Introduction and Setup Impressions

 

Over the last couple of years, mini-PCs in the ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) have emerged as one of the bright spots in the troubled PC market. Zotac is no stranger to this segment. Even though the Intel NUC is credited with kicstarting the UCFF trend, the Zotac nano xs units actually came to the market before them. With the nano xs, Zotac redefined the small form-factor (SFF) PC. The nano series units use slightly bigger motherboards, but they are still small enough to mount discreetly behind monitors with the supplied VESA mounts.

Along with the emergence of the UCFF PC market, tablets also gained popularity. The industry also saw an overall push towards power-efficient computing for the average user. These two trends resulted in Intel creating a new Y series for their Core microprocessors, starting with Ivy Bridge. Unfortunately, the impact of these SKUs in the tablet market has been minimal. However, Zotac has repurposed the Haswell Y series CPUs for the 'ZBOX C Passive Cooling Series' of mini-PCs. The ZBOX CI540 nano, equipped with a Core i5-4210Y, is currently the most powerful unit in the lineup and that is what we will be looking at today.

Zotac usually samples the PLUS models (which come with a 2.5" drive as well as DRAM). This has always been mentioned as a minus point in our previous reviews (either due to the usage of a hard drive instead of a SSD, or leaving one of the DIMM slots empty). However, the PLUS models of the C series come with a SSD and there is only one memory slot in the units. This is one of the few ZBOX models where purchasing a PLUS model might actually make sense. In any case, Zotac is putting more emphasis on the barebones models, letting users choose their own 2.5" drive and DDR3L SO-DIMM stick. We were sampled the barebones version of the ZBOX CI540 nano. The unit was configured with a few additional components to end up with the following specifications:

Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-4210Y
(2C/4T x 1.5 GHz (1.9 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 3MB L2, 11.5W TDP, 6W SDP)
Memory 1 x 8GB DDR3L-1600
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4200
Disk Drive(s) Samsung SSD 840 EVO 120GB 2.5" SSD
Networking 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x1 802.11ac/Bluetooth mPCIe
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Operating System

Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Pricing (As configured) ~$350 (barebones) + $168 (DRAM + 2.5" SSD)
Full Specifications Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications

The ZBOX CI540 nano kit doesn't come with any pre-installed OS, but does come with a CD and a read-only USB key containing the drivers. In any case, we ended up installing the latest drivers downloaded off Zotac's product support page. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 40 W (19V @ 2.1A) adapter, a US power cord, a VESA mount (along with the necessary screws), a single 2.4 GHz / 5 GHz antenna for the Wi-Fi feature, a driver CD / read-only USB key, user's manual and a quick-start guide.

The gallery below takes us around the hardware in the unit.

The dimensions of the ZBOX C series units are quite close to that of the standard Intel NUC. The gallery below shows the smallest actively cooled Intel NUC (i.e, the one without support for a 2.5" drive) and the ZBOX CI540 nano side by side. Despite having support for a 2.5" drive, the differences in the dimensions are minimal.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the ZBOX CI540 nano against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the ZBOX CI540 nano when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano
CPU Intel Core i5-4210Y Intel Core i5-4250U
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4200 Intel HD Graphics 5000
RAM Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B1600C9
9-9-9-24 @ 1600 MHz
1x8 GB
Corsair Vengeance CMSX8GX3M2B1866C10
10-10-10-32 @ 1866 MHz
2x4 GB
Storage Samsung SSD 840 EVO
(120 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 19nm, TLC)
Intel SSD 530 Series
(240 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 20nm, MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
(2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $518 $671
Performance Metrics - I
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  • wintermute000 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    For some people that's worth the 50% cost saving (plus the laptop can be used as... a laptop? in a pinch lol). Not everyone is OCD about their TV setup. Reply
  • BrokenCrayons - Tuesday, November 4, 2014 - link

    As long as performance doesn't matter much, $200 USD of inexpensive Bay Trail laptop would really be a far less costly solution. Quite a few modern low-end notebooks with 11 inch screens with those sorts of specifications don't have cooling fans and are kitted out with solid state memory making dust ingestion a non-issue. Yes, there's a lot less performance potential, but being able to grab the HTPC and use it someplace else when you need to leave the living room is sort of nice too since it's still a laptop. Reply
  • p@nc@k3s - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Glad to see an Intel WiFi NIC. What is the gigabit Ethernet NIC? I hope it's not Realtek. Reply
  • saiga6360 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    This one has Bluetooth so you can probably have better luck with those remotes. I would avoid IR if I can help it. Reply
  • abufrejoval - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    I think that's a very interesting little box! Thanks for the evaluation!

