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|
802.11n Wi-Fi via Intel Wireless-N 135
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.
A closer look
Viewed from the outside, this Zbox doesn’t stray too far from Zotac’s classic formula. In fact, it looks pretty similar to systems the company released over two years ago. Zotac has only made minor tweaks to the design, like trading the old mechanical power button for a touch-sensitive one that sits flush with the front surface.
The power button is accompanied by a couple of activity lights and an infrared receiver. Zotac also supplies an external infrared receiver, which can be used if you want to tuck the Zbox away out of sight.
The external receiver ought to look fairly inconspicuous in a home-theater setting. It does occupy one of the Zbox’s four USB ports, but since Bluetooth connectivity is built in, a Zbox-based HTPC would most likely supplement the remote with wireless peripherals. That would leave the other three USB ports free for other devices.
If laying the Zbox ID42 (or ID42 Plus) flat isn’t for you, Zotac includes a small plastic bracket that enables the system to stand upright. In that configuration, the Zbox’s underbelly is exposed, which reveals a cooling vent and a pink warranty sticker. The sticker peels off easily.
Also in the box: a VESA bracket. The bracket latches on to the Zbox with spring-loaded clips, allowing the system to be bolted onto the back of a monitor or TV, sort of like a ghetto iMac. I imagine that arrangement would make tracking down ports and connectors a little uncomfortable, though. You’d have to crane your neck and reach all the way around to the back of the display, which might be poorly lit and covered with dust. Ew.
Of course, the bracket can be used for other purposes, like if you simply want to bolt the Zbox onto a wall, under a desk, or on the side of an entertainment unit.
In addition to the gaggle of inputs and outputs at the front and back, Zotac supplies a USB 3.0 port on the right side of the machine (or at the top, depending on how it’s sitting). The removable rubber cover should keep the port from gathering dust if you have the Zbox sitting upright.
Since the Zbox lacks a built-in power supply, AC to DC conversion duties are handled by an external power brick. The brick is easy enough to tuck away out of sight, but it does have a green LED that stays on constantly, even when the system is off. If that’s a problem, you can always turn the brick face-down to hide the LED.
All right, time to pop off the lid and expose the Zbox’s innards. Read on! Photos of circuit boards and heatsinks await.
A peek under the hood
Cracking open the Zbox is shockingly easy.
There are two thumbscrews on the left side the machine. Undo those, slide off the bottom panel, and voilà. There’s even a little groove with a finger grip to make the process easier.
Despite featuring a Sandy Bridge CPU and a discrete GPU, the Zbox ID42 Plus only has a single fan. The fan sucks air from the bottom of the system (which is raised slightly on rubber feet) and exhausts it from the left side. If you’ve got the Zbox propped upright, then cool air comes in from the side and blows out the top. That’s sensible, given that hot air is less dense than cool air and therefore tends to rise.
Oh, and yeah, you’ve got easy access to the 2.5″ hard drive.
The drive is mounted on a bracket that comes off with a single thumbscrew. Removing the drive con bracket uncovers the system’s dual SO-DIMM slots. On our ID42 Plus, as we noted, only one of the slots is occupied. There’s nothing stopping you from adding a second memory module, however. You probably should do just that. By today’s standards, enduring single-channel RAM is like a forced stay in an Amish commune.
(All right, maybe not. But maxing out the processor’s memory bandwidth is still a good idea.)
There’s our board. I hope you enjoyed that shot, because in the process of putting the mobo back into the machine, I broke the header that connects it to the chassis’ power button and activity lights. Oops. Turns out the header sticks out from one of the inner walls a little, and the motherboard catches on it when pushed straight down.
Extracting the motherboard in the first place is just as scary. Connectors are dug in on both sides and refuse to break free unless you squeeze and bend the enclosure. You need a wrench, too, because the standoff that accommodates the hard drive’s thumbscrew also doubles as a mounting bolt for the mobo. Oh, and there are a few mystery headers you’ll want to keep track of.
Happily, removing the motherboard is almost completely pointless unless you’re a PC hardware reviewer or a Zotac engineer. Everything you might want to upgrade, like the memory, hard drive, and Wi-Fi adapter, is easily accessible even with the mobo securely bolted down.
…but since we already have the thing out, there’s no harm in peeking under the heatsink, is there?
