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Zotac's Zbox ID42 Plus nettop reviewed

Mobile Sandy meets desktop GeForce

Home-theater PCs are pretty convenient. They can double as PVRs, serve up streaming online content without restrictions, and run PC games right there in your living room. If you happen to lay your hands on some, uh, backups of movies or shows you haven't recorded yourself, they can play those, too.

Slapping together an HTPC isn't a small undertaking, though. You can't just stick any old computer under your TV. Well, you could, but you'd probably regret having a huge black box huffing and puffing while you try to watch Netflix. Ideally, you want a small-form-factor enclosure, power-efficient components, quiet fans, and the right peripherals to make the system comfortable to use from the couch—meaning a remote, some kind of Bluetooth keyboard, and probably a game controller or two. We've suggested HTPC configurations along those lines in our system guides before. If you've got enough time and money for that kind of a project, it's a great way to go.

But what if you don't want to roll your own? What if you just want something you can purchase, maybe customize a little bit, and not have to worry about afterward?

That, folks, is where Zotac's new Zbox ID42 comes in. This little machine is smaller, more compact, and more integrated than just about anything you'd be able to build with off-the-shelf components. Inside lurks all of the right hardware needed to supplement a high-tech home theater. Okay, all the right hardware except for an integrated TV tuner—but you can just plug in a USB one if you're so inclined. (The same goes for CableCard devices.) Stick this puppy under your TV, and all the power of a home-theater PC could be yours... with none of the aggravation. At least, that's the theory.

Today, our job is to pick apart the ID42 and discover whether the theory checks out. Is this really a compelling barebones HTPC, or are you better off building something from scratch?

Let's find out.

The Zbox ID42 Plus measures 7.4" x 7.4" x 2", which is really quite tiny. It's powered by a 1.1GHz, Sandy Bridge-based Celeron 847 processor and a GeForce GT 610 GPU with 512MB of dedicated memory. The CPU is a 17W dual-core model that hails from Intel's mobile lineup. The GeForce, meanwhile, is a desktop solution retrofitted for the Zbox's cramped confines. You might find this combination unusual, but it definitely makes sense for an HTPC, where graphics (specifically for gaming and HD video playback) matter a fair bit more than raw CPU brawn.

Not that Zotac has selected a particularly speedy discrete GPU, of course. The GeForce GT 610 is the absolute slowest member of Nvidia's GeForce 600-series desktop lineup. It chugs along with 48 shader ALUs, DDR3 memory, and a 64-bit memory interface. The GT 610 should still be quicker than plain-old Intel integrated graphics, however.

Processor 1.1 GHz Intel Celeron 847 processor
Graphics GeForce GT 610 512MB
Platform hub Intel NM70 Express
Memory 4GB DDR3-1333 (1 SO-DIMM)
Storage Toshiba MQ01ABD050 500GB 5,400 RPM
Audio Realtek ALC892 HD audio
Wireless 802.11n Wi-Fi via Intel Wireless-N 135
Bluetooth 4.0
Ports 1 DVI
2 USB 3.0 via Renesas controller
2 USB 2.0
2 RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet via dual Realtek controllers
1 digital optical S/PDIF
1 analog headphone out
1 analog microphone in
Expansion 4-in-1 card reader
Dimensions 7.4" x 7.4" x 2.01" (188 x 188 x 51 mm)

Zotac offers the ID42 in two configurations. The vanilla model is priced at $269.99 and lacks memory and storage; you can round it out with two DDR3 SO-DIMMs and a 2.5" hard-drive or SSD. The ID42 Plus, which we'll be reviewing today, ships with one 4GB DDR3-1333 module and a 500GB Toshiba hard drive. It costs $399.99.

That pre-baked config may save you some assembly time, but it isn't the most conducive to snappy performance. The hard drive is a sluggish 5,400-RPM model, and since only one of the two SO-DIMM slots is occupied, the processor's memory controller is stuck in single-channel mode. Translation: memory bandwidth is cut in half. That would be a graver problem if the Zbox relied on the Celeron's integrated graphics. Mercifully, it does not.

Questionable storage and memory configurations aside, the ID42 and ID42 Plus are identical. They both feature dual USB 3.0 ports, dual Gigabit Ethernet controllers, and a choice of HDMI and DVI display outputs. Both units have integrated 802.11n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0, as well, and both ship with a Windows Media Center-compatible remote and infrared receiver. (More on those accessories in a moment.)

With that kind of hardware and connectivity, the Zbox can do a lot of things. Hook up a Gigabit Ethernet switch and configure the software just so, and it could double as a homebrewed router. Connect a couple of external USB 3.0 hard drives, and you have your very own network-attached storage device. Find a nice Bluetooth game controller, and the Zbox ID42 might even become a compelling console substitute. And of course, as we noted above, you have the option of plugging in a TV tuner and turning the Zbox into a PVR.

There's only one glaring omission. Neither the ID42 nor the ID42 Plus ships with a copy of Windows. You'll be forced either to buy your own or to explore the wild, wonderful, and sometimes quite time-consuming world of Linux. The first option will set you back at least $99.99, plus $9.99 for Windows Media Center; the second option is free. Given that Linux now runs Steam and offers solid home-theater functionality via XBMC, option B definitely has some merit—but only if the Zbox's hardware is properly supported.

We'll find out if that's the case very soon. First, we're going to take a closer look at the Zbox's hardware.