|Introduction & Specifications|
|A new era of home entertainment is upon us. If you think about how you watch TV today versus 10 or even five years ago, it's probably a completely different experience. Nearly everything is served up in high definition, digital video recorders (DVRs) are now the norm and not the exception, and streaming services are making a big push to be the primary way in which you view content traditionally served up by cable and satellite TV. Unless you live way out in the boonies, you're probably rocking a broadband Internet connection, which is your gateway to any number of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, VUDU, Pandora, and so forth. With so much online content to choose from, you could easily ditch your cable provider and not skip a beat.
In order to do that, you need a way to pipe all that content into your living room. Companies looking to cash in on the streaming craze have begun rolling out set-top media players at a frenzied pace. Minus a fancy feature here and there, these are mostly basic boxes designed to grab hold of feeds from cyberspace and pipe them through to your HDTV. They're simple solutions, but not as sexy as a dedicated home theater PC (HTPC).
An HTPC gives you far more freedom in how you consume online and offline content, and while it can be fun to roll your own rig, it can also be an exercise in frustration, as well as expensive. That's where Zotac's ZBOX line comes into play. Zotac is emerging as a major player in the mini PC market and you'll find a boatload of ZBOX units if you visit the company's website. The one we have with us today is the ZBOX ID80 Plus, one of the newer units built around Intel's recently released Atom "Cedar Trail" refresh. It comes equipped with an Intel Atom D2700 processor, 2GB of DDR3-1066 RAM, 320GB hard drive, and an NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M GPU. There's also onboard Wi-Fi, Gigabit LAN, HDMI output, SuperSpeed USB 3.0 support, and an IR receiver with a media remote bundled in. All this and quite a bit more comes packed in a diminutive box that measures 7.40 inches x 7.40 inches x 1.73 inches that you can plop inconspicuously into your A/V rack or attach to the back of your HDTV via its VESA monitor mount. It's small and well equipped, but is it a better option than a dedicated media player? Let's find out.
There's quite a bit of flexibility in how you can set up the ZBOX unit. It can sit horizontally in your A/V rack or stand upright using the plastic stand. Alternately, the VESA mount with included screws allows you to piggyback the device on the back of your LCD TV or monitor where it will sit out of sight, but not out of mind, or out of line of the IR receiver.
|Overall Design & Layout (Exterior)|
|Depending on who you ask, A/V racks are just as much about form as they are function. A home theater setup with swagger will get the job done while looking good doing it, and that's what Zotac aims to do with its ZBOX line. There are a number of ways you can implement the ZBOX ID80 Plus into your A/V rack, all courtesy of its small size (takes up less space than a Nintendo Wii console) and flexible mounting options, whether you want to showcase it for all to see or hide it behind your LCD television.
On the outside, the ZBOX ID80 Plus is a sleek looking machine with a glossy black front and backside accented by a light silver body sandwiched in between. There's a blue LED circle that sits squarely in the middle and lights up when you turn the system on and stays lit, though it doesn't flicker with activity, which could be overly distracting when trying to watch a TV show. There's also an optional Wi-Fi antenna (included) that sticks up, off the back.
The chassis is entirely constructed of plastic, which is a less expensive option than aluminum or even SECC steel, though at the expense of heat dissipation. Zotac can get away with it here because the ZBOX ID80 is built around Intel's low-power Cedar Trail platform with an Atom D2700 processor, along with a fairly mild GeForce GT 520M GPU from Nvidia soldered onto the motherboard.
The front of the device is home to a physical power button, a couple of small activity LEDs (Wi-Fi and hard drive), a 6-in-1 memory card reader, USB 2.0 port, headphone/audio out jack, and a microphone jack. Over on the back you'll find a pair of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports, Wi-Fi antenna connector, GbE LAN port, two USB 2.0 ports, a dual-link DVI port, HDMI output, optical (S/PDIF) jack, and the power input (DC 19V).
All these ports and connectivity options are flanked on both sides by an additional USB 2.0 port, an exhaust grill that blows out hot air from the GPU's fan/blower, and a passive mesh grill. Another mesh grill with a fan sits on the backside to draw cool air in.
This 360 tour highlights one of the main benefits of going with an HTPC over a dedicated media set-top player. There are more connectivity options than what you'll find on a typical media player, including a dual-link DVI port that's capable of driving a 30-inch 2560x1600 display. You can forget about trying to game at that resolution, but if you just need a basic PC for Web surfing, email, Word processing, and other light-weight chores, the ZBOX ID80 Plus is a compelling low-cost option. Just attach it to the rear of an LCD panel -- even a 30-inch monitor (we used a Dell U3011) -- and add a wireless mouse/keyboard combo for a space-saving setup that's far less expensive than some all-in-one (AIO) PCs.
|Zotac's ZBOX ID80 Plus is a mini PC that's extremely small in stature, but it's a PC all the same. That means you can get inside and upgrade some of the components, service the device, and install your choice of operating system (Zotac tells us it works closely with OpenELEC, the XBMC-based appliance distribution, and will play nice with the latest EDEN builds found here).