The heatsink is held in place by four screws. A copper heat pipe runs between the processor and GPU, drawing heat into the fin array.
Here’s a close-up of the chips. The large, rectangular one is the Intel CPU. The small, square one is the Nvidia GF119 graphics processor, which is flanked by four DDR3 memory chips. Both the CPU and GPU are soldered onto the motherboard, obviously, so upgrades are out of the question.
Put together, the two chips have a combined power envelope of around 46W—17W for the processor and 29W for the GPU. The processors run cool enough to allow the Zbox’s fan to switch off completely when the system is at idle. An inactive Zbox does emit a faint whine, presumably because of the hard drive’s motor. The fan only kicks in when CPU- or GPU-intensive applications are run. Even at full tilt, it produces a toneless whoosh that’s quite tame and reasonably easy to tune out.
Okay, enough nosing around. Let’s load up an operating system and see how this puppy handles.
With Windows 8 Professional
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already familiar with the highly intricate and sophisticated process of installing Windows on a new computer. (Insert installation media, click “Next” a few times, reboot.) So, I’ll spare you the details. The only trick here is that the Zbox ID42 Plus lacks an optical drive, so you’ve got to load the installation files onto a USB thumb drive before proceeding. Microsoft has some tools and guides to help you do that.
Getting the Zbox fully armed and operational requires one additional step: installing drivers. Somewhat bafflingly, Zotac ships the Zbox’s drivers on a DVD. I guess they assume you own another computer capable of reading it. The alternative is to hit the downloads section of the company’s website, but that didn’t work for me. Selecting either “ID42” or “ID42 Plus” in the drop-down menu yielded zero available downloads. “Fine,” I thought. “I’ll just copy the DVD’s contents onto my main PC and transfer them to the Zbox over the network.” Great idea, except that once the files were transferred, the main installer executable refused to proceed. It said something about not being able to access the installation disc—even though all the files were right there in the same directory. Doh.
I might have had more luck copying everything to a USB thumb drive, but I didn’t have any spares with enough capacity. (The DVD contents add up to about 4.3GB.) In the end, I dug around the installer files and manually loaded drivers one by one. This manual installation worked, but it wasn’t exactly quick or easy. Ah, if only Zotac had shipped the system with the required drivers on a thumb drive…
Oh well, at least everything worked nicely afterward. The Zbox connected to my Wi-Fi network, and it responded dutifully to commands from the remote. The remote sort of worked in the Modern UI environment—I could use the directional pad to select and open tiles on the Start screen—but it proved more useful once I’d installed Windows Media Center.
Speaking of media centers, how well does the Zbox ID42 Plus handle high-definition video? To find out, I took a page out of our mobile test suite and measured CPU utilization while playing two versions of the Looper trailer: a 1080p .mov file loaded up in Windows Media Player and a 1080p YouTube video running inside Chrome. Windows’ Performance Monitor utility kept track of minimum and maximum CPU utilization during each run. Each video was played three times, and I only recorded the lowest figures from each set of runs, in order to rule out potential spikes from other processes.
|CPU % (low)||CPU % (high)||Result|
|Looper H.264 1080p||0.0||23.4||Perfect|
|Looper YouTube 1080p (Flash 11.5)||32.0||78.1||Perfect|
The Celeron 847 definitely breaks a sweat with high-def Flash video. CPU utilization peaked at nearly 80%, and the fan whooshed along merrily throughout. I didn’t notice any obvious skipping in the video, though, and the audio stream always remained in-sync. Just as with the .mov file, playback was nice and smooth.
Next up: gaming.
My game testing on the Zbox ID42 Plus was a little less formal. The idea was to run a nice cross-section of games and to get a feel for overall fluidity at different detail levels. Empirical benchmarking isn’t terribly well-suited to such endeavors, especially when one is testing a single, isolated system that has few peers on the market—and even fewer in our labs. Still, having some numbers is helpful. The solution was to jot down, for each game, seat-of-the-pants impressions and ballpark frame rates as reported by Fraps. You’ll find my testing notes for each game below.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
1920×1200 — High preset — Single-digit FPS in Whiterun. Very sluggish.
1280×720 — Medium preset — Around 30 FPS, closer to 20 during action. Not terribly smooth.
1280×720 — Low preset — 40+ FPS in both Whiterun and surroundings. Smooth, playable, but not very pretty. (No antialiasing.)
