|Introduction & Specifications|
|If you're a proponent of the desktop, don't worry, the sky isn't falling on your form factor. Yes, we've read the same reports you have, the ones pointing out how traditional PC sales are shrinking in the wake of a mobile revolution that has consumers turning to tablets and smartphones for surfing the web and logging into Facebook. There's no denying mobile is sexy right now, but when it comes to getting work done and playing games with more depth than Angry Birds, desktops haven't lost their swagger.
Desktops are evolving, however, and getting smaller and less intrusive. Zotac is a company that's been at the forefront of this evolution by offering up a constantly-expanding line of small form factor (SFF) mini PCs that have grown more powerful with each new generation. The compromise between raw performance and power efficiency lessens with each advance AMD and Intel make to their respective processor technologies.
In this vein, Zotac sent us its ZBOX ID89 Plus. This little system hardly takes up any space, yet it packs an Intel Core i5 3470T dual-core processor clocked at 2.9GHz (3.6GHz Turbo), 4GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, half a terabyte of HDD-based storage, and a plethora of complementary parts and features such as built-in Wi-Fi, dual Gigabit LAN ports, HDMI output, and more. If you'd rather configure the CPU, RAM, and storage on your own, you can opt for the non-Plus version.
At 13.19 inches by 10.43 inches by 3.74 inches, the ZBOX ID89 Plus isn't quite as small as Intel's Next Unit of Computing (NUC), though it is tiny enough to tuck out of sight in a nook or cranny in your home theater setup, or mounted behind a VESA monitor (all the hardware is included). Figuring out where to put it is the easy part; what to do with a mini PC is another story. Check out the full specs below and then flip through the pages to see how it performs in a variety of use-case scenarios.
Zotac has always been generous with its product bundles, and that holds true for the ZBOX ID89 Plus. The company doesn't try and up-sell the consumer on supplementary accessories, and instead tosses everything you need in the box whether you intend to mount the system on a stand, on a wall, or behind a VESA monitor. Included in the bundle are the following parts:
We're especially pleased that Zotac bundles in a remote and USB IR receiver. Even if you don't plan on taking advantage of its multimedia features right out of the box, the option is there.
|Exterior Design & Layout|
Like previous versions of the ZBOX, the ID89 Plus model is all about giving the user options. You can lay the system flat on your desk or A/V rack, orient it vertically using the included stand, mount the sucker to a wall, or plop it on the back of your monitor for a makeshift all-in-one system, especially if you pair it with a wireless mouse and keyboard.
While the ZBOX is small enough to tuck out of sight and out of mind, there's a reason why you might want to show it off. These are attractive machines with glossy black finishes and metallic-looking accents (the middle portion that wraps around the ZBOX is made of plastic just like the rest of the external chassis). When turned on, a blue circle lights up on the middle of the top cover.
The downside to this design is that the glossy finish picks up fingerprints and dust. This won't be a huge issue if you're not constantly fondling the chassis, though if you frequently plug in external components like USB keys and digital cameras, you can't help but leave smudges.
Those rabbit ears visible in the back are for the built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0 modules. These are entirely optional, depending on whether you plan to use these functions or not.
The bulk of the ports reside on the back of the ZBOX. From left to right, you'll find the Wi-Fi antenna input, optical S/PDIF, dual 10/100/1000 Ethernet LAN ports, two SuperSpeed USB 2.0 ports, DVI port (Single Link), HDMI output (w/ HDCP support), Bluetooth antenna input, and the power connector.
Given the mix of USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports the ID89 brings to the table, we like that the slower ports are placed on the back. For obvious reasons, we recommend plugging in components that don't take advantage of of USB 3.0's added bandwidth, like keyboard and mice.
One of the two included SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports resides on the front I/O panel (the other is on the side hidden behind a rubber cover). Flanked on either side are headphone and microphone jacks, 4-in-1 memory card reader, activity LEDs, IR receiver, and the power button.
