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Good Things In Small Packages: Seven Nettop Platforms, Tested

Sorting Through The Specs: Seven Nettops, Detailed

Again, we have seven different nettops here. And while our focus is on the technology inside each one, we do want to introduce the models provided by Zotac. The company sells its Zboxes in two versions. The first is a barebones configuration to which you have to add your own storage and memory. The other bears the "Plus" designator, and includes 2 GB of DDR3 memory and a Samsung 320 GB hard drive (250 GB in the case of the Blu-ray model). Neither comes with an operating system, so be sure to add software into your budget. Zotac sent us the Plus versions of each nettop, allowing us to test the configurations as they were provided. 

Interestingly, all of Zotac's nettops sport a USB 3.0 controller driving two ports, Wi-Fi, gigabit Ethernet, and digital audio output. Aside from the model sporting a Blu-ray drive, they also all come with Bluetooth, a MCE-compatible remote control, and VESA mounting options for attaching the Zbox behind your flat-screen display.

Zbox Blu-ray

The first of our four Intel-based platforms, the Zbox Blu-ray 3D ID36 Plus is what most people consider typical of a nettop platform. It features Intel’s Atom D525, which sports two cores, plus Hyper-Threading, operating at 1.8 GHz. It's complemented by Intel's relatively old NM10 chipset, saddled by SATA 3Gb/s storage connectivity and first-gen PCI Express support. Then again, modern interfaces aren't really necessary, since the platform hampers the performance of higher-end peripherals anyway.

Graphics have never been Intel’s strong suit, and Zotac knows this. Instead of relying on the Atom processor's anemic GMA 3150 engine, it leans on Nvidia's better-balanced GT218, more commonly known as Ion 2.

Peripherals can be attached to the Zbox via a pair of USB 2.0 ports or a couple of third-gen connectors. Additionally, one of the USB 2.0 ports doubles as an eSATA interface. Display output options are purely digital; choose between HDMI and DVI.

Given the platform's seeming utility in an HTPC environment, we really wonder why it doesn't include a remote control. Also, placing audio outputs on the front of the enclosure seems like a messy choice. On the other hand, there is a digital optical output on the back of the unit, giving home theater buffs an option other than HDMI for getting audio from the Zbox.

Zbox

The Zbox ID80 Plus hosts Intel's modern Cedar Trail-based Atom CPU (specifically, the D2700). Its two Hyper-Threaded cores operate at 2.13 GHz. 

Unfortunately, the company again leans on its older NM10 chipset, saddling a new processor with all of the previous generation's I/O deficiencies. Not surprisingly, then, Nvidia makes another appearance as Zotac's GPU vendor of choice. The company employs the GeForce GT 520M, an entry-level chip from Nvidia's mobile portfolio.

Overall, this form-factor affords Zotac slightly better connectivity. Two USB 3.0 ports are still present, but second-gen USB expands to include four ports (two around back, one up front, and one either on top of on the side, depending how the Zbox is oriented). HDMI and DVI display outputs cover the most popular interfaces. And again, we find audio jacks up front, which makes a lot more sense on a desktop-oriented platform like this one. 

Next up, we have two almost-identical models based on derivatives of Intel's Sandy Bridge CPU architecture and HM65 Express chipset, the Zbox ID81 Plus and Zbox ID82 Plus. The first is equipped with a dual-core Celeron 857 running at 1.2 GHz, which lacks Hyper-Threading, while the second employs a mobile dual-core Core i3-2330M that operates at higher clocks and benefits from Hyper-Threading technology.

The processor you pick also affects integrated graphics performance. Intel's Celeron contains a pared-down engine called HD Graphics that is stripped of Quick Sync and Clear Video. The mobile Core i3 enjoys both capabilities, in addition to a higher graphics clock rate. Outwardly, both Zboxes are nearly identical to the ID80, with the only real difference being the ID82’s yellow USB ports that can charge attached devices, even when the system is powered off.

The Zbox AD04 Plus uses the same upright enclosure, but instead centers on AMD’s E-450 APU. Its two low-power Bobcat cores run at a conservative 1.65 GHz, but its graphics core is far more interesting. Dubbed Radeon HD 6320, the integrated GPU is able to overclock itself from a base frequency of 508 MHz to 600 MHz when additional performance is needed, and when the thermal budget permits. AMD's A50M (Hudson M1) chipset is much more modern than Intel's NM10, though it notably lacks native USB 3.0 support. Zotac addresses this shortcoming by adding a third-party controller. 

There is only one minor connectivity detail that sets the AMD-based model apart from the Intel-oriented competition: instead of a DVI port, the Zbox AD04 includes DisplayPort.

Zbox nano

The Zbox nano AD10 Plus is even smaller. Measuring only 5 x 5 inches, this compact computer houses AMD’s E-350 APU. Its 1.6 GHz clock rate is only marginally slower than the flagship, but its integrated Radeon HD 6310 cannot accelerate beyond its nominal clock rate of 492 MHz in response to demands for more performance. Also, its memory controller tops out at DDR3-800, whereas the E-450 supports DDR3-1066 as well. As a result, we should only expect to see a performance delta when it comes to graphics performance or applications starved for memory bandwidth.

All of Zotac's nano models feature a card reader, two audio jacks (one for a microphone input, and one for a headphone output), an IR-receiver, and a built-in mic. Around back, we find two USB 2.0 and two USB 3.0 ports, a connector for the Wi-Fi antenna, a dedicated eSATA port, and an Ethernet jack. Again, you're able to choose between DisplayPort and HDMI output

Squeezed into the same nano enclosure as AMD's E-350, we find a rare VIA Nano X2 U4025. It runs at a nominal clock speed of 1.2 GHz, tying it with the much more modern Celeron 857 for the lowest frequency.

