I can’t help but be amused by the fact that Intel’s Atom CPU has become quite possibly the most important CPU of the past couple of years. The Atom has certainly proven to be popular, but in truth, its success has been largely accidental. The chip was designed for mobile Internet devices (MIDs) with an eye toward eventual migration down to smart phones. Those MIDs never materialized in great numbers, though, and Intel only just recently introduced an Atom Z600 series that’s appropriate for future iPhone alternatives.
Despite failing to make an impact in the markets it originally targeted, the Atom unwittingly fueled a netbook revolution that brought affordable ultraportable Windows computing to a broad audience of PC enthusiasts and mainstream users alike. Then along came nettops, which followed the same basic premise as their mobile predecessors: small footprints, low power consumption, budget prices, and just enough horsepower for the basics. Although not as revolutionary as their ultraportable cousins, the sheer number of nettops on the market suggests considerable interest in that class of system.
Generally speaking, I haven’t been a fan of nettops. I’m not prejudiced against the Atomjust its integrated graphics component, which even in the latest Pine Trail revision lacks decode acceleration for HD and Flash video and is all but useless for games. That’s not much of a loss when you’re dealing with a netbook with fewer pixels than 720p video requires. The Atom at least provides exceptional battery life in return for tolerating its lack of muscle. However, nettops spend their lives tethered to electrical sockets and are often plugged into high-def displays, especially in the living room. For those environments, you really need something that behaves more like a fully functional PC.
In my view, the Atom is only a competent graphics component away from fueling the popularization of home-theater PCs. One need look no further than Zotac’s Zbox HD-ID11 to see why. This tiny little nettop houses Intel’s latest dual-core Atom, an Ion redux from Nvidia, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and all the connectivity one might need in the living room. Enthusiasts will appreciate the fact that the Zbox is a barebones affair that lets the user add his own memory, hard drive, and operating system. Oh, and it costs only $220. We had to check one out for ourselves.
Introducing the next-generation Ion
The Zbox is our first look at the second coming of Nvidia’s Ion. Nvidia originally brought Ion graphics to the Atom platform with a rebadged GeForce 9400 chipset that had spent most of its life catering to Core 2 processors. Despite their differences, the Core 2 and original Atom use the same front-side bus, making it easy to share integrated graphics chipsets between them. All of that changed with Intel’s Pine Trail Atom refresh, which moved the traditional north-bridge chipset components, including the front-side bus, entirely onto the CPU die. The latest Atoms have only a DMI interconnect to interface with a south bridge chip or I/O hub.
Nvidia doesn’t have a license for Intel’s DMI interconnect, so it had to dig through the parts bin once more to find a suitable Atom sidekick. It emerged with a GT218 graphics chip that’s pulled duty in low-end GeForce 210 and 310 graphics products on the desktop and in notebooks. The GT218 can now add “next-generation Ion graphics processor” to its resume.
In truth, the GT218 is probably all the graphics horsepower one needs in an Atom-based system. This GPU has a DirectX 10.1-compliant core running at 535MHz with 16
CUDA cores shader processors clocked at 1.2GHz. (A version of the Ion GPU tailored for 10″ netbooks is also available with just eight SPs). The original Ion shared system memory with the CPU, but its successor is paired with either 256 or 512MB of dedicated video RAM that’s linked to the GPU by a 64-bit memory interface. Zotac takes full advantage in the Zbox, providing the Ion with 512MB of GDDR3 clocked at 790MHz.
The GT218’s PureVideo HD decode block is easily the GPU’s most important element, at least for Ion. This dedicated logic provides full HD decode acceleration, promising smooth video playback up to 1080p resolution with MPEG2, H.264, and VC-1 content, including Blu-ray movies. Dual-stream decode acceleration is supported, as well. When paired with Flash 10.1, PureVideo HD can also accelerate Flash video playback.
Intel has severely limited the display controller in Pine Trail Atoms, restricting digital output to an LVDS interface with a maximum resolution of 1366×768. Fortunately, the Ion GPU kicks in an HDMI output that’ll have no problem powering a high-def display. Uncompressed eight-channel LPCM audio can also be passed over HDMI to a compatible receiver or speakers.
