- Review Price: £399.99
£399.99 with 2GB RAM, 250GB HDD/ £349.00 barebones.
No, the Zbox is not a sequel to the Xbox. Instead, it’s Zotac’s miniscule home theatre PC (HTPC) based on Intel’s Atom platform, in its latest iteration offering highlights such as Blu-ray and USB 3.0 in a chassis that’s quite simply the sleekest and most attractive we’ve yet come across. Let’s find out if the overall package can match its looks.
Starting off with that class-leading design, at only 40mm (1.5in) tall it’s easily the slimmest machine with an integrated optical drive we’ve seen. This makes it ideal for wall-mounting, and a great clip-on VESA bracket is included for mounting on a monitor or television. Though the Acer Aspire Revo is actually slimmer, the Zbox’s two-tone tapered edges and curves make it look like the more diminutive PC. In fact, the Zotac makes its power brick look positively gargantuan.
The machine’s base is textured black plastic with four broad rubber feet giving a secure grip. Its top is a stylish combination of silver plastic, brushed aluminium and lacquered piano black, which features a large blue-backlit ring that doubles as a power status indicator (constant when the PC is turned on and lighting up at intervals when it’s in standby).
Admittedly the glossy black half of the Zbox does pick up fingerprints easily, but Zotac has cleverly chosen the section above the Blu-ray drive for the metal finish so that the part you’re most likely to touch doesn’t require any cleaning. The optical drive is also of the slot-loading variety, which is far more attractive than a tray-loading solution. Overall, this is one HTPC you won’t need to hide away in your high-end home cinema setup!
Build quality doesn’t match its looks but is nonetheless adequate. Aside from the occasional flex or creak the machine feels fairly solid, and the power and drive eject buttons offer a positive click.
The Zbox comes well packaged, with a driver CD, Cyberlink’s PowerDVD software, full-colour quick-start, contents and specifications guide, flexible VESA mount and DVI-VGA adapter. You’ll have to get your own OS, as one isn’t pre-installed or provided on disc.
Getting onto specifications, the Zbox Blu-ray is actually one of the most powerful Atom-based computers around, thanks to its use of Intel’s new dual core D525 CPU, which runs at 1.8GHz and utilizes an 800MHz front side bus. This means that – unlike most netbooks – it will play back the most intensive 720p video without any help from the graphics card, though high-bitrate 1080p will still present a problem for the Atom. However, this Zbox won’t have the slightest problem with any high definition material you’d care to throw at it, thanks to Nvidia’s latest ION graphics (if installing Windows XP or Vista rather than 7, just make sure to get a media player that supports video acceleration).
Equipped with 512MB of dedicated DDR3 video memory, the new ION (basically ION2) is the successor to that found in the Revo. But where that was a complete chipset solution, ION is now relegated to a graphics module added onto Intel’s NM10 chipset. This does result in very little performance gain, with the Zbox managing a relatively paltry 22 frames per second in TrackMania Nations Forever (1,366 x 768, medium detail, 4x AA & AF); in other words, a true 3D gaming machine this Zotac is not. However, the original ION was already more than powerful enough to cope with any kind of video decoding, and its successor excels equally in this regard.
Only 2GB of 800MHz DDR2 RAM may seem a little stingy but again it’s more than adequate for this machine’s intended purpose, and Zotac has thankfully used a single 2GB stick, thus leaving one slot free for an easy upgrade. Its 5,400rpm hard drive isn’t exactly generous either, with 250GB being what most netbooks offer these days. If this isn’t enough for you and you have some know-how, the barebones unit might suit you better than this pre-built system (model number HD-ID34). It’s also worth noting that one mini PCIe slot is left free for expansion or upgrades, though the closed nature of the case rather limits its potential.
While we’re on a complaining streak, the ZBox Blu-ray is not passively cooled, and under load it does produce a buzzing hum that’s annoying up close. However, at the average viewing distance from a 40in television it’s not bothersome, and at least the PC stays cool even after running for a few hours.
Some might also dislike the notion of needing to install their own OS, though at least this does mean you don’t have to pay for something you don’t want. In fact, you could run Linux, though Blu-ray support is difficult to say the least. We would opt for Windows 7, with which you can use Zotac’s provided copy of Cyberlink PowerDVD for flawless Blu-ray playback.
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.
Score in detail
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