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.
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.
Getting to the guts
With the thumbscrews retaining it removed, the bottom panel easily slides off to reveal the Zbox’s internals. Behold:
Ok, so maybe the motherboard isn’t that exciting. It actually looks quite barren, but that’s what you get with a small-form-factor nettop whose CPU and core-logic chipset are spread across just two chips. Both are hidden under a shrouded heatsink that hosts the Zbox’s only fan.
The fan is reasonably quiet, and the BIOS offers a handful of tweaking options for those who want to balance cooling performance with noise levels. Users can set minimum and maximum CPU temperature triggers between 0° and 100° C in fine-grained 1° increments. The fan’s minimum and maximum duty cycle (its speed, essentially) can also be configured via the BIOS, which is more than can be said for some desktop motherboards. I’m looking at you, Gigabyte.
Decent fan-speed controls are vital in a system like this, and Zotac didn’t stop there. The BIOS lets one overclock the system by raising the speed of the front-side bus, memory clock, and even the core and shader clocks on the integrated GPU. It’s possible to underclock those elements, as well, but you won’t find much in the way of voltage controls. Only the chipset’s voltage can be adjusted, and then between just two values.
Although overclocking controls have dubious value in a system like this one, Zotac deserves props for putting a full suite of memory timing options into the BIOS. These timing controls could come in handy if you’re using obscure SO-DIMMs whose SPD settings aren’t detected correctly.
Because the Zbox shares system memory with its integrated GPU, you’ll want to populate both of its memory channels. I slipped in a couple of 2GB DDR3-1066 modules pillaged from a CULV-powered notebook. 4GB of RAM is probably overkill, but it’s what I had kicking around the lab. A 2x1GB memory configuration should be more than sufficient for most folks’ needs, at least with a system of this caliber.
Installing the SO-DIMMs couldn’t have been easier. The modules are keyed to fit one way only, and they snap neatly into place with little effort.
The only other bit of hardware to add is a 2.5″ storage device. Seagate’s Momentus XT flash/mechanical hybrid is an intriguing option for this kind of system, but I ultimately settled on Western Digital’s latest Scorpio for testing. The Scorpio Black 500GB is WD’s first attempt at that capacity in a 7,200-RPM mobile drive, and its five-year warranty is a nice boost over the three years of coverage typical of consumer-grade hard drives.
If you’re looking for more storage, Seagate offers 7,200-RPM mobile drives with capacities up to 750GB. That’s also a common capacity point for 5,400-RPM drives, although you’ll obviously sacrifice some performance with the slower spindle speed.
The 2.5″ bay will also accept thicker 12.5-mm drives. Mobile drives typically limit their thickness to 9.5 mm to maintain compatibility with most notebooks. However, a number of 12.5-mm drives have been released with 5,400-RPM spindle speeds and terabyte capacities, and the Zbox accommodates them nicely.
The Zbox can accept thicker 2.5″ drives in part because its hard drive retention mechanism is so slick. One thumbscrew tightens a hinged clamp that secures drives in place. Installation takes only seconds, and the drive is cushioned by a series of vibration-absorbing pads that line the retention bracket.
If you’re willing to break the warranty-voiding stickers covering two of the four screws anchoring the motherboard to the chassis, you can flip the mobo over and gain access to a pair of Mini PCI Express slots. The first is occupied by the system’s Wi-Fi card, whose exposed leads should make it easy for enterprising hobbyists seeking to add an external antenna. The empty second slot could be used to add PVR capabilities with this Mini PCIe tuner card. Or you could add a low-capacity SSD to serve as an OS and applications drive.
You won’t be losing out on much if you void the Zbox’s warranty. Zotac only offers one year of coverage for the system.
Living with a desktop CULV
Windows 7 will probably be the OS of choice for this particular Zbox, but you’re free to run older versions of Windows, various flavors of Linux, or even to attempt a hackintosh build. To keep things simple, I installed a 64-bit version of Windows 7 and started digging into some everyday tasks. With an eye toward evaluating the Zbox’s desktop chops in the real world, I also installed AVG’s free virus scanner and the Spybot anti-spyware app. Both were running in the background throughout my testing.
With web browsing and document editing, the Zbox feels quite a lot like my CULV-powered ultraportable. That system has a faster Pentium SU7300 CPU and a solid-state disk, so it feels a little snappier, especially when loading applications. The difference between the two is minimal, though, and it’s probably not something the average user would detect on his own. I suspect Joe Sixpack would have no problem differentiating the Celeron SU2300 from a dual-core Atom, however. A bunch of Firefox tabs can easily bring the Atom to its knees, yet the Celeron remains nice and responsive with the same workload. Multitasking feels smoother than what I’ve experienced on dual-core Atom systems, as well.
What about video playback? To stress the Ion chipset’s PureVideo HD decode engine, I watched a series of video clips while keeping an eye on CPU utilization. Windows Media Player was used to play local content, and Firefox hosted the YouTube clip with a little help from the latest version of Flash 10.1.
|DivX PAL SD||0-8%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 trailer 1080p||0-8%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube HD
The 1080p, H.264-encoded Iron Man 2 trailer played just as smoothly on the Zbox as a standard-definition DivX clip of the sort one might find on BitTorrent. CPU utilization didn’t spike higher than 8% for either video, and playback was perfectly flawless.
A streaming YouTube version of the same Iron Man 2 trailer proved considerably more challenging, raising CPU utilization to between 40 and 51%. Frame rates remained impeccable, however, and there was plenty leftover CPU capacity to devote to instant messaging, your Twitter client, and other apps.
