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
|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.
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.
Moving on, I turned my attention to video playback and explored how smoothly the Zbox handled a collection of Blu-ray movies and HD video files. Particular attention was paid to how smoothly each video played and how much attention it required from the CPU.
Windows 7 isn’t equipped to play Blu-ray movies by default, so that was handled by CyberLink’s PowerDVD 9, which Zotac includes with the system. A quick glance at Cyberlink’s website shows that PowerDVD 9 is not the most current or feature-packed iteration, but it still handles basic Blu-ray chores with ease. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is supported, as is output over HDMI 1.3, with lossless pass-through for audio. Unlike more expensive editions, however, PowerDVD 9 doesn’t support Blu-ray 3D playback or 5.1-channel DTS-HD audio output.
Strangely, our initial unit’s Blu-ray drive regularly dropped out of sight within Windows. At times, simply popping in a different disc would resurrect the drive. That didn’t always work, requiring a reboot—or multiple reboots—to bring the drive back to life. Fortunately, the second Zbox unit we received from Zotac exhibited none of those issues. That’s good, because frequently losing access to the optical drive would be kind of a dealbreaker on a machine like this one.
With that out of the way, let’s get on with our playback tests, which begin with a trio of Blu-ray movies covering each of the three encoding type used by the standard. These particular titles were chosen for their relatively high bitrates, so they should present a decent challenge for the Ion GPU’s PureVideo HD decode engine. Not content to test Blu-ray playback alone, I also fired up Firefox 3.6.10 with the Flash 10.1.5.3 plug-in to see if a 1080p YouTube clip would render smoothly. After that, I used Windows Media Player to view a high-def trailer for Scream 4.
|28 Days Later Blu-ray||18-31%||Perfect|
|Nature’s Journey Blu-ray
|The Town YouTube 1080p
|Scream 4 QuickTime 1080p
All the movies and video clips we threw at the Zbox played perfectly smoothly. CPU utilization was reasonably low, as well. Two of the Blu-ray movies pegged the system’s dual-core Atom at 31%, but that was as high as CPU utilization got during our playback tests.
Gaming and productivity
The Zbox’s video playback prowess proven, I began testing the system’s gaming chops. With an Atom CPU and what amounts to Nvidia’s lowest-end graphics chip, this will most certainly will not be your main gaming rig. Still, who wouldn’t want to play a few games on their home-theater PC? All testing was performed at a 1280×800 resolution with low detail levels and v-sync disabled. In-game frame rates were logged with Fraps.
DiRT 2 was up first, and performance wasn’t great. Even with in-game details turned all the way down, I experienced frequent slowdowns while playing. Typically, the slowdowns occurred when I was in the process of pulverizing my vehicle beyond recognition. The frame rate ranged from a low of 9 FPS to a high of 19, which isn’t really smooth enough for a driving game.
Up next was Mafia II, which the Zbox handled with frame rates between 11 and 20 FPS. Again, those are pretty low numbers. There was palpable and irritating stuttering in action scenes, making it difficult to really call this one playable.
The Zbox clearly doesn’t have the grunt to handle big-name games, so I gave it a shot with Trine, a less demanding title. This 3D platformer ran perfectly, and not once did I feel like I was waiting for the system to catch up. Frame rates hit a low of 24 FPS and peaked at 57. As you can see below, the detail level was somewhat low, and image quality wasn’t anything to write home about. If you were playing from a couch, though, that wouldn’t be a huge issue. (Trine is no DiRT 2 or Mafia II, anyway.)
After my gaming session, I sat down for some real work in a task I often find myself occupied with: light photo editing. I fired up Picasa to make some minor lighting corrections to recent photos from Moraine Lake. When making these corrections, I was surprised at the significant lag that occurred. Granted, the Zbox is being marketed to home-theater enthusiasts, but one would think light photo editing should be well within its capabilities. After all, this is Picasa we’re talking about—very much a consumer-level photo editing app. From the looks of it, the Zbox HD-ID34 might be better suited to consuming media than creating or modifying it.
Photo editing is asking a lot of the Atom CPU, but what about general web browsing and desktop use? In this realm, the machine delivered a good but not great experience. With two or three tabs open in Firefox, the Zbox offered smooth browsing even on Flash-laden pages. However, when I had eight or nine different tabs open, there was a perceptible slowdown in speed. When carrying out day-to-day Windows tasks like copying files, installing programs, and so on, the system felt somewhat slower than I would have liked. That’s par for the course for anything with an Atom CPU, even a fancy one with dual cores.
The Zbox is really designed to be a media player, so I spent some time playing around with Windows 7’s Media Center UI. Windows 7 has brought a fairly impressive level of polish to its 10-foot interface, and a system like this one is probably going to spend a lot of time using it to browse pictures, music, and videos. As I loaded up Media Center and tooled around a bit, exploring options and adding videos to my library, I was generally satisfied with the speed and feel of the experience. I encountered a few random slowdowns that were a little annoying, but having experienced similar hiccups on much faster (and pricier) systems, I’m not inclined to blame the Zbox.
Priced at $499, the Zbox HD-ID34 isn’t quite in impulse buy territory. Neither is the completely barebones variant, the HD-ID33, which will hit Newegg at $399 next week. Cash-strapped users might have an easier time forking the dough for simpler barebones rigs like the $220 Zbox HD-ID11 or the $270 HD-ND22, but they’re missing key ingredients for the living room.
Blu-ray support is a big bonus for a home-theater PC, and those other Zbox systems lack optical drives completely. The same goes for USB 3.0 connectivity. The ID34 also offers a considerable aesthetic upgrade with a clean, sleek, and attractive new chassis design. This latest Zbox will look completely at home alongside your other home-theater components, where it won’t take up much room at all. With delightfully low noise levels, you probably won’t hear the system, either.
We’ve been discussing the Zbox in the context of a home-theater PC because that’s really what it does best. The Atom CPU isn’t fit for even mildly demanding desktop tasks, but thanks to its Ion sidekick, video playback is smooth across Blu-ray titles, HD videos, and 1080p YouTube clips. With a modicum of 3D horsepower, the Zbox can also handle light gaming, although we’d recommend sticking to more casual and indie titles.
Networking is an important component of any home-theater PC, and while the Zbox scores points for its GigE port, the Wi-Fi reception issues we encountered with our initial unit aren’t encouraging. The replacement wasn’t as bad, but it wasn’t terribly good, either. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen one of Zotac’s internal antenna offer limited range. We’re inclined to write off the issues we encountered with the first system’s disappearing Blu-ray drive as an artifact of an early sample, since Zotac doesn’t have a history of issues on that front.
Ultimately, I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Zbox’s overall performance. Perhaps that’s because the Zbox HD-ND22, which combines the original Ion chipset with a dual-core Celeron SU2300, is much more responsive with desktop tasks and has far superior gaming credentials. As a low-cost desktop, that’s a much better option. But without a Blu-ray drive and USB 3.0, it’s not as good of a home-theater PC. If only Zotac could combine the two… and add a proper antenna.