Although the latest Ion technically supports Nvidia’s Optimus auto-switching technology, the feature doesn’t really mesh well with nettops. First, Optimus requires that all output be routed through the display controller in the Intel integrated graphics processor. You know, the one that only does digital output up to 1366×768 and doesn’t support HDMI. That’s not gonna fly for nettops or anything that taps the Ion’s wealth of display outputs. Optimus switching is better suited for netbooks, where its battery-saving potential is most valuable, anyway. Besides, Optimus uses PCI Express to pass the contents of its frame buffer to the Intel display controller, presenting a further challenge because the Ion GPU hooks into the Pine Trail platform using a single first-generation PCI Express lane.
A gen-one PCIe link only provides 250MB/s of bandwidth in each direction, which adds up to less total bandwidth than an old-school AGP 2X interface from back when flannel was cool. Such a narrow pipe requires specific optimization, and Nvidia says that its Ion drivers store frequently accessed data in video memory to conserve interface bandwidth.
The Ion GPU is stuck with such a low-rent interface because that’s the best one available in Pine Trail’s NM10 Express Platform Controller Hub (PCH). There are actually four PCIe 1.1 lanes sprouting off the NM10, but two of them are monopolized by the Zbox’s Gigabit Ethernet and 802.11n Wi-Fi controllers. The NM10 Express also feeds the Zbox’s USB and Serial ATA ports, along with a pedestrian Realtek audio codec.
The DMI interconnect then provides a 2GB/s link between the Zbox’s NM10 Express PCH and its Atom D510 CPU.
This dual-core Atom runs at 1.66GHz and can execute four threads simultaneously thanks to the wonders of Hyper-Threading. Its on-die memory controller has only a single channel of DDR2, but that’ll probably be sufficient for a system of this caliber, especially since the Ion GPU has its own dedicated RAM. You can read more about Intel’s Pine Trail Atom platform in our review of Asus’ Eee PC 1005PE netbook.
Zee box from zee outside
Good things come in small packages in the nettop world, and the Zbox stays true to that tired old cliché. The system measures just 7.4″ x 7.4″ x 1.73″ (188 x 188 x 44 mm), making it about the same size as a Nintendo Wii. Think small. Very small. And light, because the Zbox tips the scales at four pounds sans hard drive and memory.
The system’s relatively light weight allows it to be mounted on the back side of an LCD monitor using a VESA bracket that comes in the box. Hiding the Zbox behind the screen is certainly a neat trick, although doing so will obscure the USB ports, memory card reader, power button, and so on. Folks who would prefer to have access to those goodies can run the Zbox in a vertical stand that also comes with the system. One can always ditch the stands entirely and simply lay the HD-ID11 flat on its side, as well.
Like all too many budget PCs, the Zbox is sandwiched between slabs of glossy black plastic. The shiny finish will inevitably collect fingerprints and smudges as you put the system together, but a quick wipe with a cloth restores the factory-fresh sheen. Unlike notebooks and netbooks that get handled constantly, there’s little reason to touch the Zbox’s glossy panels once you’ve given it a final buffing. The system’s slender midsection, which houses all the buttons, slots, and ports, mercifully has a matte silver finish.
A large blue ring illuminates the left size of the Zbox when the system is powered on. The right side is more subdued, playing host only to an intake port for the system’s solitary active cooling element. More on that in a moment.
As you can see, the left side of the Zbox also becomes its underbelly. Little rubber feet ensure that the ID11’s gently curved, er, side panels don’t prevent it from sitting flat.
The Zbox’s power button sits up front alongside a couple of activity lights and a memory card reader. Headphone and microphone jacks make an appearance, as well, and they’re the only analog audio ports available. If you want more than basic stereo audio, you’ll need to use the digital S/PDIF at the system’s rear or pass audio over HDMI.
The enclosure’s front edge also hosts a single USB port, and a second one lurks behind the rubber cover (to the right in the picture, on what becomes the top edge of the system when it’s standing). I suppose the rubber cap is there to prevent spills from leaking into the USB port, but there’s no such protection for the array of exhaust vents located a little further along that same edge.
Around back are the S/PDIF output and four more USB ports. There’s eSATA connectivity, too, although not of the USB-powered hybrid variety. Video output is offered in DVI and HDMI flavors, and both ports can be used simultaneously to power a pair of independent displays.
Over to the right is a jack for the tiny power brick that comes with the ID11. Zotac mistakenly shipped its first batch of systems with a two-pronged power cord rather than the more common three-pronged variety. The company tells us that it’s replacing the incorrect cords free of charge, and all new systems should now have the right cord in the box.
