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.
Peeking inside the box
Yep, you can hang this sucker anywhere you can drive a few screws.
Zotac includes a back plate that has 75- and 100-mm VESA bolt patterns. A pair of metal tabs hook into the Zbox to secure it in place, leaving the holes free for mounting to the back of a monitor, a wall, or even on the underside of a shelf or desk. As an added bonus, the presence of four pairs of anchor points in the Nano’s underbelly allow the system to be oriented with the expansion ports facing up, down, to the left, or to the right. It really is the little things that impress. If you’re curious about clearances, the plate measures 5.1″ (130 mm) square.
While a simple metal bracket isn’t the most impressive of accessories, the Nano’s included MCE remote might turn a few heads. Zotac is keenly aware of the fact that nettops make excellent home-theater PCs, and both the Plus and barebones versions of the AD10 come with the remote as standard equipment.
Apparently, Zotac isn’t familiar with what people actually do with remotes—that is, handle them while sitting on the couch, usually with a bowl of greasy snacks within arm’s reach. The polished black plastic that’s forgivable elsewhere on the Nano is a cardinal sin here. I don’t even want to know how streaked and smudged the mirror finish is going to look after a Top Gear marathon with a bowl of buttery popcorn. Ewww.
The shine also permeates the optional IR dongle, where it thankfully isn’t a problem. The dongle is really a must if you’re going to be mounting the Nano behind a monitor or on a wall, obscuring the remote’s line of sight to the front-panel receiver.
The only other accessory of note is the nondescript power brick that comes in the box. This 65W unit is all the Nano requires to keep running.
Actually, it only needs about a third of the power available in the PSU. The Nano sips just 12.7W from the wall socket when idling on the Windows 7 desktop. Play a 1080p video clip in Windows Media Player or via YouTube, and you’re looking at power consumption in the 20-21W range. Even when running a Prime95 CPU torture test alongside the Unigine Direct 11 graphics demo, the Nano registered only 27W on our watt meter.
Getting to the guts
The Nano’s need to function as both a pre-built system and as a barebones box necessitates that the internal drive bay and memory slot are easily accessible. Zotac is only too eager to oblige, securing the bottom panel with four rubber-headed thumbscrews that also serve as the device’s feet. Popping off the panel takes less time and effort than extracting the Zbox from its multiple layers of cardboard packaging.
Despite a tiny footprint, the Nano leaves enough room for my fat-fingered hands to get at the notebook memory stick and hard drive. Even the Mini PCI Express slot that plays host to the wireless card can be reached with relative ease.
This smaller Zbox casing does impose a few restrictions, though. The hard drive is held in place with a collection of tiny screws instead of the chunky thumbscrew that’s found in full-size Zbox nettops. Those larger systems can accommodate thicker 12.5-mm notebook drives, but the Nano is limited to the 9.5-mm standard.
The single SO-DIMM slot is another limitation, but it’s not a serious one. You get a 2GB module in the Plus version of the AD10, which is probably enough for the sort of tasks that suit the Nano. Since Zacate has but one memory channel, adding a second SO-DIMM wouldn’t improve performance. If you simply want to run more RAM, the Nano supports up to 4GB of DDR3-1066.
Although the average user will have no need to extract the Nano’s motherboard completely, we couldn’t resist the urge to steal a peek at the other side of the circuit board—and the system’s lone cooling solution. A single blower dominates the landscape and covers both the E-350 APU and its Hudson M1 partner. The cooler looks like something ripped off a $50 graphics card, and it’s not as silent as one might hope for use in the living room.
With the fully assembled Nano idling at the Windows desktop, I measured a 35-decibel noise level 6″ from the front face. That’s was in a room with an ambient noise level of just under 34 dB, making the unoccupied Nano all but silent. After firing up a 1080p YouTube video, the decibel meter registered an audible 40 dB. At this level, the fan noise sounds more like a hum than a whine. Unless you watch Flash videos in absolute silence, the low drone is only a minor annoyance from across the room where one’s couch might sit. I don’t trust the tiny blower to be so well behaved over time, though. Midget coolers tend to get noticeably louder as they age, and they’re not easy to replace.
Fortunately, Zotac provides a good amount of fan speed control in the Nano’s UEFI. Users can define the temperatures at which the fan turns off, ramps up, and spins at full speed. It’s also possible to control the slope of the fan response profile and set the startup speed. With fan controls like that, I can forgive the UEFI’s somewhat flickery mouse support.
Configured with the default fan profile, the Nano withstood all my attempts to make it overheat. Even when burdened by our CPU-and-GPU torture test, the E-350 didn’t climb past 61°C according to SpeedFan. 1080p YouTube video playback only warmed the APU to 50°C, up from an idle of 44°C. The hard drive idled at 40°C and gained just three degrees under our most strenuous of loads.
Flipping the heatsink reveals the Brazos duo fueling the Nano. The two-chip combo is tiny considering its capabilities.
This shot also gives us a nice look at Zotac’s creative solution to the problem of where to put the CMOS battery on a motherboard with zero free real estate and little vertical headroom. The battery is taped to the top of the memory card reader. If only duct tape had been used, this clever approach would be MacGyver-approved.
The Radeon HD 6310’s third-generation UVD video block is easily the Nano’s most important element for home-theater applications. So, is it any good? We fired up a collection of high-definition versions of the official Iron Man 2 trailer to find out. Local video playback was done with Windows Media Player, while YouTube content was streamed via Firefox 6.0 with the latest Adobe Flash 10.3 add-on.
|Iron Man 2 H.264 720p||0-10%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 H.264 1080p||3-17%||Perfect|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 1080p windowed||40-76%||Smooth|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 1080p fullscreen||86-100%||Smooth|
|Iron Man 2 YouTube 1080p fullscreen (replay)||18-63%||Smooth|
The Nano had no problems playing 720p or 1080p video files encoded with H.264. CPU utilization stayed under 20%, and playback was utterly flawless.
