Netbooks deserve a lot of credit not only for ushering in an era of affordable ultra-mobile computing, but also for spawning a new class of small-form-factor systems dubbed nettops. These similarly inexpensive PCs are less intimidating than cobbling together a Mini-ITX rig from discrete components, and they're usually smaller and cheaper than do-it-yourself alternatives. There are performance limitations, of course, but the low-power platforms that underpin nettops get more potent with each new generation.
At the moment, AMD's Brazos platform—specifically its Zacate APU—is the cream of the crop. The chip's dual CPU cores are quick enough to handle basic desktop computing tasks, and its integrated Radeon graphics processor has formidable video decoding capabilities in addition to a healthy dose of 3D horsepower. This well-balanced attack makes Zacate ideal for home-theater PCs and lightweight desktops, so it's no surprise that we've seen numerous nettop makers get in on the action.
Zotac didn't take long to trot out a Zbox AD02 with a Zacate-based E-350 APU inside. The AD02's 7.4" x 7.4" x 1.7" (188 x 188 x 44 mm) dimensions are pretty typical for a nettop, so it doesn't break any new ground. However, the same can't be said for the new Zbox Nano AD10, which is half the size, just as fast, and even better equipped.
A handful of Zacate
Yes, the Nano actually fits into one of my meaty mitts. The thing measures only 5" x 5" x 1.8" (127 x 127 x 44 mm), giving it a substantially smaller footprint than the old Zbox, while maintaining a similar thickness. To put things into perspective, consider that the Mac Mini has dimensions of 7.7" x 7.7" x 1.4" (197 x 197 x 36 mm).
Of course, the Mini starts at $600 and features a Core i5 CPU, so it's not really in the same class. When decked out with a 320GB hard drive and 2GB of RAM, the Nano is slated to cost just $320. That fully loaded model is known as the Zbox Nano AD10 Plus, and it doesn't include an OS. There will also be a Plus-less barebones variant sold sans hard drive and memory for just $270.
|Processor||AMD E-350 1.6GHz|
|Graphics||AMD Radeon HD 6310|
|Platform hub||AMD Hudson M1|
|Memory||Micron 2GB DDR3-1066 SO-DIMM|
|Storage||Samsung HM321HI 5,400 RPM, 320GB|
|Audio||Realtek ALC892 (2.1 analog, 7.1 digital)|
|Wireless||802.11n Wi-Fi via Atheros AR9002WB-1NG
2 USB 3.0 via NEC D720200
2 USB 2.0
1 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via Realtek RTL8111E
1 eSATA 6Gbps
1 analog headphone out
1 analog microphone in
|Expansion||1 MMC/SD/SDHC/MS/MS Pro/xD card reader|
|Dimensions||5" x 5" x 1.8" (127 x 127 x 45 mm)|
Both versions of the AD10 feature the same AMD E-350 APU, which has dual CPU cores clocked at 1.6GHz alongside a DirectX 11-class Radeon HD 6310 GPU. Our initial review of the E-350 covers the chip's features and performance in much more detail than we'll indulge here. It's enough to say that the E-350's CPU cores are faster than the leading Atom platform, whose anemic IGP doesn't even deserve to be mentioned in the same breath as the APU's integrated Radeon. The E-350's only real competition comes from Atom systems that include Nvidia's discrete Ion GPU. That three-chip solution isn't as slick—or as power-efficient—as the two-chip tag team that makes up the Brazos platform.
The second member of that tandem, the Hudson M1 platform hub, is loaded with contemporary conveniences like 6Gbps Serial ATA and second-generation PCI Express connectivity. We've found that those features offer similar performance to desktop chipsets, making Brazos even more appealing.
The Nano's 5,400-RPM hard drive isn't nearly quick enough to take advantage of Hudson M1's 6Gbps Serial ATA controller, but one could conceivably plug a faster drive into the eSATA port at the rear. Unfortunately, the port doesn't feature integrated USB power. That omission is particularly maddening in light of the fact that the AD10 has a mere two USB 2.0 ports; Hudson M1's circuitry allows for 14, but Zotac doesn't take advantage.
At least the company was smart enough to add a couple of SuperSpeed USB 3.0 ports to the rear of the system. There's no reason for people to be forced to endure plodding USB 2.0 transfer rates when using external storage devices. With internal storage limited to a single drive, external solutions are probably even more popular in the nettop world than they are with desktops.
On the networking front, the Nano complements its Gigabit Ethernet jack with built-in Bluetooth 3.0 and 802.11n Wi-Fi. Unlike Zbox designs that feature integrated antennas, the Nano has a jack for an external one. We haven't been impressed with the signal reception of Zotac's integrated antennas, so the external option is much appreciated. It seems to have better reception, too.
The presence of dual digital display outputs is also a nice touch. The DisplayPort output probably won't see much action, but the HDMI port will work equally well with big-screen TVs and inexpensive desktop monitors. If you have a fancy receiver, note that Zacate's integrated Radeon is capable of piping TrueHD and DTS-MA audio bitstreams over HDMI.
Don't want audio piggybacked on your video stream? The only other output option is an analog headphone jack up front. It's joined by a microphone port and a 6-in-1 memory card reader. Sadly, there's no front-panel USB connectivity. Zotac includes an IR receiver for the bundled remote instead.
To the left of the IR eye sits the power button and a trio of unobtrusive indicator lights for power, disk, and Wi-Fi activity. In case you miss the power LED, a sizable green ring glows from behind the glossy plastic top panel when the Nano is operating. I like the additional aesthetic touch, but I'm even more enamored with the fact that Zotac makes it easy for users to turn off the extra lighting.
TR's resident fashion police probably gagged halfway through that last paragraph when they saw "glossy plastic" mentioned. The Nano's top and bottom panels are clad in the same shiny black finish that has polluted the notebook world. While the smudge-prone exterior treatment is a fingerprint-filled nightmare on devices that are handled constantly, it's really not that annoying on a nettop that's likely to spend its life sitting on a desk, tucked under a television, or hanging anywhere you please.