OS Tested: XBMC 9.10
Processor: Intel Celeron SU2300 (2 x 1.2GHz)
GPU: Nvidia ION
Memory: 2x DDR3 SO-DIMMs (user configurable)
Storage: SATA II (user configurable)
Dimensions:188 x 188 x 44mm
Connectivity: Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, HDMI,
DVI eSATA, 4x USB 2.0, S/PDIF
Expansion: 6-in-1 card reader
Price: £240 / $
More info: Zotac.com
Pros: Incredibly small, sleek and quiet. The new specification really raises the Zbox’s game
Cons: While it looks nice, that glossy chassis is very prone to picking up smudges and finger marks
Regular readers would be forgiven for thinking that this review is a printing error due to the remarkable similarities between this nettop and the one reviewed back in issue 89. We haven’t gone mad – despite the identical glossy black chassis and confusingly similar nomenclature, the Zbox you see here is a brand new release from Zotac.
The big difference between this and the previously reviewed Zbox HD-ID11 is the core architecture. The HD-ND22 does away with the Intel Atom, replacing it with a Celeron SU2300 CULV (Consumer Ultra-Low Voltage) processor and DDR3 RAM support. For those unfamiliar with processor architectures, the Celeron is essentially a slimmed-down Core 2 Duo, meaning the ND22 should be more adept at handling the demands of desktop-class software applications than its predecessor. More on that later.
Since the chassis is identical, you’ll find it boasts dimensions that put it in the same class as Apple’s popular Mac Mini. The unit can sit on its side with the aid of four tiny rubber feet, or vertically with the aid of an included stand. Also bundled in the package is a VESA mounting kit that enables users to attach the Zbox to the back of a desktop monitor, the wall or even the underside of an office desk.
Like its predecessor it’s a barebones PC, which means that users are charged with isntalling a hard drive, RAM and an operating system of their choice. Though its barebones status might put off potential customers who want to boot straight out of the box, we’re great believers in ‘pick your own’ computing, especially when manufacturers make installation as easy as Zotac has here. Just two thumbscrews separate the guts of the unit from the outside world, and it also features an ingenious – not to mention completely tool-less – hard drive installation mechanism.
Since one of the most popular configurations for the Zbox is for home theatre use, for primary testing we set up the Zbox HD-ND22 with a live CD version of XBMC via a 1GB USB stick and UNetbootin. A 500GB hard drive was used along with 2GB of 1066MHz DDR3 RAM. Once you’ve downloaded the ISO it’s really just a five-minute process from setup to live desktop. XBMC has a long and illustrious reputation for providing one of the most satisfying HTPC experiences in the open source market and it pairs up very well with the HD-ND22.
Like its predecessor, it literally gorged on every media file we threw at it, including some of the highest bit-rate 1080p content we could find. In terms of media functionality, the key differences between the Zbox we’re reviewing today compared to that of issue 89 is a generally snappier response to commands and a lower CPU utilisation while working with HD media.
Where it really came into its own, however, was with everyday desktop-oriented tasks. While the Intel Atom-powered Zbox HD-ID11 was capable enough in this department, the Atom didn’t really have enough strength to dig its heels into computationally demanding tasks like media encoding, at least not in a way desktop users are accustomed. No such problems with the Intel Celeron SU2300 – it made a real tangible difference to the unit’s usability.
The £50 or so extra you’ll pay for the HD-ND22 is more than accounted for in its performance, as is the higher cost for associated parts the DDR3 memory configuration presents. Zotac’s latest Zbox not only lends itself perfectly to media-oriented tasks, but it now boasts the computational prowess to take the brunt of everyday business-user demands, and not just after hours HD entertainment.