Hardware

ZOTAC ZBOX $250 mini-PC teardown

Cracking open the ZOTAC ZBOX HD-ID11

The ZOTAC ZBOX HD-ID11 is a bare-bones, mini-PC that retails for around $250 (US). It's available from several online retailers, including Amazon and Newegg. Depending on who you buy it from and which configuration you choose, it will likely ship without a hard drive or RAM. And, it definitely won't come with an operating system.

Let's take a look at the hardware inside this remarkably thin system.

Photo by: Bill Detwiler / TechRepublic

Caption by: Bill Detwiler

About

Bill Detwiler is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research and the host of Cracking Open, CNET and TechRepublic's popular online show. Prior to joining TechRepublic in 2000, Bill was an IT manager, database administrator, and desktop supp...

32 comments
wess_chicago
wess_chicago

All the tech stuff has been covered so I'll answer the "what market?" question. I use mine as the front end to my 42" plasma TV. HDMI works great with XBMC media center. The form factor is the main reason I chose this but it is a full PC and I do work on it. Nice to have a 42" monitor hooked up to the internet. I don't even have cable anymore. The online content is so rich that I find everything I want to watch (and lots I don't) all the time. Hulu and other similar resources amount to having a HUGE Tivo. XBMC is my archive of things I want to own and share. Torrents of almost everything brings watchable but lower quality vids to me in a matter of minutes. I think of a movie, find it, download it and by the time my popcorn is ready so is the movie. All this through a HTC Evo. Wireless! XBMC add-ons are fantastic and often overlooked. Content includes online courses from Stamford, NYCU, Yale and others. Astrophysics, Linear Dynamics, Economics... Most at 200 level up.

pmshah
pmshah

I had earlier posted comments on my experience with this motherboard. Here are my final findings. The motherboard is not all that it is made out to be. My non-scientific test consisted of testing several different video files for playability on different hardware as compared to current hardware under consideration. I tested it under winxp 32 + 64 bit versions and Win7 ultimate 32 bit version. Also tested on a standalone media player with 640gb external Seagate FreeAgent hard disk drive. The hardware consisted of the motherboard under sonsideration + 2 x 2gb Kingston DDR2 800 dimms + 2 x 2.5" 500 gb Seagate drives in Mini-ITX cabinet. A 16 gb 1080p h256 8 mbps 5.1 AC3 mkv file on the FreeAgent drive through my media player on a 42" HD LCD TV via HDMI connection. Played absolutely flawlessly. This led me to conclude that FreeAgent drive was up to the task without missing a single heartbeat. Best of all the FreeAgent drive was NOT DEFRAGGED ! Next I tried to play this very file on the hardware under consideration through HDMI port. It practically died. All kinds of pixellations, n number of dropped frames. I tried this with all the 4 versions of windows. Same results. I then proceeded to copy this file on to a freshly formatted partitioned Seagate 2.5" internal sata HD drive. Tested it once again with some marginal improvemnts but certainly far from usable. I then gradually reduced the file specs to see what was playable. The best it could do was play a 720p, h256, 5.1 ac3, 2.5 mbps mkv file properly. This too only on WinXP x64. Neither the WinXp x86 nor Win7 x86 could cope with the load. This applies to both the PC monitor as well as the HD TV. In conclusion I have only one thing to say. DO look for honest reviews ! Or take it with a fistful of salt. BTW the media player can accommodate 1x2.5" internal sata drive, with 2xUSB 2.0 ports, 1x5.1 optical audio output, 1xHDMI 1.3 output, composite video output and supports RTL8187/B chipset based USB wifi dongle. It cost me US$ 95/= with a free 2 meter HDMI cable including shipping by FedEx. Plays all media files - video, audio and photos.

JoeyD714
JoeyD714

this is very similar to "thin clients" that I have installed and stores for a nationwide chain. They use them in the Mgr & other offices, the firm ware uses net boot to boot from the corporate network, all the software is on the corporate servers & these are basically used as dumb terminals like in the '60s

pmshah
pmshah

A couple of months back I purchased Zotac IONITX-A-U motherboard which essentially is the same as what is used in this "Z Box". I had read some rave reviews about the combination of dual core Atom with nVidia ION chipset and 3 types of video outputs. This was supposed to be the ideal HTPC ! After receiving it and lugging it half way round the world I realised the methodology of testing was bad. It supposedly can output h256 mkv files through the hdmi port - I am assuming that it is just the raw output with your HDTV doing all the decoding work, it fails miserably in playing it on any kind of display attached through the vga port. This even with a stripped down lightweight OS and 4 GB of ram ! Fortunately I also purchased a HornetTek media player for $95/= which does a fantastic job of playing absolutely every kind of media file on any kind of attached display device from the antique letterbox to 1080p. Having a fully functional torrent client and built in driver for RTL8187/B based wireless usb lan dongles is an added plus. So please be absolutely sure about exact setup you plan to use !

jboughton29
jboughton29

The obvious answer is the higher level hardware (x86 architecture and dedicated GPU) but I guess my question is this -- with most people's comments that it is best suited for a HTPC, how does this device compare with say a WDTV Live (or equivalent) in terms of playing video to your home theatre setup? My WDTV Live does HDMI (1080p), has an optical digital for audio and plays virtually all formats. It has WiFi capability to stream from my Media server and it takes in USB 2.0 HDDs to play locally. My WDTV Live cost $99. So for this specific application (home theatre) would spending $300 on this device get me anything more than what I already have? (don't get me wrong, I am a tech fiend and LOVE toys so I would buy it just for the sake of it but I am trying to be logical for the average user who just wants to watch video files in HD from a device).