1280×720 — Auto settings (ambient occlusion on; normal bullet decals; far foliage distance; high texture quality, game detail, and view distance; low PhysX; no FXAA, depth of field, or anisotropic filtering) — 20-30 FPS in starting area. Laggy, jagged, ugly.
1280×720 — Tweaked settings (disabled ambient occlusion; set foliage distance to near; set textures, game detail, and distance to medium) — Almost no improvement.
1280×720 — Lowest possible settings — 30+ FPS. Some dips below that. Quite ugly, but playable-ish. Exploration is okay. Combat is feasible but awkward, with frequent dips to around 20 FPS.
1280×720 — Low preset, no antialiasing — Around 25 FPS, frequent dips into the teens.
1280×720 — Ultra-low preset, no antialiasing — A few FPS higher in smooth parts, but still drops into the teens. Playable, but visibly choppy/inconsistent. Not a great experience.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive
1280×720 — Tweaked settings (Very low shadows; bilinear textures; medium detail for models, textures, effects, and shaders; no FXAA, MSAA, vsync, or motion blur) — Consistently over 30 FPS with rare dips. Reasonably smooth overall, but perhaps not the best for serious multiplayer.
1280×720 — Lowest possible settings — More or less the same. Feels like the CPU is a bottleneck. The frame rate dips and the game becomes choppy when lots of players converge in the same area. Potentially poor experience in big multiplayer matches.
1920×1200 — Default settings (no obvious options to change) — 80+ FPS, silky smooth. Essentially perfect.
To make a long story short: casual games good, serious games bad.
Seeing the Zbox struggle with Skyrim and DiRT Showdown wasn’t entirely unexpected, considering the low-end hardware inside. The inconsistent performance in CS:GO was a little more disappointing, though. That game is based on Valve’s aging Source engine, and while it looks better than the old Counter-Strike: Source, it’s still visibly dated. A modern PC with a discrete GPU like the Zbox ID42 Plus really ought to handle it better.
As I noted in my, uh, notes, the 1.1GHz Celeron may simply be holding back the discrete GeForce—and not just in CS:GO. The fact that lowering graphical detail sometimes had little effect lends weight to that hypothesis. It’s kind of a shame. If Zotac hadn’t gone with the absolute slowest Intel and Nvidia solutions on offer, the ID42 Plus might be a much more capable home-theater gaming rig. As it is, though, the system will largely confine you to casual titles and classics from yesteryear. Based on what I saw in Edge, casual titles that use either basic 3D or 2D-only graphics should run well on the Zbox. Really, anything aimed at folks using low-end PCs with Intel integrated graphics should play smoothly enough.
With Ubuntu Linux 12.10
Let’s say you have neither the desire nor the inclination to spend $100 (or more) on a Windows 8 license. Let’s say you don’t care for most Windows games, and you’re okay with getting your hands dirty by delving into the command line once in a while. In that case, installing Linux on the Zbox could be your best bet.
I gave it a shot, largely to see how difficult it would be to get everything working. My past experiences with Linux distributions have been… interesting. I have not-so-fond memories of wrangling with audio support and wrecking X.org while trying to enable hardware 3D acceleration with binary drivers. Some people claim Linux is only free if your time is worthless, and I’ve always tentatively agreed with that sentiment—at least as far as commodity PCs are concerned. (I’m well aware of Linux’s success in servers and mobile/embedded devices.)
This time, however, I was pleasantly surprised.
I grabbed the latest 64-bit release of Ubuntu Linux (version 12.10) and copied it to a USB thumb drive using the Universal USB Installer utility. The installation was completely painless—easier in some respects than the Windows 8 setup. Graphical performance in the freshly installed Ubuntu desktop was quite poor, but that was easily resolved by hopping into the Additional Drivers settings pane and installing the latest experimental Nvidia driver. That only required a handful of clicks, and I didn’t even have to visit the Nvidia website. Neato.
My first act as owner of a freshly configured Linux build was to install Steam. I mean, how cool would it be to get Team Fortress 2 working on this thing? Right?
Steam for Linux is still in beta, but getting it running in Ubuntu is surprisingly straightforward. I just followed the instructions here—which, as it turned out, simply involved downloading and running the Steam Client .deb installer. The Ubuntu Software Center took care of the rest. After that, I was able to log into my Steam account and download some games. A few of the titles I’d purchased for Windows (TF2, Braid, and Trine) were listed in my library. I also had the option to peruse Steam’s growing collection of Linux games (mostly casual and indie offerings), all within the familiar Steam interface.
