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Seven Small (But Powerful) Mini-PCs, Reviewed

Zotac Zbox Nano ID65 Plus

Zotac was in the mini-PC business long before Intel joined the party. Its Zbox line-up emerged back in 2010, and the ultra-compact Zbox nano form factor surfaced in 2011. Armed with an anemic AMD E-350 APU, integrated Radeon HD 6310 graphics, 2 GB of RAM, and a 320 GB hard drive, the 5" x 5" x 1.8" AD10 beat Intel's option to market by a year and a half. The NUC looks awfully similar, doesn't it? Just look at how far we've come performance-wise.

Compelled by the thermal ceiling of Intel's low-voltage Ivy Bridge-based CPUs, Zotac squeezed much more powerful hardware into the nano's chassis, yielding the ID65 Plus. It comes equipped with a Core i7-3537U processor sporting a 2 GHz base clock, 3.1 GHz peak Turbo Boost frequency, and 4 MB shared L3 cache.

Intel's HD Graphics 4000 is perhaps the platform's weakest link. To be fair to Zotac, this isn't a new product; it was introduced earlier in 2013. We chose it to serve as the heart of an upcoming automotive build project, though, and thought it deserved an opportunity to participate in today's round-up. The good news is that Zotac's Haswell-equipped replacement, the nano ID68 plus, should show up in the U.S. very soon. It sports a Core i5-4200U CPU with Intel HD 4600 graphics in the exact same chassis as the ID65 we're looking at today.

Fortunately, a mature market means that the Zbox nano ID65 Plus sells for under $550 on Amazon. It's not a stripped-down barebones system, either. Rather, it includes a 500 GB hard drive, 4 GB of DDR3-1600, and a Wi-Fi/Bluetooth card. Buy an operating system and hook up some peripherals and you're good to go. We settled on a $730 price tag with Windows 8.1 Professional.

Bundle And First Impression

Inside Zotac's packaging you'll find the Zbox nano itself, a VESA mounting plate, documentation, a driver CD, a wireless antenna, an AC adapter, power cord, and an S/PDIF-to-optical adapter. The system comes equipped with a 2.5" mechanical hard drive, but a SATA-to-dual-mSATA adapter is included too. This component is unique among the mini-PCs we're testing; it lets you add two mSATA-based drives and rope them together in a RAID array if you wish.

It's tempting to say the Zbox nano looks like a slightly larger NUC, given 5" x 5" x 1.8" measurements. But Zotac's form factor came first, so it's probably more accurate to say Intel's design takes after the Zbox. Compact size aside, you still get the signature power ring up top that lights up when the small system is on. It looks great in blue, just as it did in green on the original Zbox nano AD10.

A quick comparison shows that Intel's Haswell-based NUC is 4.6" x 4.4" x 1.4". So, while the Zbox is larger, the extra volume isn't going to make a ton of difference on your desktop or mounted to the back of your monitor. Zotac's solution is also about 12% heavier than Intel's revised platform.

Right up front, Zotac gives you an IR receiver, a memory card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, and two audio jacks. The microphone jack doubles as an S/PDIF output, which is compatible with the bundled S/PDIF-to-optical adapter.

Around back we find full-sized DisplayPort and HDMI outputs, four USB 3.0 ports, GbE connectivity, eSATA, AC power input, and an interface for the included Wi-Fi antenna. This is the only contender in our story leaning on an external antenna.

The bottom access plate is removable without a screwdriver; the large rubber feet are easily turned by hand. Only three of the four feet actually hold the Zbox's cover in place. 

The insides are completely unique from Intel's NUC or Gigabyte's Brix. I removed the 500 GB Samsung Spinpoint M8 disk drive and installed the dual-mSATA adapter for my picture. Really, the only disappointment is a single-channel memory architecture, which fails to fully utilize the Ivy Bridge controller. Most of our compute-intensive workloads aren't negatively affected, but a lack of bandwidth does hit graphics performance. At any rate, there's a 4 GB DDR3-1600 SO-DIMM already installed, along with an Intel Centrino 2230 802.11n/Bluetooth 4.0 wireless card.

Special Features And Livability

Less-compact dimensions compared to the NUC don't really bother me in a desktop environment. I'm more focused on the possibilities enabled by the Zbox nano's extra space inside. Do you want a 2.5" hard disk in a tiny PC? Do you want an mSATA-based RAID setup? Do you want to use both input and output audio jacks at the same time? How about an integrated memory card reader? Intel recently updated its NUC family with two models that are a little thicker and do accommodate 2.5" drives, but lack some of the other features.

I was intrigued with what the original Zbox nano offered back in 2011, but never fully appreciated Zotac's work until I worked on this comparison and dealt with the competition's limitations. Again, though, a lack of dual-channel memory support hurts an otherwise command performance. It's unfortunate that the Haswell-based models won't fix this.

Zotac Zbox Nano ID65 Plus
ChipsetIntel HM77 Express
CPUIntel Core i7-3537U, Dual-Core, Hyper-Threaded, 2 GHz (3.1 GHz Peak Turbo Boost), 4 MB Shared L3 Cache
GraphicsIntel HD Graphics 4000, 350 MHz - 1.2 GHz
Graphics MemoryShared with system memory
System Memory1 x 4 GB Samsung PC3-12800, DDR3-1600, 11-11-11-28-1T
Hard DriveSamsung Spinpoint M8 500 GB, 8 MB Cache, 5400 RPM, SATA 3 Gb/s(includes adapter for 2 x mSATA SSD drives, optional RAID)
Optical DriveN/A
Operating SystemNot Included
Included PeripheralsNot Included
Internal Interfaces
Memory SupportSingle-Channel, 1 x DDR3/L/-RS SO-DIMM slot, 1.35/1.5 V, 1333/1600 MT/s, 8 GB Max
Mini-PCIeOne slot (occupied by included wireless card)
mSATATwo slots (with mSATA adapter)
Mass Storage Controllers
Chipset SATA1 x SATA 3Gb/s, (used with included 2.5" hard drive)(bundle includes 2.5" SATA-to-2 x mSATA SSD adapter)
I/O Panel Connectors
DVINot Included
VGANot Included
HDMI1
DisplayPort1
ThunderboltNot Included
MHSL InputNot Included
USB2 x USB 2.0, 2 x USB 3.0
Memory Card ReaderMS/PRO, SD, xD, MMC
Network1
eSATA1
Digital Audio outS/PDIF jack/HDMI
Analog AudioTwo front
IR SensorYes
Ethernet & Wireless
LANIntegrated Gigabit
Wi-Fi2T2R Single-Band Intel Centrino 2230 802.11n mini-PCIe card
BluetoothBluetooth 4.0 (Intel Centrino 2230 Wi-Fi Combo card)
Audio
HD Audio CodecAnalog and S/PDIF: Realtek ALC892HDMI: Intel Display Audio
Audio Channels7.1+2 Channel HD Audio Codec with Content Protection
Physical Specifications
Size127 x 127 x 45 mm(5” x 5” x 1.77”)
Weight537 g (1.18 lbs)
Price
As tested: $709.98 (with Windows 8.1 Pro x64)Hardware: $570 (Amazon)