Gonzalo34
Gonzalo34

Nice guts, though a bit expensive. Thanks for sharing these pics with us, GP

hector
hector

Bill: I think it is just about time you upgrade your photo equipment. You need a Digital Single Lens Reflex camera and a 100 mm macro lens, macro lens, no one with macro capabilitis. You will notice the difference.

jojo_b1
jojo_b1

Hi Bill, I tried opening mine a few days ago. BUt I couldn't remove the FAM from he CPU. I was thinking they used Thermal Adhesive instead of Paste. I was just thinking. =( Anyway, was it easy to remove the fan or you did have to give it some effort to pull apart. Thanks for showing this as I was in a doldrum. i was planning to put some left over SHin Etsu. =/

rocky.ben
rocky.ben

By the time you add memory, software, other hardware and such, this is more expensive than many laptops or desk computers. Only the poor and computer illitterate will buy such a thing, that is unless you are a hobbiest that wants to build your own computer and have the money to throw around.

jonf
jonf

On newegg just add ram, hdd and OS of choice.

kennysessions
kennysessions

Have one of these.Got great Deal @ Newegg.Can't remember exactly but think was around $250. with separate 250 GB HD!Was daily Deal i think.The Main diff between others is it has the Nvidia HD Graphics with on board dedicated Ram,512 MB i think.Anyways it ROCKS!

dredge99999
dredge99999

Most people use these for XBMC, not for daily use PC's. For that purpose it is almost perfect. However, the majority are using the older Atom 330 machines (Zotac has one with 160GB HD/2GB Ram for about $275 on Newegg). 1080p Video, all formats, great interface.

UncleRob
UncleRob

especially when there is no hd or memory, WTF?! You can get a netbook for the same price with a hard drive, memory and an OS pre-installed. What is the intended application/market for this unit?

simon
simon

Interesting device, and a very thorough set of photos. I'd be interested to know more, such as: what is its likely intended market? What are its dimensions? (the picture with a hand on it gives me a clue, but all the same it would be nice to be more precise). Is there room for a CD-ROM device?

nwallette
nwallette

Having owned an AppleTV (1g), WDTV (1g), and a couple Popcorn Hour boxes, the hardware means very little. Most of them have pretty much equivalent capabilities under the hood. It's all about the software. Apple's is pretty and works really well... for what it's worth, since you're really limited in what you can do. WD's software is OK. Updates come few and far between. It's mostly stable, and usually "good enough", if you're careful about codecs and containers. Popcorn Hour's software is buggy, half-baked, and quirky. But you can do anything you want. For me, it's worth it. For some others... not so much. I've read about, but haven't tried, the PC offerings.. namely MythTV and XBMC/Boxee. I'm building a Linux/XBMC image for my old ATV to give it a shot, though. It looks really promising. One thing I'm not sure about in regards to SoC-based appliances, and special-purpose HTPCs.. On an appliance, the whole platform is one chip. One crystal controls the timing for everything. On a PC, your video chipset may or may not have anything to do with your audio chipset (depending on whether you use HDMI, optical, or analog audio). Timing is everything in a media player. The framerate should be locked to the media source framerate (29.97, 59.97, 25, 50, 23.97..) The audio will be a digital stream to a DAC (either in the box for analog out, or in your TV/receiver.) In the broadcast world, the frame and sample rates are designed to be compatible. But in a modular system, what keeps the video and audio DACs in sync? There will be SOME drift no matter what. The question is, at what point does it become problematic? (Dropping a frame once an hour may not matter so much.. but it's still annoying.)

jojo_b1
jojo_b1

I got mine bundled w/ memory for less than the posted price. =) It's a great little box. Running Ultimate and Xbmc on it the GPU is great to output in my old 32 inch LCD TV via HDMI. But there are still other Mini barebones like Jetway and foxconn you can consider.

dbenddre2
dbenddre2

We have used Zotac model that comes with hard drive and ram. It helps us putting out a workstation mounted on back of a monitor. Nice for factory cubicals, setup for training stations and you just load the operating system you want. Just connected a usb CDRom and load your system. Save space, time and money.

shaunsweb
shaunsweb

Though I agree that the price is a bit high when you consider net books have screens hard drives I disagree with comparing the two. Net books typically don't have graphics cards that are really capable for playing back high definition video. These are designed for having computers on each tv that can share the media of your "server" be it a xp, vista, 7 box or a windows home server etc. The costs are different due to the graphics included on the boards. Again though I do think all of these are overpriced for what is included just not a fair comparison when you compare it to netbooks.

