Sandy Bridge upgrades come to Zotac mini PCs

While we were most excited to see 7-series Mini-ITX boards at Zotac's CES showcase last week, the company also had a number of interesting Zbox systems in its hotel suite. In addition to AMD E-450 and Intel Cedar Trail updates to several systems, the Nano line is set to get an infusion of Sandy Bridge via the Celeron 867, a dual-core part with a 1.3GHz clock speed.

The Celeron's 17W TDP is a good fit for the Nano's palm-sized enclosure, and it should offer better CPU performance than the AMD and Via processors currently available in other versions of the system. Despite its diminutive size, this ID61 model is set to offer a decent array of expansion ports, including a couple of USB 3.0 ports and an eSATA jack. Zotac has added a digital S/PDIF output to the Nano's headphone port, and the SD slot now works with the latest SDXC cards.

If you don't need a nettop quite that small, the full-sized Zbox line is also getting a fresh dose of Sandy Bridge. This time, it's the Core i3-2330M, which will slot into the Zbox ID82 alongside the same HM65 Express chipset used in the Nano. With a 2.2GHz clock speed, the 2330M is quite a bit faster than the Nano's Celeron CPU. Both systems feature Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi.

We haven't been particularly impressed with the Wi-Fi reception of the integrated antennas in previous Zbox systems, but there's good news on that front; Zotac is moving to external antennas for its Zbox systems. The company is also bundling an MCE-compatible remote across the board, including with barebones systems sold sans hard drives and memory. This remote has already been mapped by the XBMC community, ensuring easy setup for home-theater PC applications.

The Zbox ID82 and Nano ID61 are expected to become available around the CeBIT show, which runs from March 6-10. Our tour didn't end there, though. We also saw a chunky industrial PC that would look pretty swanky in the right living room.

Who wouldn't take that over glossy black plastic? Alas, Zotac will probably pursue another direction for future Zbox designs. In fact, the company had a concept on display that harkens back to its Blu-ray designs.

The concept drops the optical drive, resulting in a compact system lined with the usual array of expansion ports. Zotac isn't sure whether the design will make it to mass production, but it would confirm that the collection of vinyl-wrapped Zboxes on display isn't due for a retail release.

Wrapping the systems is easy, the company says, but there are no plans to roll out versions of the Zbox decked out in skulls, snakeskin, or miniature $100 bills.

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