel platform + Atom is so different, we're nearly playing a different game.


All-new features include terrifying ambient lighting...


Do battle against a fearsome horde of rejected Quake models!

The point of showing off what the game looks like on a GMA 950 isn't to snark at Intel—at least, not much. Even if the GMA 950 delivered a competitive frame rate, the game looks so bad that you simply wouldn't want to play it. Without darkness and shadows, the zombie survival horror game becomes "Look at all the corpses standing in the corners." It's not just that the HD-ND01 delivers higher framerates, it's that it delivers framerates without sacrificing the design that makes the game fun.

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Gaming: Quake III: Arena, Jedi Knight II

Quake III Arena, Jedi Knight II
3D Gaming

No, you didn't misread the page title, and you've not gone crazy. We deliberately chose both Quake III and Jedi Knight II, hoping to define a starting point for the games Intel's GMA 950 actually can run. We opted for these two titles (now ten years and seven years old, respectively), based on their popularity, engine, and capabilities. We benchmarked Quake III at both 640x480 with all video quality settings set to default and at 1280x1024, with all details turned up. We tested Jedi Knight II similarly, but opted for a single resolution (1280x1024), at max details.





So, there we have it. The GMA 950 can handle games that are 7-10 years old when combined with Atom 330. Not much to write home about there, especially compared to ION. Then again, comparing Ion to GMA 950 is a horse that's already been beaten down a time or three; we'll let the graphs speak for themselves in this regard. 

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DVD and HD Content Playback

CPU Usage During DVD and HD Content Playback
Multimedia

Before we hit the graphs, let's pause and talk about our setup. Both systems' DVD playback capabilities were tested using Microsoft's XBox 360 HD-DVD player. While it's possible to hook a standard DVD drive up to the Asus Atom board, the Zotac system can't use anything but an external USB 2 drive. This fact also precluded Blu-ray tests, which is where Microsoft's drive came in handy. When you check the performance results, remember that USB 2.0 imposes its own CPU penalty on both systems, which raises CPU usage in any playback test. We also ran into compatibility issues along the way—neither PowerDVD 9 nor Windows Media Player 12 will play an HD-DVD disc. We therefore fell back to PowerDVD 7.3 which played both movies flawlessly.

It's not particularly surprising that Cyberlink chose to dump HD-DVD support, but we didn't expect Microsoft would do the same. Windows Media Player 12 is the first WMP version capable of decoding 1080P content, but not if said movie is being played on one of the company's own devices apparently.


Zotac's MAG HD-ND01 handled all of our content tests easily. The gap between the two chipsets in DVD playback under Windows Media Player 12 suggests that DXVA (DirectX Video Acceleration) isn't functioning properly when the player is paired with an NVIDIA card (or at least, not ION.) The other difference of note is the way the Atom 330 performed while actually decoding a DVD. While its CPU usage is slightly lower than Zotac's MAG, doing anything but playing a movie—right-clicking, pressing the Windows button, or attempting to drag-and-drop something—left the system stumbling over itself for a few seconds like a stutterer at a spelling bee.

Finally, we've not made a video quality comparison simply because there's no way to objectively compare the two. The Asus AT3GC-I is handicapped by its 15-pin VGA output, which is blurry enough to ruin any attempt to evaluate the two side-by-side. Playback while decoding VC-1 or H.264 on the MAG was less prone to fits and starts when decoding 1080P than the Intel system was when decoding a standard-definition DVD.
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Conclusion
Zotac's MAG HD-ND01 is a great little system. It matches or exceeds the performance of Intel's Atom 330 / 945G platform in virtually every test and it's capable of playing some games at framerates you might actually want to play them at. Desktop performance under Windows 7 was surprisingly quick, the bundled wireless had no problem transferring data through several walls even though it lacks an external antenna, and the 2GB of RAM proved adequate to the tasks at hand. If there's a performance shortcoming, it's the hard drive. The modest Toshiba drive feels sprightly enough when you're doing very basic sorts of tasks, but anything that hits the south bridge or accesses the drive can lag significantly.



The MAG HD-ND01 is a great nettop system, but the question is, does the lilliputian box pack $300 worth of fabulous? At $199 the system would be an absolute steal ($249 also sounds reasonable), but $300 feels a tad high given the hoops most customers will have to jump through to get a functional OS on the system. Alternatively, Zotac could keep the price the same and simply bundle a modest USB 2.0 thumb drive in the box with optional OS images. There are any number of ways the company could improve the HD-ND01's shipping bundle, many of which might cost very little. If you've got a well-stocked library of multimedia data on a hard drive and don't do much ripping, this could be a great secondary system for you.

If you're looking for a small, capable system that could serve as a media center or secondary desktop, the MAG ND-HD01 is a good option, especially if you have the tools on hand to overcome its few shortcomings, or have an external optical drive. Perhaps the most telling thing about Zotac's MAG HD-ND01 is that it left us wondering about how it might be upgraded or modified to further improve performance. Intel's 945G chipset when paired with Atom, on the other hand, left us eager to finish testing it and get back to ION. The benchmarks really don't capture the qualitative difference between using the two or the subtle ways in which having a solid integrated GPU changes one's desktop experience.

As a final bonus, the nettop (though not the box it comes in) just might be small enough to fit inside a stocking. As geek-IT presents go, this one's pretty darn good.




 
  • Tiny form factor
  • Good performance
  • Best-in-class HD playback

 

 
  • No Optical Drive
  • Slowish hard drive

 




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