The Zbox comes with a Gigabit Ethernet jack driven by a Realtek RTL8111 controller. GigE is a nice touch for a budget system, and so is the built-in 802.11n Wi-Fi card, which is powered by an Atheros AR9285 wireless chip. Rather than supplying a connector at the rear for an external Wi-Fi antenna, Zotac built one right into the Zbox’s chassis. That’s a good idea in theory. Reception can be an issue in practice, however. I only have an 802.11g Wi-Fi network in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, and although the Zbox stayed connected throughout my admittedly small single-level home, the signal started flaking out when I ventured to the garage. My notebook has no problem maintaining a wireless connection in my glorified bike shed, and neither does another system built on one of Zotac’s Mini-ITX boards, suggesting that the Zbox’s integrated antenna has some uncommon limitations. Holding the Zbox differently didn’t improve the signal strength, either.
Bust ‘er open
Most nettops are designed to prevent users from accessing their internals. Not the Zbox, whose side panel easily snaps off once the two thumbscrews retaining it are removed. With that panel out of the way, users have unfettered access to the guts of the ID11.
Admittedly, there isn’t a whole lot to see here. The Wi-Fi card is buried on the underside of the circuit board, but then it’s not something users are going to need to access unless they want to attempt to splice in an external antenna. Folks will definitely need to add their own hard drives and memory, and Zotac makes doing so exceptionally easy.
Memory slips into a single DDR2 SO-DIMM slot located near the lower-right-hand corner of the board. The ID11 has just a single slot but can accept up to 4GB of memory. There would generally be little point to equipping the system with that much RAM, though. Despite its Hyper-Threading-enabled third and fourth cores, the Atom D510 doesn’t have the grunt for the sort of multitasking that would require gobs of memory.
The Zbox’s drive bay can be found at the top of the board. Well, it’s not so much a drive bay as a bracket.
But what a bracket. Not only is it lined with vibration-dampening material, but the bracket manages to hold drives securely with only a single thumbscrew. The retention mechanism is flexible enough to accommodate 2.5″ hard drives with either the 9.5-mm thickness shared by standard notebook drives or the 12.5-mm size typical of higher-capacity 2.5″ models commonly found in external enclosures. 9.5-mm drives are available in capacities up to 750GB, but beef up to 12.5 mm, and you can get yourself an even terabyte.
A single heatsink with a tiny blower is tasked with cooling the ID11’s Atom CPU, NM10 Express PCH, and Ion GPU. The Atom, NM10, and Ion have TDP ratings of 13W, 2W, and 15W, respectively, so the blower only needs to handle up to 30W. I wish that Zotac had gone with a larger fan, though. Fan noise tends to increase as the diameter decreases, and even if they’re not particularly loud at the outset, tiny fans tend to develop an annoying whine over time.
The Zbox’s fan was annoyingly loud right out of the box, although due to an over-aggressive default fan-speed profile rather than a specific problem with the fan itself. Fortunately, Zotac has since released a BIOS update that allows users to fine tune numerous fan speed controls. The fan’s startup temperature can be set between 30 and 50°C in 5° steps, and startup and maximum fan speeds can be defined in 10% increments. You can even tweak how quickly the fan responds to changes in temperature.
Deciding to live dangerously, I set the startup temperature to 50°C with a 40% startup speed. With those settings, the Zbox played back 1080p H.264 video for hours without making much more than a whisper. The temperature of the CPU cores never exceeded 60°C according to SpeedFan, and the GPU didn’t climb above 75°. However, even after half an hour of playback, the Zbox’s exterior was noticeably warm to the touch.
For further testing, I loaded up the HD-ID11 with some older parts I had lying around the lab. The Zbox seems best suited to be a home-theater PC on the cheap, so I didn’t bother with anything fancy: 1GB of DDR2-667 memory and a 5,400-RPM, 120GB notebook hard drive. If you’d like to go a little more upscale, the Atom D510’s integrated memory controller does support DDR2 memory up to 800MHz.
Time to put the next-gen Ion’s PureVideo HD decode block to the test. The chart below includes approximate CPU utilization percentages gleaned from the Task Manager alongside subjective impressions of actual playback in Windows 7 x64. I used Windows Media Player to handle all playback tests and Firefox 3.6.6 with the Flash 10.1.53.64 plug-in for our windowed YouTube tests.
|DivX PAL SD||7-15%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 trailer QuickTime 480p||1-9%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 trailer QuickTime 720p||1-8%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 trailer QuickTime 1080p||1-8%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 trailer YouTube SD windowed||6-16%||Smooth|
|Iron Man 2 trailer YouTube HD 1080p windowed||12-17%||Smooth|
Surprisingly, it takes more CPU power to play back standard-definition DivX video of the sort one might pillage from BitTorrent than it does to display high-def H.264 content in all its 1080p glory. Even a single-core Atom CPU can easily handle SD DivX playback, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Nvidia spent the bulk of its PureVideo efforts improving HD decode acceleration.