It's super refreshing when system builders make it easy to get at the guts of their machines, trusting that if you're going to poke around inside, you probably know what you're doing. Zotac certainly follows this philosophy by granting tool-less access to the ZBOX ID89 Plus system's internal parts.
Two thumb screws are all that hold the bottom panel in place. Once removed, you simply slide the panel using the thumb/finger grip embedded on the edge. It doesn't get much easier. Even if you opt for the pre-populated Plus configuration reviewed here rather than the barebones version, you still might need to access the belly of this little beast from time to time to upgrade/replace components, or simply to blast out any dust bunnies that might be loitering about.
Once you remove the plastic panel, you can glimpse the tightly-packed components inside. The main parts of the Plus system consist of an Intel Core i5 3470T dual-core processor clocked at 2.9GHz (3.6GHz Turbo), a single stick of 4GB DDR3-1600 RAM, and a Toshiba 2.5-inch 500GB SATA 3Gbps hard drive (5400 RPM).
To access the RAM, you need to remove a thumb screw holding the hard drive in place. One upgrade we recommend making is adding another 4GB stick to the available SO-DIMM slot, which will double the amount of memory and kick the system into dual-channel mode. It's a relatively inexpensive upgrade that will result in snappier overall performance, especially in RAM-intensive tasks like Photoshop.
Another upgrade to consider at some point is swapping the 5400 RPM hard drive for a solid state drive (SSD) or a hybrid hard drive. Either upgrade is like an injection of adrenaline.
We also should call attention to the elongated blower visible in the above photo. This is the heastink/fan combo for the processor, which expels hot air through the side vent and out of the system. That's an important feature for an SFF system, especially one that's as compact as this one.
As stated, you can mount the ZBOX ID89 Plus to a VESA monitor using the included hardware. In doing so, you free up additional desk space by rolling up your own all-in-one system. The downside to this approach is that you lose easy access to the ports on the front I/O panel, which is something to consider if you frequently plug in external devices.
|Performance: PCMark Vantage & PCMark 7|
Test System Configuration Notes: We rounded up previous mini PC and HTPC configurations we've reviewed in the past and compared their scores to that of the Zotac ZBOX ID89 Plus. Not all of these systems fall into the same performance category, but as a whole, the benchmarks give you an idea of what kind of performance gains (or losses) you can expect out of the ZBOX ID89 Plus compared to other systems on the market.
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 and stresses 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.
Zotac's ZBOX ID89 Plus came out swinging at the competition with top scores nearly across the board, save for Gaming. It's no surprise that the integrated Intel Graphics 2500 couldn't keep up with with ASRock's discrete GeForce GT 425M solution, but it wasn't exactly a bloodbath, either. What's more, the ID89 system posted a better Gaming score than the APU-based systems in this comparison.
What's impressive about Zotac's showing in PCMark Vantage is that it scored so well, yet the setup leaves plenty of room for improvement. As we previously stated, adding another 4GB stick of RAM and swapping the slow spinning hard drive for an SSD or a hybrid drive would supercharge this system.
The Zotac configuration posted another relatively strong score in PCMark 7. Much of the credit here goes to Intel's 3rd Generation Core i5 3470T processor based on the chip maker's Ivy Bridge architecture. This is a dual-core chip with Hyper Threading support and 3MB of Smart Cache. It's not really in the same ballpark as some of the low-power processors found on other SFF systems.
|Performance: Cinebench & 3DMark|
Cinebench R11.5 is a tile-based rendering performance test based on Cinema 4D from Maxon. Cinema 4D is a 3D rendering and animation tool suite used by 3D animation houses and producers like Sony Animation and many others. It's very demanding of system processor resources and is an excellent gauge of pure computational throughput.
This is a multi-threaded, multi-processor aware benchmark that renders a single 3D scene and tracks the length of the entire process. The rate at which each test system was able to render the entire scene is represented in the graph below.