    Idle power in the French article linked behind Fanless Tech seems a little higher: They quote a 9-31Watt range.

    Could the plastic foil they found between the thermal pad and the chassis actually also have increased power consumption? Don't hotter chips consume more power?

    They also say that checking for the presence of the "isolated human error" would void the warranty, which is, well, bizarre in this case...

    Can you measure DRAM bandwidth on the unit?
    I'm a little worried that the single DRAM socket would be limiting the bandwidth unnecessarily.

    I guess I'd still perfer a somewhat more massive design with the i5-4200U (same CPU price), which I've seen sustain 2.1GHz peaks pretty long as well as the 2.6GHz spikes for things like spreadsheet recalcs.

    Or even with the vastly more expensive i7-4500, all the very same silicon inside.

    Unfortunately Intel gauges and charges for perceived performance pretty well: These little Haswells do deliver quite acceptable performance for those little sprints in typical desktop work, which you can't really see under these synthetic benchmark loads, where the first thermal limits kick in pretty pretty fast.

    Thus the i7-4500U really does feel no slower than a true 3GHz i7 quad core with 8 threads, when you browse a complex web page, reformat a complex document or recalc a huge spreadsheet.

    Because it a) does actually go to 3GHz for a comple of seconds when cold and b) none of these tasks exploit multiple cores or run long enough to heat up the CPU.

    Chances are you could even put the 4200 or 4500 into the very same chassis and just risk that they arrive at speeds very similar to the 4210Y under continued load.

    But they'd still "feel" a lot faster on office work stuff.

    And I might be tempted to spend an extra 50 bucks or so on a case which foregoes convection through the case and uses large external fins instead to avoid issues with dust and cleaning staff "whet cleaning" these cases to the point where create solid composite crusts of dust and dried cleaning agents.

    Too bad Broadwell will soon render these a lot less attractive far too soon!
    Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    This is very true. With broadwell supposed to be even more energy efficient the Y series (or is it called core M now instead of Y series or is the core m a power level below Y and there is still a Y and a u?) the fanless mini pc will end up able to convert the broadwell energy savings into even more performance at the same temperature and the U series with the new iGPU should make it actually able to game many popular titles at a respectable 30 fps and 1366x768 resolution and maybe even some at 1920x1080. I could see myself chilling in the living room loading up a game of hearthstone which would definitely run as the ipad air 1 is known to run it well and that is just an apple a7x proc not even the new A8x. Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    and before u bash the 768p gaming quite a few xbox one titles will end up at this resolution and fps. It's not as terrible as the low numbers make it sound. And games like hearthstone and league of legends should run at 1920x1080 on the intel graphics 5000 (the igpu in the intel mini pc) successor without a hitch. Broadwell might just take this category to a new level. Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    I only see this being a good buy for the noise nazis out there. My personal favorite was the intel box that was only an extra 153 as configured and it had a u series cpu with intel 5000 graphics instead of y series with intel 4200 and an intel 530 240GB SSD instead of a samsung 840 evo 120GB SSD and dual channel 1866 ram instead of single channel 1600mhz and intel 7260 2x2 wireless instead of intel 3160 1x1 wireless.

    The intel box beats it on every single specification for only a 153 dollar premium. So it would seem that unless being fanless is the number 1 thing you care about by a large margin you would have to be senile to choose the zotac nano over the intel.
    Reply
  • wintermute000 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    well TBH unless size/noise is your only concern you're better off served via a mITX or better still a mATX build. They can still look pretty good aesthetically with the right case, and with right part selection don't make any appreciable noise. Reply
  • kaczor47 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    I have been using this box for a couple of weeks now. Main use: XBMC for movies and audio. I am surprised that the silent aspect of the device is not appreciated more here - when listening to audio on hi-end speakers, last thing I want is to hear the fan noise in the background (during the quite parts of a classical piece). Not to mention that this thing is in my living room, where occasionally I want to relax in a quiet environment - again, the hum of a fan would sometimes be irritating.

    Of course, there you can get higher performance for an extra $X,but it is all about balance.
    Reply

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