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Zotac's Zbox HD-ID34BR-U nettop

Atom and Ion meet Blu-ray and USB 3.0

The home-theater PC has certainly evolved in recent years. There was a time when the HTPC designation simply signified any system that was set up in the living room and hooked up to your television, so you could play back downloaded episodes of The Simpsons (before it went downhill). This kind of rig would often boast a desktop CPU, a Radeon All-in-Wonder graphics card, and plenty of storage capacity. All that might have been shoehorned into a microATX case with concessions made for quieter cooling, but initial HTPCs were basically desktop PCs moved into the living room.

Nowadays, system size, power consumption, and aesthetic appeal are larger parts of the equation. The inclusion of high-definition video decoding capabilities in modern graphics chips and core-logic chipsets has muted the need for raw CPU muscle in home-theater PCs, allowing them to get by with less horsepower. Considering how slick modern home-theater setups have become with their flat-panel displays and sleek entertainment units, it's easy to see why folks are less inclined to add a PC to the mix if it resembles, well, a PC. At least from a cosmetic standpoint, the new breed of home-theater PCs has much more in common with consumer electronics devices like DVD players than it does with clunky desktop computers.

This seismic shift in HTPC priorities is exemplified by Zotac's Zbox HD-ID34BR-U, which is on our test bench today. Zotac's recent forays into small-form-factor desktops have been receiving a lot of attention here at The Tech Report, with Geoff reviewing one in July and another one in August. The newest addition to the Zbox family adds Blu-ray and USB 3.0 support, elements lacking in both of the well-regarded machines we covered this summer. As you can see, Zotac has also revamped its Zbox design with an eye toward the living room.

Meet the new Zbox
The first thing I noticed about the Zbox was its ultra-slim chassis, which is even smaller and sleeker than the pictures suggest. The casing reminds me less of a computer and more of a small, unobtrusive DVD player. I could see it fitting in nicely with the other components in my home entertainment cabinet—once I save up enough to buy a home entertainment cabinet second-hand off Craigslist, that is.

In a welcome departure from the glossy plastic that encases the other Zbox units we've reviewed recently, much of the new Zbox is wrapped in attractive brushed aluminum. There is some plastic in the new chassis, but it seems to be fairly impervious to fingerprints and smudges.

The front of the system offers a slot-loading Blu-ray drive (if you haven't seen The Notebook in high-definition, you really haven't seen it at all), a six-in-one card reader, two USB ports (one 2.0 and the other 3.0), a headphone jack, and a microphone input. The back of the system is laid out as follows:

There's plenty of connectivity to be had here, including another USB 3.0 port, a Gigabit Ethernet jack, a hybrid eSATA/USB port, a S/PDIF digital audio out, and DVI-D and HDMI display outputs ready to connect to your HDTV. 802.11n Wi-Fi is integrated, as well, and we'll explore that feature in a little later in the review.

With a Blu-ray drive and a design seemingly geared toward the living room, the Zbox is clearly set up to be a home-theater PC. However, Zotac doesn't include a remote, which is a strange omission for a system clearly intended to be controlled from the couch. Perhaps Zotac felt enthusiasts would already have their remote of choice locked and loaded, but it seems odd to exclude such a basic component of the home-theater experience.

Now that we've seen the Zbox from the outside, it's time to take a closer look at the hardware lurking inside.

Processor Intel Atom D525 1.8GHz
Memory 2GB DDR2-800 (2 SO-DIMMs)
Chipset Intel NM10 Express
Graphics Nvidia Next-generation Ion with 512MB DDR3
Storage Samsung Spinpoint M7 250GB 2.5" 5,400 RPM hard drive
Slimtype BD E DL4ETS Blu-ray reader and DVD writer
Audio High-definition audio via Realtek codec
Ports 2 USB 3.0
1 USB 2.0
1 eSATA/USB 2.0 combo port
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek controller
1 analog headphone output
1 analog microphone input
1 digital S/PDIF output
Expansion slots
Communications 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi via Ralink controller
Dimensions 7.4" x 11.0" x 1.5" (187 x 280 x 40 mm)

The Zbox HD-ID34 comes with a dual-core Atom D525 CPU that runs at 1.8GHz, a modest 133MHz faster than the 1.66GHz D510 used in the HD-ID11 we reviewed earlier this year. We weren't all that impressed with the ID11's performance as a desktop PC, and an extra 133MHz probably won't make a big difference. The Atom always has been a low-power CPU in more than one sense of the term.

Sacrificing performance to conserve power is a reasonable trade-off for mobile systems like netbooks, which can benefit from greater battery life and rarely serve as a user's main PC. In the nettop world, the modest thermal profile of Atom CPUs has lowered cooling requirements, enabling slimmer chassis like the one Zotac uses with the new Zbox. This, combined with the fact that home-theater PCs are typically tasked only with multimedia playback, has made the Atom well-suited to life in the living room. That said, you'll need to give it a helping hand to handle high-def content.

In the Zbox, assistance comes from Nvidia's next-generation Ion graphics processor. Nvidia tapped its existing GT218 graphics chip for duty with this Ion iteration. The GT218 is compliant with DirectX 10.1 and has 16 shader processors that tick along at 1.2GHz, while the rest of the chip runs at 545MHz. Unlike the original Ion integrated graphics chipset, which shared system memory with the CPU, the current incarnation is a discrete GPU with dedicated memory connected via a 64-bit memory interface. Zotac provides the Ion GPU in the Zbox with 512MB of DDR3 that runs at 790MHz. Having a competent GPU onboard should allow the Zbox to play a decent selection of games, although the Atom may hold it back on that front. We'll take a closer look at gaming performance in a moment.

The real jewel in the new Ion GPU's crown, as least as it pertains to the Zbox, is PureVideo HD decoding. This feature accelerates the decoding of high-definition video content, promising silky smooth video playback at 1080p resolution with VC-1, MPEG2, and H.264, the three codecs used to encode Blu-ray movies. Furthermore, the PureVideo HD engine can be used by Flash 10.1 to accelerate the playback of Flash video.

Another aspect of the Zbox that stands out is its USB 3.0 connectivity. SuperSpeed USB has been slow to reach the mass market, but its adoption rate seems to be increasing at last. That's a good thing, because USB 3.0 promises a 10X increase in maximum transfer rates compared to its predecessor, USB 2.0. Check out our USB 3.0 primer for more details on the new spec.

USB 3.0 is especially useful for small-form-factor systems with little room for internal storage. The Zbox has only a single 2.5" drive bay, which was populated by a 250GB hard drive in the model we tested. USB 3.0 should provide a perfect avenue to add a few terabytes of storage for all your BitTorrent downloads backed-up DVD movies.

In addition to the 250GB hard drive, the Zbox comes with 2GB of RAM. That amount of memory might draw ridicule and snide remarks in a high-end desktop, but it's fine for a home-theater PC. The Atom CPU isn't capable of sustaining the kind of multitasking that would demand gobs of RAM, and if you're considering the Zbox as a Photoshop rig, you'll want to spend more time shopping around.

Those who have been following our Zbox reviews will note that the systems are usually sold as barebones rigs, sans hard drive, memory, and operating system. The HD-ID34BR-U we're looking at today is almost a complete system, lacking only an operating system. If you prefer the barebones approach, Zotac has a Zbox HD-ID33 that drops the hard drive and memory.