This article originally appeared in issue 85 of Linux User & Developer.
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OS Tested: Ubuntu 9.10, Moblin 2.1, Fedora 12
CPU:Intel Atom 330 (1.6GHz)
Memory: 2GB DDR2-800
HDD: 160GB 5400rpm
Dimensions:186 x 189 x 38mm
Expansion: 6-in-1 card reader, 6xUSB 2.0, 1x eSATA, Wi-Fi
Pros: Compact design, dual-core CPU, Ion-powered graphics
Cons: Bundled stand fits too tightly. Not the quietest nettop
Ultra-small, so-called ‘nettop’ computers are fast becoming a favourite for home and office users. Thanks to their diminutive dimensions they’re easily stowed out of sight, preserving precious desk space and (despite their size) they pack enough punch for everyday operation like email and word processing. Like some of the alternative nettop computers we’ve reviewed over the past new months, the Zotac MAG can also attach to the VESA mount on the back of most monitors, meaning it takes up literally zero desk space. This is accomplished via a VESA backing plate, to which the MAG easily slips in and out of once affixed to the monitor. The unit itself also happily lies on the desk with its four tiny rubber pads, or it can be kept vertically thanks to a bundled stand. Unlike the VESA mount, however, there’s no quick release for easy operation and it’s quite a pain to connect and remove. In fact the fit is so tight, we were worried we’d damage the casing if we wrestled with it any harder. A slight pain to an otherwise thoughtfully put together package.
As you may already know, the Ion platform – married with Intel’s excellent low-voltage CPU, the Atom – is graphically streets ahead of anything Intel has ever put inside a netbook or nettop. Assuming it’s correctly configured, the Ion-powered MAG HD-ND01 can play 1080p H.264 video perfectly smoothly and without working the processor too hard. It’s even capable of some half-decent frame rates in games, though don’t expect anything stunning – it’s not going to revolutionise your usage patterns overnight, though it certainly puts Intel’s integrated graphics processors to shame in just about every respect. The tables turn, however, when you consider the terrible state Nvidia is currently in where drivers are concerned, particularly the complete lack of open source support. Intel has a distinct advantage there, but provided you’re not adverse to a minor technical challenge then Nvidia’s Ion really shines.
So how does it stack up compared with the very similarly specced Lenovo IdeaCentre Q110 reviewed last issue? It’s quite simple actually – Zotac’s MAG holds the upper hand thanks to a higher-spec Atom processor, otherwise the two units are almost identical under the hood. While Lenovo’s Q110 ticks over quite nicely with a single-core Intel Atom 230 processor, the 330 in the MAG doubles the core-count. Since Intel’s Atom architecture incorporates Hyper-Threading technology across the entire range, that means the MAG is capable of dealing with four separate threads simultaneously compared with just two on the Q110. This obviously gives the MAG a distinct advantage for parallel processing and makes it a much more capable system for everyday tasks as a result, and its ability to encode audio and video is obviously much greater than the Q110’s too.
Elsewhere in the specification the MAG offers 2GB of DDR2-800 RAM and a 160GB 5400rpm hard drive that’s relatively quiet under operation (thanks to its slower spin-speed). Though the hard drive can’t be heard above the hum of the unit’s cooling mount, it’s certainly not the quietest nettop we’ve ever encountered. This is a compromise we have to accept in return for a more capable dual-core processor, though; so if silence is particularly golden in your workspace then it might be worth considering the entirely passively cooled Lenovo Q100, which was well received back in issue 82.
We found the Zotac MAG HD-ND01 a real pleasure to use for everyday tasks. It dealt with fully fledged 32-bit distros like Fedora 12 and Ubuntu 9.10 wonderfully, thanks to its dual-core Atom processor. And its Ion-powered graphics will really hit the spot with videophiles looking for a slimline media unit.