Bill Detwiler
Bill Detwiler moderator

We paid about $305 for the ZBOX HD-ID11, a 160GB HDD, and 2GB of RAM. While some netbooks are priced below $300, you'll be hard pressed to find one in this price range with an NVIDIA GPU capable of pumping out HD video at 1080p. Many of the low-cost netbooks use an integrated Intel video processor, which is fine for general computing and Web surfing, but not for streaming video. Machines like the ZBOX are meant to be used in environments where a full-size desktop wouldn't be practical. For example, you might put one in your living room connected to your LCD television.

jboughton29
jboughton29

Whether it be an 8" or 10" display factor in getting a monitor included in on the price. You're right that it is far too expensive for what it can do. Especially when you have netbooks down at the $199 range that have more included.

kerry.sisler
kerry.sisler

This is basically just a small box and a system board to suit. Frankly not exciting enough to warrant an article... Quite a few folks sell the parts or assembled. If do some searching based on 'your real requirements' you should be able to find something in the $150 or under range for the barebones. I happen to have had a pair of Mega brand "bread box" computers embedded in my AV rack to drive the projector. Even three years back they were about $150 each. Added a HDTV card, CPU, RAM, DVD, small harddisk and off you go. If you can find one with a PCIx slot on the board, then definately get the AverMedia HDTV PCIx card as it far exceeds the ATI HD Wonder's (which I had to use) as the ATI's are only PCI slott-able.

dldorrance
dldorrance

The case is about 7 1/4 inches square and about 1 1/4 inches in height. Inside is a mini-ITX motherboard, laptop size RAM as well as separate video RAM as well as space for a 2.5 inch HDD on the motherboard. Cooling is via a two speed fan which is a bit loud at maximum speed. The MB contains an NVIDIA graphics engine with separate video RAM. I believe the intended market is to compete with the XBOX. All peripherals, including keyboard, mouse, CD/DVD-ROM attach via an eSATA port or USB, except for DVI video output with an included adapter for HDMI video only. Audio output is optical. Mine runs on Linux. http://www.anandtech.com/show/3702/zotacs-zbox-hdid11-review-next-gen-ion-better-worse-than-ion1

alexdsf123
alexdsf123

expensive for a bare bone machine. Like that

halfnium
halfnium

A bit off topic, I know, but how suitable would this be as a Samba server? You suggest that the graphics are overkill for that application, so is there something good or better at lower cost? How is this box at idling on low power? I am otherwise thinking of re-using some old laptop.

nwallette
nwallette

They sell them at Logic Supply for about $50. Real-time playback of MPEG-2/4 and h.264 at 1080p, and hardware scaling to whatever screen resolution you want. So, if your netbook has a slot, you're set. Edit: And as a rare treat, drivers are available for Windows, Mac, and Linux. ^_^

bfpower
bfpower

Really. =D I've had trouble finding them in that range - most of the few available Linux netbooks are now more expensive than their Windows counterparts. So if you have some links, I'd love to get one.

dldorrance
dldorrance

On the video output. Two output connectors, one for DVI and one for HDMI (video only). A plug is included which converts DVI to VGA. Also included is network access, usual sound card connections and connector for SD card.

jboughton29
jboughton29

Oh don't get me wrong, I know the specs of the Zotac and admire what it has under its hood for such a small footprint. I guess my point was more performance vs practicality. Generally speaking the Zotac has much more zip and glitter than the ASUS netbooks I posted, but for the average user, how much is really needed versus what you get overall for the same cost? For my wife, who is a general user and web surfer and the odd Flash based game player, if I were to argue with her that the Zotac has a dual core Atom and an eSATA port she would ask me if she could use it sitting on the front porch? So for the same price point for the general average user, I still feel a netbook is a better deal. Now, for a techie like me I would love to get my hands on a Zotac over a SLLLLLLOW ASUS Eee netbook. But there are so many of us out there and FAR MORE general users.

bio
bio

You have not looked at the specs on the Zotac have you ? I am reading this story using my Acer X233H monitor at 1920x1080. That Asus would fill 1/3 of my screen and probably pretty slow at that. The Zotac is dual core with GigE network and Sata drive with 4 external USB and an external eSata port along with multiple card slot capabilities. for a centralized video serving device ( or perhaps even a weird SAN/NAS system ) this box would perform far better than that ( or other ) laptops. I'm pretty sure NewEgg won't have any problem selling them.

jboughton29
jboughton29

Hey bfpower -- At $199 you're normally looking at an Acer or ASUS netbook with an Atom N270 1.6GHz 1GB ram and variable size in HDD (120GB i.e) at a SALES price (I bought my wife an ASUS Eee Atom N270 1.6GHz 1GB RAM, 160GB HDD for $199 on sale). Most of the time they hover at $239 at this calibre (Link - http://bit.ly/cQfhWI) But there are still a couple at $199 non-sale price if you sacrifice the HDD size (Link - http://bit.ly/9pgNqt). I just linked to one place in the US for you -- I am sure others will compete with Tigerdirect for that range. Keep an eye out -- the $239 mark is normal now for that level of hardware but it will dip to $199 on a sale. It's a good netbook too.