Throwing streaming Flash video into the mix complicates matters. Things went smoothly with windowed playback and video resolutions up to 1080p, although there was a hint of occasional stutter at the highest resolution. Blowing things up to full-screen made the first few seconds of video chug, and CPU utilization was higher on that first full-screen run than with subsequent replays, which smoothed the initial fumbling. 1080p Flash playback was still smooth enough to enjoy a collection of additional videos.
One of the best things about running a home-theater PC is the wealth of games available for the platform. With a dual-core CPU and an honest-to-goodness 6000-series Radeon GPU under the hood, the Nano has more gaming potential than one might expect from something that’s smaller than a Nintendo Wii.
I started with something easy: Frozen Synapse, which is a masterful combination of Counter-Strike and chess. The game isn’t too graphically demanding, and it ran smoothly at 1080p resolution with background animations turned off. Those animations don’t add much to the game, which hovered between 25 and 33 FPS without.
Next, I tackled Geometry Wars, a personal favorite that’s simple yet filled with bursts of visual flair. The Nano didn’t break a sweat with this one, staying at 60 FPS when running at 1080p resolution. Only when I hit a shortcut key to take a screenshot did the game hiccup.
Shank is a another favorite of mine, and it’s perfectly playable on the Nano. Fraps’ frame rate counter showed 18-20 FPS as I slashed my way through droves of stylized enemies at 1080p with full detail. The experience certainly felt smooth from where I was sitting, likely because the cel-shaded side-scroller is more tolerant of lower frame rates than a twitch shooter.
Enough messing around with indie hits. What about a blockbuster title like Portal 2? The game fared better than I expected, running at 18-30 FPS with a mix of high and medium detail levels at 1280×720. Particularly complex scenes reliably induced slowdowns, but the game remained playable despite the occasional hitching.
Last, but not least, I launched into some Gymkhana hoonage in DiRT 3. The game had to be run with the lowest detail settings at 1280×720 to get smooth frame rates, which stuck to the mid-20s through multiple environments. You don’t get much in the way of DirectX 11 goodness with that config, but at least it makes DiRT 3 playable. If only it made up for my n00b drifting skills.
About that missing OS
Although our testing has thus far been confined to Windows, I spent a little time sampling the Nano with an operating system that won’t add anything to the asking price. The Nano is compatible with Fusion-optimized beta versions of OpenELEC, a Linux distribution designed “from the ground up” to play host to XBMC, which is neatly integrated into the installer. Getting the distro downloaded and running on the Nano (via an old SD card, although it can also be installed to the hard drive) was a surprisingly painless experience that took all of maybe 10 minutes and was no more complicated than flashing a motherboard BIOS.
OpenELEC is nearly as good as the Windows version of XBMC, which I adore, but it’s not quite ready for prime time on the Nano. The headphone output doesn’t work, for example, and neither does the front-panel IR port. The remote is functional using the IR dongle, though, and I had no problem getting audio piped to my TV over HDMI. I don’t imagine it would take too much additional effort to get OpenELEC’s kinks ironed out on the Nano, and I hope Zotac invests the resources to ensure that happens.
With hardware-accelerated video playback, a YouTube add-on and other plugins, and that warm, fuzzy feeling that comes along with open-source software, OpenELEC has the ability to allow average folks to transform the Zbox Nano into a fully functioning home-theater PC without dropping a dime on an operating system. If you’re going to be accessing content exclusively from networked sources, you don’t even need to add a hard drive to the barebones Nano config. The OpenELEC folks really need to get XBMC’s full suite of Milkdrop-powered music visualizations working, though.
The Zbox Nano AD10 is a perfect example of less being more—and more being more. Along with a chassis that’s half the size of a standard Zbox, Zotac throws in a better VESA bracket, an external antenna, an MCE-compatible remote, and Bluetooth support. All you really lose is one memory slot and support for 2.5″ hard drives with three platters rather than two.
One might assume the Nano’s smallness and extras command a hefty price premium over normal Zbox units with Zacate hardware. That’s only half right. The barebones Nano’s $270 MSRP is $40 more than the Zbox AD02’s street price. The Nano AD10 Plus will run $320, however—the same price as the full-sized equivalent, which has a smaller hard drive. The $50 gap between the two Nanos seems entirely reasonable to cover the memory and hard drive, so you can’t go wrong either way.
That’s what really strikes me about the Zbox Nano: it’s an OS away from being a complete system, and it’s also available as a stripped-down barebones rig if you want to add your own parts. Zotac makes it easy to swap in the hardware you want, and I’ve gotta give the UEFI engineers a shout out for incorporating decent fan speed controls.
At the same time, I have to dock a point for the tiny blower. I worry about its aural characteristics trending toward a high-pitched whine over time, and I’d actually prefer a slightly larger enclosure if it accommodated a bigger heatsink-and-fan assembly that ran quieter under load. The Nano’s acoustic footprint should be as unobtrusive as its physical presence.
While I’m griping, I’d also like a front-panel USB 3.0 port and a matte remote. A stealthy metal case would be nice, too, even if it had to cost more as an exclusive AMP Edition.
As it stands, this handful of Fusion is a bargain in the realm of ultra-mini PCs. The Zbox Nano is also particularly friendly to hobbyists and enthusiasts, a characteristic that elevates it to rarefied status as an Editor’s Choice. Expect to see the barebones and Plus flavors available online starting September 12. Trust me, you’ll want to hold one of these things in your hand.