Those efforts certainly paid off, because the Zbox played back the Iron Man 2 trailer perfectly all the way up to 1080p. Playback was also smooth when we viewed the very same trailer on YouTube. However, there was some stuttering when we changed resolutions and switched between windowed and full-screen modes, which falls just short of perfect on our subjective scale. A few kinks may need ironing out in Flash 10.1 or Nvidia’s drivers before we see perfect flash video playback from this new Ion. CPU utilization was still impressively low, though, and playback was smooth once we’d settled on a resolution and screen mode, regardless of which combination we chose. Flash video playback was smooth in Internet Explorer, as well.
Incidentally, properly accelerated Flash video playback requires Nvidia’s beta 258.69 drivers, which are available through nZone. Nvidia tells us that an official, WHQL-certified version of those drivers will be available in mid-July.
Out of curiosity, I monitored the Zbox’s power consumption at the wall outlet during our 1080p QuickTime and Flash video playback tests. The HD-ID11 drew 26W when playing the QuickTime trailer and 31W viewing the same clip on YouTube.
No OS, no problem
Unless you’re a regular on The Pirate Bay or qualify for a student discount, putting Windows 7 Home Premium on the ID11 is going to cost upwards of $100. Some might say that’s a small price to pay for what is arguably Microsoft’s finest OS to date. When you’re talking about a $220 barebones nettop, though, that’s a Windows tax of 45%. Fortunately, there are plenty of free Linux-based alternatives, and one in particular that’s perfectly suited to home-theater PC applications: XBMC.
I’ve been using XBMC since its life began as an illegitimate media player for modded Xbox consoles. Since then, XBMC has been tuned, polished, and massaged into one of the best media center applications out there. Xbox support was dropped a while ago, but you can get current versions of XBMC for Linux, OS X, and Windows. A Live CD that can be run off a USB thumb drive or installed directly to a system’s hard drive is also available, and I gave it a shot on the ID11.
XBMC takes full advantage of the Ion GPU’s PureVideo HD decode engine via the Video Decode and Presentation API for Unix (VDAPU). Playback was perfect with SD video and high-def content up to 1080p. The XBMC interface felt reasonably snappy, too, and even the music visualizations were rendered fluidly.
Although XBMC works just fine with the Zbox’s GPU, Gigabit Ethernet controller, and even its S/PDIF output, you’ll need to do some fiddling to get HDMI audio and the integrated Wi-Fi up to speed. There are a couple of tutorials online that explain the process, or you could just wait for the next revision of XBMC to be released. Zotac says the new version of the Live CD will fully support the HD-ID11.
Even a pseudo-quad-core Atom lacks the heft necessary to handle the latest and greatest games, so there’s little an Ion GPU can do to help on that front. It can, however, allow the Zbox to maintain playable frame rates in less demanding games that would otherwise be unplayableor even unloadableusing the Pine Trail platform’s ghetto integrated graphics. To get a sense of the sort of games the ID11 can play, I fired up a collection of titles and monitored frame rates using Fraps.
I began our gaming tests with Geometry Wars, which looks great on the Xbox 360 and was comfortably playable on the Zbox. Frame rates hovered between the mid-30s and mid-40s at 640×480, but I was unable to increase the resolution without the game crashing. I’ve seen this problem before with other systems, so it’s not an issue that’s unique to the Zbox or the Ion GPU.
AudioSurf was up next, and the Zbox managed frame rates in the mid-20s at 1080p with high detail levels. The game stuttered at times, but it was otherwise playable. Frame rates didn’t increase appreciably as I lowered the display resolution and detail levels, suggesting that the Atom CPU was the bottleneck here.
Beat Hazard combines elements of AudioSurf and Geometry Wars to great effect, and the game runs very well on the Zbox. Even at 1080p with high in-game details, frame rates hung around the mid-30s with heavy action and soared up to 100 FPS on occasion.