And yes, Steam’s Big Picture mode worked. Animations were smooth, and the software even recognized and responded to the Zbox’s bundled remote.
Overpowered with giddiness, I fired up Team Fortress 2. It crashed once in the server browser, but that didn’t stop me. I eventually made it into a multiplayer game and started fragging away. At 1280×720 with medium/low detail settings, no antialiasing, and no HDR or motion blur, frame rates peaked in the triple digits in quiet areas and settled to around 30 FPS in heavy combat. That would have been more than acceptable, except the game also tended to skip at random intervals, especially right after a level load. It was like the system was running out of memory and the sluggish mechanical hard drive was picking up the slack.
In the interest of scientific rigor, I installed TF2 in Windows and tried the same map at the same settings. I even managed to find the same multiplayer game. Peak frame rates were a little lower this time, but there was no trace of the skipping I’d experienced before. The game ended up feeling more fluid overall.
I’m not sure what was wrong with Linux, and I unfortunately didn’t have time to troubleshoot. Our contact at Zotac didn’t seem to know what the problem was, either. That said, considering Valve’s Linux ports are still in beta, and considering how easy it was to get TF2 working, these early results are quite promising. I reckon things can only get better from here.
My gaming session over, I looked into a suitable substitute for Windows Media Center. The most popular alternative seems to be XBMC, which has a similar 10-foot interface with all kinds of nifty functionality built in, including support for remotes.
Version 11 of XBMC was available in the Ubuntu Software Center. I had to pop into the command line to install version 12, which had come out the day before, but all I did there was cut and paste commands from the XBMC website—not exactly rocket science. Once I was done, XBMC happily obeyed commands from the Zbox’s remote, and I was able to use the Wi-Fi to play back content across the network. Audio and video worked smoothly (even in HD), with no tweaks or ugly command-line wrangling required.
Even more impressively, the remote’s sleep and wake buttons actually worked, both in XBMC and at the Ubuntu desktop. Being able to wake up the system with the click of a remote is a crucial feature for an HTPC. The Zbox did it beautifully in Linux, right out of the box.
All in all, I think it’s fair to say Ubuntu is a very viable—and, indeed, compelling—option for the Zbox. Yes, you’re going to miss out on serious Windows games… but the Zbox struggles with those, anyway. Ubuntu is a nice fit for the hardware, both in terms of driver support and capabilities.
I don’t think I would pay $399.99 for a Zbox ID42 Plus. Instead, I would probably grab the barebones ID42 for $269.99 and throw in a dual-channel memory kit and a 7,200-RPM hard drive. With a 4GB Crucial bundle and a WD Scorpio Black 750GB, the total price would be about $387. Given Zotac’s questionable choice of sluggish storage and single-channel memory in the ID42 Plus, not to mention the fact that the chassis is childishly easy to crack open, the barebones option is more sensible.
Install Ubuntu Linux with XBMC and Steam, and you could have a pretty solid (and pretty affordable) all-purpose HTPC and network-attached storage device. As I pointed out earlier, the system should support USB TV and CableCard tuners, and the presence of dual Ethernet controllers makes it a potential router substitute. The fact that the Zbox has USB 3.0 connectivity means the storage can be augmented without compromising performance, as well.
Zotac deserves praise for putting together such a versatile machine—and for doing so without sacrificing looks and stealth. The ID42 is quiet, and its two-tone chassis looks pretty slick. Sure, the glossy black panels will accumulate dust, but shiny black plastic is almost standard fare for home-theater equipment.
That said, it’s pretty clear the ID42 isn’t for everybody. Folks looking for a serious couch gaming system will have to look elsewhere, as will those seeking something with ample storage and out-of-the-box TV tuning capabilities. The same goes for people who want their HTPC to double as a snappy desktop system. (Web browsing on our ID42 Plus was a tad sluggish, and application load times suffered from the slow bundled hard drive.) Such users will likely be better served by custom-built solutions with faster processors, Mini-ITX or microATX motherboards, and real desktop graphics cards. Everybody else ought to at least consider something like the ID42 for their home theater, though.