Ion comes home
With relatively low-power components lurking inside, the ND22 doesn't need much in the way of cooling. As we've noted, the Celeron SU2300 is an ultra-low-voltage processor designed for thin-and-light notebooks, so the Zbox gives it plenty of room to breathe. True to the Celeron name, the SU2300 is the lowest rung in the CULV lineup. The chip's dual cores run at 1.2GHz and share 1MB of cache between them.
Those familiar with CULV-equipped notebooks will probably be more accustomed to seeing the Pentium SU4100, which is similar to the Celeron with two exceptions: the Pentium has 2MB of shared L2 cache and a 1.3GHz clock speed. I suspect Zotac opted for the Celeron to shave a few dollars off the Zbox's price tag. The company is, however, willing to put an SU4100 inside this latest Zbox as a special-order build for retailers that might be interested.
To the left of the SU2300 in the picture above sits an Nvidia chip that began its life as the GeForce 9300 integrated graphics chipset. This highly integrated piece of silicon has been cast in numerous roles since being introduced nearly two years ago. The same basic chip has been used in MacBooks, microATX motherboards with LGA775 sockets, and opposite first-generation Atom CPUs in Nvidia's initial Ion platform.
On the graphics front, what is now dubbed the Ion chipset has 16 DirectX 10-class shader processors and is capable of writing out four pixels per clock. The graphics core is clocked at 450MHz, while the shaders run at more than twice that speed at 1.1GHz. If you're looking for a discrete equivalent, the closest comparable GPU would be the GT218 underpinning the GeForce 210M and 310M. Those are the slowest options in Nvidia's mobile lineup, so don't expect the Zbox to be able to play the latest and greatest games without compromise.
You won't find so much compromise in the GPU's PureVideo HD decode engine, which is equipped to smooth the playback of local HD content encoded in H.264, VC-1, and MPEG2 formats. This decode engine can accelerate Flash 10.1 video playback, as well.
Oh, and did I mention that there's also a whole core-logic chipset attached to the GPU? Of particular note is the dual-channel DDR3 memory controller that will have to share memory bandwidth between the system and its integrated graphics processor, which lacks dedicated RAM. The Ion chipset also has all kinds of other built-in features, including 20 gen-two PCI express lanes, six Serial ATA ports, and a Gigabit Ethernet controller.
Obviously, much of the chipset's functionality is underutilized by the Zbox. That said, employing this Nvidia MCP is still more efficient than pairing an Intel core-logic chipset with a discrete GPU. Such a configuration would require three chips to cover what the Ion does with one.
Plenty of ports
The Zbox is reasonably well equipped as far as small-form-factor desktops go.
Along its front edge, the ND22 lines up one USB port, a memory card reader, and headphone and microphone jacks. Those are the only analog audio ports in the entire system, but at least they're up front to make it easy to connect a headset for your next Skype session. The only other way to get sound out of the Zbox is to run it through the digital S/PDIF or HDMI outputs at the system's rear. Speakers and receivers with S/PDIF or HDMI inputs rarely come cheap, so you probably won't find either hooked up to the average user's desktop PC. The living room is a different story, of course.
Just around the corner from the power button lies another USB port hidden behind some kind of rubberized contraceptive device. This particular edge faces skyward when the Zbox in its upright position, making the port easy to access in any orientation.
At the rear, the Zbox has HDMI and DVI video outputs that can be used to power independent displays simultaneously. From here, we can also see four more USB ports and an external Serial ATA connector.
The eSATA plug isn't one of the new USB-powered flavors, which is almost as disappointing as the lack of USB 3.0 support. This might be a budget system, but it also has only one hard drive bay, and a 2.5" one at that. With no optical drive, you can bet the Zbox is going to spend a reasonable amount of time connected to an external storage device of some kind. Unpowered eSATA is far from ideal, and USB 2.0 is painfully slow. Even a single SuperSpeed USB port would go a long way here.
If you're going to rely on network-attached storage, the Zbox at least has a Gigabit Ethernet port stemming from its Ion chipset. An AzureWave Wi-Fi card provides 802.11n wireless connectivity, but there's no Bluetooth onboard.
Instead of shipping the Zbox with a conventional external antenna that plugs into the rear port cluster, Zotac integrated one into the chassis. That's a nice idea; however, the implementation falls short on the reception front. The embedded antenna maintains a decent signal throughout my admittedly small single-level home, but it won't hold a connection reliably out in the garage. Neither my Acer ultraportable nor my Eee PC has any problem staying connected in the garage, and I've even had a Mini-ITX system with a Zotac motherboard and an external antenna working just fine out there. Your mileage may vary, of course, but we observed similarly weak reception with the Atom-based Zbox ID11, which uses the same internal antenna.
The Zbox is sold as a barebones system, so it lacks a hard drive, memory, and operating system. Some users might be hesitant to put together such a system themselves, but there's really no reason to be shy. You don't even need tools to crack open the case, just one finger and an opposable thumb to turn the thumbscrews that secure the bottom panel.