The accompanying VX900H chipset is fairly old, similar to Intel's NM10 (both are roughly on the same level, technology-wise). VIA's core logic incorporates a graphics engine of its own called Chrome9 HCM, a DirectX 9-class GPU capable of basic hardware-accelerated video decoding. According to VIA, H.264, MPEG-2, MPEG-4, WMV9, and DivX up to 1080p are among the supported formats. You might be tempted to dismiss the Zbox nano VD01 Plus based on its rather dated hardware. But as our benchmarks will show, you’d be wrong.

Tech Specs: Nettop Platforms by Intel
Model NameZbox ID81/82 PlusZbox ID80 PlusZbox Blu-ray 3D ID36
ManufacturerZotacZotacZotac
Hard Drive320 GB320 GB250 GB
CPUIntel Celeron 8572 x 1.2 GHzIntel Core i3-2330M2 x 2.2 GHz (Hyper-Threading)Intel Atom D27002 x 2.13 GHz (Hyper-Threading)Intel Atom D5252 x 1.8 GHz (Hyper-Threading)
ChipsetIntel HM65Intel NM10Intel NM10
RAM2 GB DDR3-13332 GB DDR3-13332 GB DDR3-800
GraphicsIntel HD GraphicsDirectX 10.1Intel HD Graphics 3000DirectX 10.1Nvidia GeForce GT 520M (GF119),512 MB DDR3, DirectX 11Next-Gen Nvidia Ion (GT218),512 MB DDR3, DirectX 10.1
AudioRealtek ALC892Realtek ALC892Realtek ALC888
ODD--Slimtype BS-E DL4ETS USB Device
USB 2.04 (1 front, 2 back, 1 right)4 (1 front, 2 back, 1 right)2 (1 front, 1 back)
USB 3.02 (2 back)2 (2 back)2 (1 front, 1 back)
Display OutputsHDMI, DVIHDMI, DVIHDMI, DVI
eSATA--1 Combo USB 2.0 / eSATA
LANGigabit LANGigabit LANGigabit LAN
WiFi802.11n802.11n802.11n
IrDAyes, remote controlyes, remote control-
Card ReaderSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMCSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMCSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMC
BluetoothBluetooth 3.0Bluetooth 3.0-
Tech Specs: Nettop Platforms by AMD and VIA
ModelZbox nano AD10 PlusZbox AD04 PlusZbox nano VD01 Plus
ManufacturerZotacZotacZotac
Hard Drive320 GB320 GB320 GB
CPUAMD E-3502 x 1.6 GHzAMD E-4502 x 1.65 GHzVIA Nano X2 U40252 x 1.2 GHz
ChipsetAMD A50M (Hudson M1)AMD A50M (Hudson M1)VIA VX900H
RAM2 GB DDR3-10662 GB DDR3-13332 GB DDR3-1066
GraphicsAMD Radeon HD 6310DirectX 11AMD Radeon HD 6320DirectX 11VIA Chrome9DirectX 9
AudioRealtek ALC892Realtek ALC892VIA HD Audio
ODD---
USB 2.02 (2 back)4 (1 front, 2 back, 1 right)2 (2 back)
USB 3.02 (2 back)2 (2 back)2 (2 back)
Display OutputsDisplayPort, HDMIDisplayPort, HDMIDisplayPort, HDMI
eSATA1 eSATA-1 eSATA
LANGigabit LANGigabit LANGigabit LAN
WiFi802.11n802.11n802.11n
IrDAyes, remote controlyes, remote controlyes, remote control
Card ReaderSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMCSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMCSD(HC), MS(Pro),xD, MMC
BluetoothBluetooth 3.0Bluetooth 3.0Bluetooth 3.0
  • JOSHSKORN
    In all honesty, when it can run Crysis...I'll be impressed. Until then...alrighty.
    Reply
  • falchard
    I think this review is bias. Its missing the AMD small form factor benchmark. Any game.
    Reply
  • A Bad Day
    JOSHSKORNIn all honesty, when it can run Crysis...I'll be impressed. Until then...alrighty.
    Well, if you run it in:

    -320p resolution
    -Directx 8
    -All eyecandy off

    You'll get around 5-10 FPS.
    Reply
  • bavman
    These things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.
    Reply
  • we_san
    Just curious. Are these in the same price segment ?
    Reply
  • friskiest
    bavmanThese things suck. Why would you dish out the $300-400 theyre asking for them? I recently built a file server that was basically a dumbed down tower with an g620 cpu, 4 gigs of ram for under $200 (excluding all the hdds). Throw in a $50 graphics card and it would dominate any of these nettops.
    You pay for the size, power and niche factor in here,.. these are Nettops,.. you're not supposed to play AA or AAA games in here,. just browse the net,. watch movies and listen to music- as implied
    Reply
  • Nintendo Maniac 64
    What I really want to see is a nettop using AMD's 17w A6-4455M. Being a Trinity APU, it actually WOULD have enough grunt to run Crysis, and without it looking like crap to boot!
    Reply
  • molo9000
    Shame these still aren't good at H.264 decoding. They would make great HTPCs.

    The hardware decoding of the VIA chipset would be a killer feature, if there actually was some software that supported it. Seems like XBMC doesn't support it either.
    Reply
  • hmp_goose
    The point of the Nano was power consumption, right? Didn't we just debunk that?
    Reply
  • daglesj
    I rolled out a load of Ion 330 Asrock boxes a couple of years ago for business use. Customers still love their little black boxes. These were the early 1.6Ghz dual core Atoms.

    For work use (basically 95% of what 95% of the worlds computers users actually do in the REAL world) they work great.

    There is more to life than endless benchmarking and Crysis.
    Reply