Getting inside the ZBOX device is easier than unscrewing a child-proof cap. There are a pair of thumbscrews that hold the bottom panel in place. Just remove the two screws and slide the panel off. It takes a bit of force to remove the panel, but with a little tug, it should snap right off.
The two main components you can upgrade or replace are the RAM and hard drive. It only comes with a single stick of RAM, a 2GB DDR3 SO-DIMM module clocked at 1066MHz. Cedar Trail supports up to 4GB of DDR3-800/1066MHz memory, and with RAM prices being what they are, it wouldn't be a bad idea to pick up a second stick for around $15 shipped, especially if you're running Windows 7 or Vista. The stick that comes pre-installed is built by Samsung (Part # M471B5773DH0-CH9) and is actually rated to run at 1333MHz with a CAS latency (CL) of 9. Unfortunately, Intel's Cedar Trail platform is gimped by low memory bandwidth, which isn't a big deal for a streaming HTPC, though it does put a damper on gaming performance as you'll see shortly.
Zotac also tapped into Samsung's resources for the hard drive, a 2.5-inch 320GB SATA 3Gbps mechanical HDD that spins at 5400 RPM. It's not a high performance drive, though it does offer plenty of storage space to a hold a collection of movies, TV shows, music files, and whatever else you might plop on your HTPC.
One thing to keep in mind is that the hard drive is completely empty, meaning it's a BYOOS (Bring Your Own Operating System) affair. And since the ZBOX ID80 Plus doesn't include an optical drive, you'll either have to install an OS from a USB stick or via an external ODD.
|PCMark Vantage & PCMark 7|
To kick things off we fired up Futuremark's system performance benchmark, PCMark Vantage. This synthetic benchmark suite simulates a range of real-world scenarios and workloads, stressing various system subsets in the process. Everything you'd want to do with your PC -- watching HD movies, music compression, image editing, gaming, and so forth -- is represented here. Also, most of the tests are multi-threaded, making this a good indicator of all-around performance.
There are a number of reasons why Zotac's ZBOX ID80 Plus didn't perform as strongly as other some other HTPCs we've seen, one of which is the crummy memory bandwidth afforded by Intel's Cedar Trail platform. Even though our box came configured with a single 2GB DDR3-1333MHz memory stick, Cedar Trail only supports up to 1066MHz.
PCMark 7 is a newer version of Futuremark's system benchmark, providing us a second look at the overall picture. Even with the discrete graphics, the ZBOX ID80 Plus isn't a powerhouse PC, though to be fair it wasn't designed to be one either. This is, after all, a $325 SFF PC.
Futuremark's synthetic 3D gaming benchmark, 3DMark Vantage, is specifically bound to Windows Vista and 7-based systems because it uses some advanced visual technologies that are only available with DirectX 10, which isn't available on previous versions of Windows. 3DMark Vantage isn't simply a port of 3DMark06 to DirectX 10 though. With this version of the benchmark, Futuremark has incorporated two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, in addition to support for the latest PC hardware. We tested the graphics cards here with 3DMark Vantage's Performance preset option, which uses a resolution of 1280x1024
Here again we see the Zotac ZBOX ID80 Plus struggle with 3D benchmarks, and the reason for that is partially due to the relatively weak GPU. Despite the 500 series nomenclature, the GeForce GT 520M is really just a faster clocked GT 415M. Both mobile parts have 48 CUDA cores and GDDR3 memory clocked at 800MHz on a narrow 64-bit bus. The GT 520M clocks the GPU at 740MHz versus 500MHz on the GT 415M. It gets worse if we compare the 520M to the 420M, the latter (and older) of which sports twice as many CUDA cores (96) and a memory bus that's twice as wide (128-bit).
Futuremark's newer 3DMark 11 benchmark breaks things down in more detail and further underscores the trouble the GeForce GT 520M faces as a gaming GPU. It just doesn't have the muscle for any kind of serious gaming, though casual games like Peggle and other less demanding titles are, well, fair game.
If you set the resolution low enough and dial down the quality settings, you can muster barely playable frame rates in a game like Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, but the combination of an Atom D2700 processor and GeForce GT 520M GPU just doesn't add up to a potent pixel pushing one-two punch.
