Internal affairs–thinking inside the box
Here are a few shots of the case interior, to give you an idea of the layout and what you'll be working with, should you decide to double the RAM or replace the 250GB hard drive with a more capacious model. Adding memory should be easy thanks to the fact that only one of the system's two SO-DIMM slots is occupied.
As you can see, there is a nice, clean look to the interior. Feeling the urge to make it look a tad messier (in keeping with the overriding theme of my home), I removed the Samsung hard drive from its bracket and snapped another photo.
The hard drive is easy enough to remove. There are six screws involved—four holding the hard drive in place and two keeping the connection bracket steady. Zotac employs a standard Serial ATA interface, so any other 2.5" hard drive or SSD will happily fit. If you're going to perform a swap, choose your replacement hard drive carefully. Unlike previous Zbox models, which support hard drives up to 12.5 mm thick, this new chassis can only accommodate 9.5-mm units. 9.5 mm is the standard for notebook drives, with the 12.5-mm drive height typically reserved for high-capacity designs destined for external enclosures.
Although it's largely hidden by the hard drive in the picture above, the Zbox gets by with only a single fan to cool its CPU and graphics chip. Operating temperatures are reasonable. While prolonged usage would cause the case's exterior to get warm to the touch, you're not going to toast your fingertips. I was particularly impressed with the system's consistently quiet noise levels. Other than a few isolated incidents where the fan kicked into high gear (typically when the CPU was under a heavy and sustained load), it barely made a sound. There's no need to worry about fan noise drowning out the compelling, well-written dialogue in Jackass 3D.
Zotac ships this machine with a VESA compatible bracket, so I decided to see how the system would fare mounted to the back of an LCD monitor. LG's 19" L194WT display served as my guinea pig.
From most angles, the end result look reasonably slick. However, as the second picture reveals, the display's large, protruding hinge prevent the VESA mounting bracket from sitting flush against the back of the monitor, so the two bottom screws can't be fastened. The Zbox is still mounted securely, but this particularly configuration surely puts more strain on the top two screws, and it looks a bit unsightly from the side. Not all displays have hinges that protrude in the same fashion, of course, so your particular mileage may vary.
Attaching the case to the back of a LCD panel somewhat compromises the accessibility of the various ports and the Blu-ray drive, but it's still a nice option to have in any home-theater PC. At least the optical drive is facing upward, which improves its accessibility significantly. If you're not happy strapping the Zbox behind a monitor or TV, you could always drill a couple of holes in your wall and mount it there. Or you could just leave the system sitting on its feet. The point is, you have options.
Setting up the system
Though this Zbox model comes fully equipped and ready to go from a hardware perspective, it lacks an operating system. I, for one, welcome our OS-excluding overlords. Shipping the system with a blank hard drive may help cut costs, and I would think many enthusiasts in the market for a box like this one probably have a spare Windows license kicking around. Some might not be opposed to installing their Linux distribution of choice, either. Being a conformist from a long, proud line of conformists, I selected Windows 7 Ultimate x86.
The installation went fairly smoothly, although only the lone USB 2.0 port and the hybrid eSATA/USB port worked before I installed Windows and loaded up the Zbox's SuperSpeed USB drivers. (Windows 7 lacks out-of-the-box support for the new USB standard.) Not being able to use the SuperSpeed ports out of the box isn't a dealbreaker, but you will want to make sure your keyboard is connected to one of the other ports—otherwise, trying to get into the BIOS will prove frustrating.
After installing Windows 7, I hit Windows Update to gather all the necessary patches... well, I tried to. Thus began my frustrating encounter with the wireless capability of this system. My aging Acer laptop can see around 10 different networks and consistently connect to the one hosted by my D-link WBR-1310 802.11g router. In addition, my iPod Touch and my roommate's Mac handle wireless networking with similar deftness. The Zbox, on the other hand, could only detect two networks. Attempts to connect to my home network failed even as, with increasing frustration, I moved the system until it was in the same room as the router, well within 10 feet of it. That kind of destroys the convenience factor of wireless networking, doesn't it?
As it turns out, our networking problems appear to have been caused by a defective unit. Zotac sent out a replacement, and its wireless performance is nowhere near as bad. I've moved since testing the original, and in my current basement suite, the new Zbox's reception still isn't as good as that of my Acer laptop. At 20 feet with one thin wall between the systems and my router, the Acer shows five bars of signal strength, while the Zbox oscillates between 4 and 5 bars. From 40 feet away, behind a more substantial wall and door, the Acer's signal strength is just as strong and browsing is snappy. In the same location, the Zbox only lights up two of five bars, and surfing feels slightly sluggish.
It's worth noting that Zbox systems have a history of poor wireless reception. Both of the units we reviewed earlier this year had limited range, although neither suffered from the severe connection problems that plagued our first sample of the HD-ID34. All of Zotac's Zbox designs eschew external wireless antennae in favor of one integrated directly into the chassis, though. This decision is a win from an aesthetic perspective, but there are definite drawbacks on the reception front.