While playing the YouTube trailer, the Zbox drew just 31.6W at the wall socket. Our digital sound level meter registered 41 decibels a distance of two inches from the front edge of the chassis with the system oriented vertically in its stand. We measured 43 dB at the same distance from the right side and a louder 49 dB from the left, likely due to the position of the fan and intake port. At a couple of feet away, the Zbox is whisper quiet. Put it opposite the couch in your living room, and you’ll never hear the thing.
Curious to see whether the system’s single fan would keep the internals cool over time, I looped the same YouTube trailer for several hours in the Benchmarking Sweatshop, which has an ambient temperature of 27° C at this time of year. System temperatures quickly plateaued, with the CPU cores hovering at 61° C, and the GPU and hard drive both at 56° C. That’s not bad for a small-form-factor rig with limited airflow and a single, tiny fan.
When paired with anemic Atom CPUs, Nvidia’s Ion GPUs haven’t been able to deliver on their gaming potential. What happens when you team the same class of GPU with a stripped-down Core 2 Duo?
Games like Left 4 Dead 2 actually run. We enjoyed reasonably fluid frame rates in the mid-to-low 30s when running the game at 1366×768 with medium detail settings. Heavy action or smoke would drop Fraps’ FPS counter into the 20s, but the game was still very playable.
Modern Warfare 2 was also enjoyable, although we had to disable smoke edges and shadows to smooth things out at 1366×768. Frame rates stuck to the mid-to-low 30s in quieter scenes and dropped to the low 20s when gunfire and explosions filled the screen. Lowering the resolution will buy you a few extra FPS, but you only want to go so low with a desktop display.
I didn’t know what to expect from DiRT 2 and was pleasantly surprised to see the game running at 27-33 FPS through several laps of one track. I had to use the ultra-low detail setting at 1366×768, but the game still looks decent, even if it’s missing smoke and water effects.
Alien Swarm has to be one of the best free games out there right now. Unfortunately, this co-op shooter proved to be a little too much for the Zbox to handle. At best, I saw frame rates in the low-to-mid 20s. Start mowing down aliens, and you’re looking at the high teens. Lowering the resolution didn’t help, and neither did dialing down all the in-game detail settings.
Those first four games are pretty demanding overall, so I gave the Zbox a bit of a break with a couple of more casual titles.
A personal favorite of mine, AudioSurf ran at a constant 30 FPS with the second-highest detail setting at a resolution of 1920×1080, or 1080p.
Beat Hazard did even better at the same resolution, with frame rates spiking over 100 FPS and never dipping below 40. Big-name games from the last year might be a bit of a stretch for the Zbox, but this little system has no problems handling less demanding titles.
While conducting our gaming tests, I ran into an odd and intermittent issue when exiting games. Occasionally, the screen would simly go blank instead of returning to the desktop as expected. This only happened when the rig’s Dell S2409 monitor was connected via HDMI (DVI output was unaffected), and I was able to get back to the desktop by turning off the monitor, unplugging the HDMI cable, turning the monitor back on, and reconnecting the cable. Zotac is looking into the matter, although the fact that this only occurs when exiting 3D games makes me think it’s a problem with Nvidia’s latest 258.96 graphics drivers rather than with the Zbox itself.
If you’re privy to the sort of off-the-record, back-room conversations that take place at industry events, you might’ve heard a story about Intel releasing the Celeron SU2300 in a bid to kill off premium netbooks based on Nvidia’s initial Ion platform. That may well be true, because we sure didn’t see a lot of first-gen Ion designs in the netbook space. In any case, they would have been hard to recommend opposite a similarly sized ultraportable with a cut-down Core 2 Duo at the same price.
Nearly a year later, I can’t help but see some irony in Intel’s CULV Celeron working hand-in-hand with the very same Ion MCP. And what a pair they make. What is effectively a 1.2GHz Core 2 Duo might seem antiquated by enthusiast standards, but it’s all the CPU most folks need. One might say something similar about the
GeForce 9300 Ion chipset, which has a solid video decode engine, a capable 3D graphics core, and plenty of functionality for small-form-factor systems. The original Ion platform really had too much GPU for the underpowered Atom CPU with which it was paired. Swapping in this dual-core Celeron brings things nicely into balance.
This combination probably won’t kill off Atom-based nettops, but I wish it wouldat least the premium models, anyway. For desktop workloads, the SU2300 is simply a much more capable processor than any Atom Intel has released thus far. The Celeron can also handle games that won’t run smoothly on any Atom CPU, and since it’s an ultra-low-voltage mobile part, the SU2300’s power consumption and cooling requirements are quite reasonable.
Being able to roll your own nettop around this well-matched couple is icing on the cake. Sweet, delicious icing. I love the barebones nettop concept, and the Zbox HD-ND22 has just about all the features one might need in a basic desktop PC: loads of USB ports, wired and wireless networking, an SD card reader, and multiple digital video outputs. The only thing that’s really missing is USB 3.0 connectivity. Well, that and a Wi-Fi antenna with decent reception at long range.
Zotac expects the ND22 to sell for $270 when it becomes available next month. At that price, the Celeron-powered Zbox will cost $50 more than its Ion-based cousin, which runs about $220 online. The SU2300 is absolutely worth the extra scratch for desktop applications, and I’d probably go with it for home-theater PC duty, if only to have a little headroom in reserve.
The Zbox HD-ID11 has already been singled out as TR Recommended, and since the ND22 is much more versatile without compromising what makes small-form-factor systems so attractive, it deserves one better: Editor’s Choice distinction. We don’t bust out this award often, but the ND22 is a unique specimen, something I can see using to build systems for friends, family, and even myself.