Cinebench gives the Zotac ZBOX ID89 Plus another opportunity to showcase the strength of its Ivy Bridge foundation, while also highlighting the weakness of integrated graphics versus discrete solutions. This is an especially unforgiving benchmark that's geared towards evaluating a system's prowess for 3D design and CAD work, but we like to run it to see how systems compare with one another. Once again, adding a stick of RAM to put the system in dual-channel mode would likely yield a slightly higher score here.
3DMark Vantage's built-in CPU tests are multi-threaded DirectX gaming metrics that are useful for comparing relative performance between similarly-equipped systems. This tests consists of two different 3D scenes that are processed with a software renderer that is dependent on the host CPU's performance. Calculations that are normally reserved for the 3D accelerator are instead sent to the CPU for processing and rendering. The system's performance in each test is used to determine the final score.
The Zotac machine reviewed here relies on integrated graphics for gaming chores, but in the absence of a discrete GPU, the CPU is able to pick up some of the slack on the back of a strong architecture and two physical cores and four processing threads.
For our next set of tests, we moved on to some in-game benchmarking with Left 4 Dead 2 and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars. When testing low-power platforms with L4D2 or ET:QW, we dialed the image quality settings down to medium quality settings and tested at various resolutions. Since these are more entry-level game tests running on relatively low-power platforms or platforms equipped with mobile parts, we left anti-aliasing turned off and image quality settings set from moderate to high levels where possible.
Let's not sugarcoat the fact that Intel wasn't aiming for high-end gaming with its HD 2500 Graphics core, and that's not what this SFF is designed for, either. At the same time, if you're willing to experiment with lower resolutions and visual quality settings, you can coax playable frame rates out of certain titles, especially Source games like Left 4 Dead 2.
|Total System Power Consumption|
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.
Zotac's latest ZBOX system strikes a reasonable balance between performance and power consumption. At idle or when performing low level tasks, the system only pulls around 21W from the wall. Under load, it hovers around 49W, and just as remarkable is that it never gets noisy.
|Quality & User Experience|
|Having a small footprint is one thing, but does Zotac's ZBOX ID89 Plus have the chops to serve as a daily driver? To help us evaluation this, we benchmarked the Toshiba hard drive and tested video playback performance. Here's what we found out.
Without a doubt, the obvious bottleneck in this system is the slow-spinning hard drive. Navigating Windows and surfing the web is largely unaffected by this, but where you'll notice the pokey drive the most is when installing programs or moving files around. These are the times the system feels sluggish, and it's mostly due to the hard drive topping out at just 100MB/s in read and write activities.
The Zotac system is more adept at handling high definition video playback. We played a variety of videos on the machine, including HD streams from YouTube. In each case, CPU utilization was minimal. It would occasionally spike to around 14 percent, but otherwise would stay around 1-2 percent.
|Performance Summary & Conclusion|
Performance Summary: Most mini PCs bring underpowered CPUs to the SFF party, but in this case, processor performance was anything but weak. The Core i5 3470T in the ZBOX ID89 Plus was a primary reason why the system scored well in the majority of our benchmarks, including PCMark Vantage and PCMark 7, and it even helped pick up the slack by the single stick of RAM running in single channel mode. Graphics performance wasn't nearly as impressive, though if you're willing to drop to a lower resolution, you'll see playable framerates in some game titles.
Mini PCs are on the march, and if the ZBOX ID89 Plus is any indication of where they're headed, fans of SFF systems are in good shape. Intel's Core i5 3470T processor deserves much of the credit for the system's performance, though Zotac is also deserving of kudos for building a tiny system around the chip with an intelligent layout that's easy to service and upgrade. We're also impressed with how quiet the ID89 runs, even under load.
You can apply these upgrades yourself, though it's not really necessary if you're looking for a general-purpose machine or a media player. HD video playback on the ID89 Plus is super smooth, and you can even enjoy some light-duty gaming, though you need to play with visual quality settings.
This is a flexible machine, both in where and how you can mount it, and with regards to what you can use it for. In our opinion, it works best as a media PC, though it's certainly powerful enough to handle higher-level activities. It's attractive to boot, which could be a tipping point when shopping for SFF systems if all other things are equal.