I have a soft spot for Darwinia‘s retro-3D aesthetic and geeky blend action and RTS gameplay. The game runs nice and smoothly on the Zbox at 1080p, as long as you drop the pixel shader effects from “full” to “partial”. Partial effects offered a solid 30 FPS, while full effects had frame rates dipping into the low 20s. All the other in-game effects were left at their highest settings.
Harry Potter is my least favorite subject of the Lego series of games, but it’s the most recent, so I downloaded the demo and gave it a shot. Much to my surprise, the Zbox maintained frame rates in the mid-20s at 1080p with full in-game details. The game was easily playable with those settings and only stuttered when the main menu’s backdrop panned over a foggy castle scene. I suspect the sort of audience that finds Lego: Harry Potter engaging isn’t going to be picky about playing at a little less than 30 FPS.
PC enthusiasts seem to be particularly fond of Torchlight, which has a distinctly Diablo feel. This budget dungeon crawler is quite playable on the Zbox, even at 1080p. At that resolution with shadow and particle effects set to medium, the HD-ID11 rendered the game at 30-40 FPS with only the occasional hiccup. Annoyingly, the game crashed every time we changed the resolution. Unlike with Geometry Wars, though, the changes actually stuck.
Since it’s mentioned in Nvidia’s reviewer’s guide for the next-gen Ion, I also gave Need for Speed World Online a shot with the Zbox. The guide points out that the open-world racer runs on Ion but not on Pine Trail’s integrated graphics, yet it doesn’t provide any performance benchmarks. Now I know why. The game loads without issue, but I was unable to get anything close to smooth frame rates, even after scaling back the resolution and detail levels all the way. Had frame rates been playable with those settings, the game still would have looked atrocious. Sometimes you need a little eye candy.
To be fair, it’s possible one could achieve better performance with a Zbox configuration that used 2GB of DDR2-800 memory rather than the single gig of DDR2-667 we used for testing. However, I wouldn’t bet on much of a speedup. If you’re looking for better gaming performance, there are far better solutions available.
Although I spent the bulk of my Zbox testing time fiddling with XBMC, video playback, and games, I did log some time using the system as my primary desktop. Well, trying to, anyway. You see, the Ion GPU’s PureVideo HD decode engine nicely accelerates Flash video playback, but it doesn’t help with other Flash content. That makes multi-tabbed browsing with Flash-heavy sites more than a little sluggish, even when compared to my dual-core, CULV-based notebook. The Zbox’s Atom D510 is still adequate for basic desktop applications, but the performance compromise will be obvious to anyone accustomed to using a full-fledged desktop or notebook PC.
That said, I didn’t notice much of a slowdown when the Zbox was tasked with typical home-theater PC duties such as video playback, music visualizations, picture slideshows, and casual gaming. The next-gen Ion deserves much if not all of the credit on those fronts, since a vanilla implementation of Intel’s Pine Trail Atom platform would’ve choked on both games and video playback.
Zotac did well to tuck the latest Atom/Ion tandem under the hood of its Zbox HD-ID11 nettop. From an enthusiast’s standpoint, it did even better by making the system a barebones box that allows you to choose the memory, hard drive, and operating system. You don’t need to add much more since the Zbox already comes with all the essentials: decent fan speed controls, a memory card reader, Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, a S/PDIF audio output, and both DVI and HDMI video outs. All that’s missing is an integrated TV tuner, and that you can add via one of the six USB ports.
It’s hard to ask for more given the Zbox’s $220 street price. I do wish Zotac had gone with an external Wi-Fi antenna, though. There’s definite appeal to having the antenna stealthily integrated into the chassis, but not when reception suffers as a result. Providing a couple of antenna jacks in the rear port cluster would at least allow users to add their own. Putting a copy of XBMC Live in the box would also be a nice touch, although Zotac is better off waiting for the next version, which will natively support the system’s Wi-Fi and HDMI audio.
I’m harping on XBMC because I think it’s the perfect companion for a barebones nettop like the Zbox. With a remote (XBMC supports loads of ’em) and a few spare parts culled from an old laptop, the HD-ID11 can be built on the cheap as a near-silent home-theater PC with a tiny footprint, low power consumption, and just enough style to blend into the living room. You can also put together an even more capable Zbox with a high-capacity 12.5-mm hard drive, 4GB of memory, and Windows 7. Having the option to do eitheror something entirely differentis what makes the Zbox unique and TR Recommended. Finally, a compelling nettop that enthusiasts can make their own.