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Getting back onto the positive side of the Zotac Zbox Blu-ray, connectivity on this slim HTPC is quite simply excellent: many of the latest and fastest standards are supported and all ports optimally positioned. At the PC's front we have a memory card reader that will accept SD/HC, MMC, xD and Sony's MS Pro/Duo. There are two well-spaced USB ports, one USB 2.0 and the other up to the USB 3.0 standard, followed by 3.5mm headphone and microphone jacks.
Around the back you'll find a second USB 3.0 port, a combined eSATA and USB 2.0 connector, HDMI 1.3a and dual-link DVI (for outputting resolutions above HDMI's 1,920 x 1,200 maximum) and an optical digital audio output for eight-channel surround sound. Finally for networking there's Gigabit Ethernet and Wi-Fi N.
That's pretty much every option we could want on an HTPC, with one obvious exception. Considering that most televisions these days come with a good set of tuners we don't mind their lack here, but we would really like to have seen an integrated IR receiver and accompanying remote. Admittedly you can buy a USB-based IR dongle, but this should have been an integral requirement for a machine mooted to sit under your TV.
Overall then, the Zbox Blu-ray is not quite the winner we had hoped it would be, but it makes a valiant attempt. Aside from the Apple Mac Mini and Tranquil PC ixL – both of which demand considerably higher prices yet lack Blu-ray – it's probably the most attractive small form factor (SFF) system we've come across, even if its build doesn't quite match its looks. Compared with other Atom-based machines, the pre-assembled HD-ID34 version offers superb value if Blu-ray playback is something you're interested in.
Its only serious competitor at an anywhere near similar price point is the Award-winning ASRock Core 100HT BD. For an extra £100-odd, you get a far more powerful Core i3 CPU, double the RAM and hard drive capacity, THX certification and an inbuilt IR receiver plus remote. Also, while the Core might be a little bulkier and not look as swish, its build quality is superior and it stays quieter under load. In other words, for those who prefer substance over style and can afford the extra, it's the better choice.
Sleek, slim and very attractive, Zotac's Zbox Blu-ray is an admirable design achievement and offers nearly everything you could want from a HTCP. Unfortunately its audible operation when stressed and the omission of an integrated IR receiver plus remote prevent it from being the ultimate affordable home theatre addition, but overall it's still a very strong contender.
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