You often hear that good things come in small packages, but when it comes to computers this isn’t usually the case. Your best phones pack five inch screens and they’re only getting bigger. High powered gaming rigs need big fans and cooling systems, and enough space for larger than normal components. Small computers have always tended to reflect that in every manner. Smaller cases tended to skimp on power, and mini computers, like the Zotac ZBOX Nano, tended to run last generation hardware with no ability to upgrade. The specs on the ZBOX, however, tell a different story. A dual core 1.7 gigahertz processor and a RadeonHD 7340, 64 gigabyte solid state drive, and a meager but respectable 2 gigabytes of RAM falls right in line with high end ultra-book notebook computers. It’s not built for gaming, but the ZBOX is marketed as a multimedia bare-bones mini-PC. In today’s world, that means hardware accelerated 1920×1080 video, great connectivity options, and reliable performance is a must. Reviewing the Zotac ZBOX gave me an opportunity to see if AMD’s E2-1800 platform was up to the task, and if Zotac could make a tiny box with enough options to satisfy the needs of todays digital entertainment.
In the Package
Whether or not the Zotac ZBOX is a great computer, it certainly comes with its fair share of accessories. Seriously, this thing is decked out. Besides the necessary power cord, a wireless antenna, IR receiver, remote control, optical audio adapter, wall mount, and an upgrade guide all make an appearance. Although including an HDMI cable would have been a nice touch, no normal computer comes with a monitor cable anyway. Having the upgrade guide was a nice touch for the nerd in me, and it means if I want to upgrade the ZBOX, I don’t have to rely on iFixit. The included wall mount doesn’t look like much, but it’s sturdy and hooks in to the bottom of the ZBOX in such a way that you can face the front of the box up, down, left, or right; it’s your choice, and it’s not a permanent decision. The strange little thing that looks like it has the male end of a 3.5mm audio cable on it is a converter to optical audio out. Zotac also includes a driver CD, but this was honestly a head-scratcher for me, considering that the ZBOX does not have an optical drive.
The Zotac ZBOX comes with four pieces of pieces of hardware that I actually consider distinct enough to spend some time talking about. I’m sorry, optical audio adapter, you’re just not that special.
The ZBOX does not have wireless built in, so Zotac has included a USB wireless card. The ZBOX itself is pretty small, so space is at a premium. It’s also targeted at the home theater PC market, so having good wireless reception is a must. Zotac struck a balance, and included what looks at first glance like an antenna that you can attach to a USB port. Closer inspection reveals a small wireless card that even includes a WPS setup button. Unlike some other USB wireless cards, it does not extend much over the sides of the USB port, so all nearby ports remain usable when the wireless is inserted. I had no problems with wireless reception, and both Windows 8 and Linux support the wireless chipset out of the box, though you’ll need to track down the drivers if you’re using Windows 7.
The next two pieces of hardware are the IR receiver and remote control. There’s not much to say about the receiver except that it works, and it has a decent length cord on it. This is great if you want to hide the box and still use the remote control. The remote is good, but it’s not fantastic. It has plenty of buttons, most of which work perfectly. I suspect that the remote is more designed for people with TV tuners, due to the presence of a number pad wich is all but useless in todays world of file names. The range and reception are great, however, and most of the buttons are logically laid out. Unfortunately, the rubbery texture is a lint magnet. If you look at the pictures, you can see fuzz all over the buttons. I cleaned the remote repeatedly, and only ended up replacing the more standard white-gray lint with the red lint from my cleaning cloth. So far, I’ve used the remote to control internet radio, movies, music, and even to give a presentation.
The Zotac ZBOX Itself
When I first took the ZBOX out of its box, the first thing I noticed was that it really is small! It has about the same footprint as my Roku and the Xios DS, but is about twice as thick. The most common comment I got about the ZBOX is “that’s a computer?”. We all know that computers can be small today, bu I think, when it comes to the ZBOX, it’s not just the size, it’s also the style. We’re used to laptops, or the industrial slim style desktops, or cell phones, but the ZBOX is sleek and just a little on the sparkly side. It reminds you of a designer portable hard drive, or maybe a Star Trek prop. Turn it on, and a green ring on the top glows. The fan hums along — not silently, but pleasantly enough. The overall impression is at once stylish, bold, and understated.
The construction is excellent, mostly metal, with a plastic but not cheap-feeling top. At first I wasn’t crazy about the four little feet, not sure if they were screwed in or glued on. I thought they might just come off. The included manual, however, noted that they were in fact clever thumb screws which let you take the bottom off of the ZBOX to access the solid state drive and RAM slot. Making the internals easy to access on such a tiny computer is definitely a nice touch. I also wanted to mention that Zotac seems to have chosen Kingston as a technology partner. They make the SSD, the RAM, and contribute their lock design. Kingston doesn’t just make cheap hardware, they make very good quality hardware, and it’s a nice change to see good quality components in relatively low-cost nano computers like the ZBOX.
Zotac’s nice touches don’t end there either. The front of the ZBOX has a multi-card reader, an eSATA port that doubles as as USB 2.0 port, a headphone port that doubles as optical audio out, and a microphone port. The USB/eSATA port is cleverly designed so that you don’t even need an adapter. The power button is also on the front. The left side has the air vent and a spot for a Kingston lock. The back of the device has the power port, an HDMI port, two USB 3.0 ports, an ethernet port, and two more USB 2.0 ports, one of which is recommended for the wireless. For such a tiny computer, the ZBOX has more than enough connectivity options. At no point during this review did I feel that there was not enough space for devices I wanted to plug in, especially once I discovered the eSATA port could take a USB device as well. Zotac gets very high marks on their port layout and selection, and bonus points for creatively combining ports to give you more options.
At its heart, the ZBOX is a computer, so how it runs software is important. I found the AMD E2-1800 to be overall a very peppy platform, and quite capable. I tested the ZBOX with Windows 7, and found the experience a little lacking. Windows 8 installed better, and the start screen worked reasonably well with the remote control. Although Windows 8 did have some trouble with detecting multiple key presses, turning on bounce-keys in the Windows accessibility options fixed that easily. It should be noted, though, that neither Windows 7 nor Linux had problems with multiple key presses. Boot time is fantastic, barely over ten seconds for either Windows 8 or KUbuntu Linux. Although I would have preferred Zotac include 4 GB of RAM instead of two, the speed of the 64GB SSD helps make up for that. Also, it’s easy to upgrade to 4GB of RAM.
To get video to play smoothly, I went into the BIOS and increased the RAM available to the video card. The onboard graphics can accept up to a gigabyte of graphics memory if you want to spare it. I set the graphics card to use 512MB, and tested Netflix, Youtube in HTML5 mode, and playing various media in XBMC, which works great with the included remote. On both Windows and Linux, the results were the same. Netflix plays fine in standard definition, but is too laggy to be watchable in HD mode (I’m pretty sure this is the fault of Silverlight). I was able to stream full 1080p video from YouTube without a problem, and it played smoothly embedded and in full screen. XBMC also ran very smoothly, including OpenGL visualizers for music, and HD movies with the UI overlay. It’s no Intel Core i7, but it’s more than enough for casual media consumption. I thoroughly enjoyed the Zotac ZBOX, and I give it 9.5 green power circles out of 10!