We saw more of the same in Left 4 Dead 2, even with all the eye candy turned off. To continue beating a dead horse, this just isn't a system you'll be doing a lot of gaming on, outside of casual titles and Flash-based games.
|SiSoft Sandra & Multimeda Playback|
|We continued our testing with SiSoftware's SANDRA, the System ANalyzer, Diagnostic and Reporting Assistant. We ran four of the built-in subsystem tests (CPU Arithmetic, Multimedia, Memory Bandwidth, Physical Disks).
By desktop standards, the synthetic results spit out by Sandra are rather anemic here, but it's important to keep things in perspective. This isn't a desktop-class machine, it's a mini PC, or nettop if you prefer, built around Intel's Cedar Trail platform. The Atom D2700 processor features two processing cores (four threads) clocked at 2.13GHz, 1MB of L2 cache, and a 10W TDP.
There's not much to brag about in the memory benchmark either. As for the 5400 RPM hard drive, performance is about where we would expect it to be with fairly impressive peak performance.
To test video decode and playback capabilities of the Zotac Zbox Nano AD10 Plus, we attempted to play back a 1080p H.264-encoded QuickTime clip, numerous 1080P MKV files, and HD Flash videos. We then fired up Windows Task Manager take a look at CPU utilization in all instances.
Streaming video is really what the ZBOX ID80 Plus is all about, and while the system struggles with 3D gaming, it does a much better job serving up HD content from the Web and on your desktop. In the screenshot above, we streamed a 1080p movie trailer in full screen from YouTube over an 802.11n Wi-Fi connection and watched the CPU utilization bounce around from 10 percent to 15 percent. The video played back smoothly without any dropped frames and annoying jitter.
Performance was equally good when viewing offline content locally, whether played back from a file on the internal hard drive or streamed over our in-home network.
|Power Consumption & Noise|
|Throughout all of our benchmarking and testing, we monitored how much power our test systems consumed using a power meter. Our goal was to give you all an idea as to how much power the base platform configuration used while idling and while under a heavy workload. Please keep in mind that we were testing total system power consumption at the outlet here, not just the power being drawn by the processors alone.
The ZBOX ID80 Plus is a power friendly machine that has a bigger thirst for juice than the other systems we compared it with, but is still acceptable. We measured idle power consumption at 24W, much of which we attribute to the discrete GPU, and 51W when fully loaded using a dangerous combination of Prime95 and FurMark. You're not likely to reach the same type of load in your day-to-day computing, but it does give us an idea of an absolute worst case scenario.With low power consumption comes low noise, or at least that's the supposed to be the case. And in this instance, it is. Even under load, you have to really listen to hear the ZBOX ID80 Plus. There's no noticeable whir or other noise pollution that will interfere with your movie viewing sessions, even during quiet scenes.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Zotac has been putting a lot of focus on the mini PC market with its ZBOX line, and its ZBOX ID80 Plus is an interesting addition. It's built around Intel's new(er) Cedar Trail platform and features a discrete GeForce GT 520M GPU soldered onto the motherboard. Neither of these are particularly powerful components, a fact that's evident in our gamut of benchmarks, but as a streaming box, the ID80 Plus handled itself very well. It played back HD content from the Web without dropped frames, and it was also capable of driving our 30-inch display at 2560x1600, at least for simple tasks like surfing the Internet and firing off emails.Zotac has built up an extensive lineup of small PCs, and the ZBOX ID80 Plus is another worthy addition for HTPC chores. It's relatively affordable at $320 MSRP, which is more expensive than a dedicated set-top media player, but it's also far more flexible. With a wireless keyboard and mouse added to the mix, you can be the king of the couch in ways a set-top box simply won't allow. Or you can use the included media remote and USB IR receiver.
The model we reviewed here includes an Intel Atom D2700 processor, NVIDIA GeForce GT 520M GPU, 2GB of RAM, 320GB hard drive, and built-in Wi-Fi, along with the usual assortment of ports and connectivity options. That's a decent foundation for a basic HTPC, though we'd like to see twice the amount of RAM included (Zotac provides a single stick), and a faster spinning hard drive would be worth the trade-off in power consumption for a slight overall performance boost. Then again, if more performance is what you're after, there's always the barebones ID80 (non-Plus version) that ships without a hard drive or RAM. If you wanted to, you could slap in a 4GB memory kit and speedy solid state drive in the ZBOX and have a peppy HTPC in a compact profile.
As it stands, the ZBOX ID80 Plus is a respectable HTPC that's capable of streaming content from the Web and has ample storage space for your own collection of music and movies. We also like that it looks snazzy and has a compact footprint that can sit horizontally or vertically, or sit hidden behind an LCD display. It's not a great option if you intend to venture beyond the realm of streaming video, but as a basic HTPC, it's worth a look.