As a PC enthusiast, I'm quite enamored with desktop computers. I prefer the do-it-yourself variety, something in a mid-tower enclosure with a powerful CPU and graphics card, near-silent cooling, multiple hard drives, a quality sound card, and expansion and connectivity options out the wazoo. One of the best things about having a PC is being able to swap out parts and alter a system's configuration with ease, and I wouldn't settle for anything less for my primary desktop.
However, I also have a deep appreciation for the Mac mini. There's a simple beauty in the mini's styling and an elegance to its minimalist approach to, well, everything. Apple's bite-sized Mac isn't a lot of computer, but it's enough for what most average users actually do with their systems on a day-to-day basis. The mini's modest components draw little power and get by with quiet cooling, and the whole thing can be squeezed into a svelte enclosure with a tiny footprint.
The fact is that most people only need a little bit of PC. Even in my own home, there are certain rooms in which I want an unobtrusive PC but don't require anything special. Filling those needs with a Mac mini is an expensive proposition when the base model starts at $700, though.
Atom-powered nettops have comparable footprints and are much cheaper. However, they also deliver significantly less in the performance department. Intel's Atom CPU is great for ultraportables, where its sluggish performance is at least tempered with exceptional battery life, but the pint-sized processor is a much harder sell in systems tied permanently to wall sockets. Adding an Ion GPU to the equation can smooth HD and Flash video playback, but that only helps nettops be better home-theater PCs. In a desktop, even a dual-core Atom spinning four threads via Hyper-Threading can easily get bogged down with multi-tabbed browsing and reasonable attempts at multitasking.
Last year, budget ultraportables were rescued from the Atom's restrictions by the introduction of Intel's own consumer ultra-low voltage (CULV) processors. These CULV CPUs powered a range of affordable thin-and-light notebooks, including a raft of would-be netbook killers led by Acer's Aspire AS1410. The Aspire cost only a little bit more than typical netbooks at the time, yet it had a Core 2 Duo-based Celeron SU2300 CPU. Although it wasn't the fastest chip on the block, the Celeron was nevertheless a huge step up from the Atom. Now, nearly a year after its initial arrival, the SU2300 has worked its way into the nettop market inside one of Zotac's Zbox barebones systems.
We were quite impressed with the Atom-based Zbox HD-ID11 that we reviewed last month. For just $220, that particular model gets you a dual-core Atom CPU and second-gen Ion graphics inside a tiny enclosure that allows users to add their own hard drive, memory, and operating system. Take that system, swap out the Atom for an SU2300, exchange the Ion GPU for an Nvidia chipset with comparable graphics capabilities, jack up the price to $270, and you've got the Zbox HD-ND22.
If you read our ID11 review, you might feel a little déjà vu. The ND22 uses the very same chassis as the Atom-based system, which means it measures a scant 7.4" x 7.4" x 1.73" (188 x 188 x 44 mm) and weighs around four pounds. Those dimensions make the Zbox a wee bit smaller than a Nintendo Wii and about the same size as a Mac mini.
Even fully loaded, the Zbox remains light enough to hang off the back of an LCD monitor using the VESA bracket that comes in the box. Not content to challenge the mini, Zotac also wants to let users roll their own iMac-style all-in-ones. Mounting a system on the back of your monitor probably won't provide the most convenient access the Zbox's expansion ports and power button, but it's nice to see the option. The VESA bracket doesn't have to be strapped to the back of a display, either. One can easily mount it on the wall or tucked away on the underside of a desk.
If you'd like to reduce the Zbox's footprint without messing with the bracket, an included stand orients the system vertically. A set of rubber feet allow the unit to lie flat, as well. PCs are all about options, folks.
Well, provided you don't want to mess with how they look. You can get the Zbox in any color you want as long as it's glossy black. The buffed-up plastic easily picks up fingerprints and smudges, but the edges of the system that you're more likely to touch have a resilient matte silver finish that won't get marked up. My advice? Wipe down the Zbox carefully with a cloth after setting up the system, and then back away slowly, never touching the glossy plastic panels again. The fact that desktop systems aren't handled constantly makes the gloss less of the liability it is with notebooks.
Zotac should otherwise be applauded for avoiding dressing the Zbox up with too much bling. A glowing orange ring lights up the side panel when the system's turned on, but this effect can be disabled in the BIOS.
The other side panel, which ends up on the bottom when the Zbox lies flat, hosts the primary intake for the system's only active cooling element. Air gets sucked in through the circular vent and piped out perforations in one edge of the case. This exhaust port faces upward when the Zbox is standing tall.
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