Desktop computers are required for all kinds of purposes – everything from data entry to gaming. There's a somewhat small market for HTPCs (Home Theater PCs) but there's hardly ever been a product that fits perfectly in that slot.

Compact, but menacing in its own little way

Compact, but menacing in its own little way

AMD recently launched their Brazos platform which is sold as a mini-ITX format board. It's compact, it's low on power consumption and it's somewhat affordable. ZOTAC has taken that board and built a HTPC around it. Let's see what they've come up with.

Design and Build Quality

One of the key problems with HTPCs all this while is their bulkiness. They've always looked like PCs more than anything else. The older ZOTAC MAG was a pretty compact thing but it had a somewhat unconventional design. The new ZBOX AD03BR PLUS is a larger (in area) but ultrathin chassis. It looks more like a really sleak Blu-ray player more than anything else, which is what a HTPC ought to be. It's compact enough to be hidden away behind a TV or kept right next to it. 

Ultra-slim design for what is a desktop PC

Ultra-slim design for what is a desktop PC

The body is predominantly plastic but the build of the product is pretty good. There is no squeaking and sliding of panels whatsoever. It's not a bad looking device either. A glowing blue circle on one side and a brushed metal-like finish the plastic on the other half gives it a very attractive look. If you don't like lights on your HTPC, you can even turn it off through the CMOS. The buttons used on the case are very plain and simple. The slim Blu-ray drive's eject button for example, is really tiny and easy to miss. The small size chassis means that the ZBOX uses an external power supply to operate. The adapter is somewhat bulky and is of the same size of a regular laptop. 

Features

In term of specifications, the ZOTAC ZBOX AD03BR has a similar set of specifications that you find on any other Brazos board. There's a HDMI and a DVI connector at the back for video connectivity, so you can use it with a TV or a monitor if you'd like to.

Connectivity options at the rear

Connectivity options at the rear

USB 3.0 is supported through the single port at the back and so is eSATA. The second USB 3.0 port can be found at the front. An Ethernet port is available at the back along with an integrated WiFi 802.11n adapter. Optical audio connectivity is present at the back and 3.5mm analog jacks at the front alongside the memory card reader. So in that aspect, a lot is covered by this product. 

Blu-ray drive and memory card reader

Blu-ray drive and memory card reader

The ZOTAC ZBOX doesn't come with a wireless keyboard and mouse kit, which we sorely missed during the review. There isn't a bundled operating system either or even a remote control for that matter. You do get a VESA mount bracket using which to mount the PC on a wall or behind a LCD monitor. You also get a slim slot-in Blu-ray player which is handy, since this is an HTPC and that's what you would like to do – watch HD movies on it. 

The BIOS is neatly laid out with easy to understand menus and while allowing a decent of amount of control over the system. One of the important characteristics of an HTPC is that it ought to be silent and the ZOTAC ZBOX is, at least for the most part. Users can take manual control over the fan speed through the BIOS and spool it up to 100 per cent where it peaks at somewhere around 6500 rpm, and things get noisy. It's almost as bad as a high-end graphics card's exhaust while playing a game of Crysis. Bring the speed down to about 40 per cent and things go dead silent. The only thing you hear is the occasional read and write activity by the hard drive's head.

Performance

Let's start with the performance that matters the most – HD playback. HD 1080p videos play flawlessly across most players that we tried it on. We noticed only a 3 to 10 percent CPU utilisation jump, with the CPU utilisation hovering around 7 per cent most of the time. Clearly, HD playback is a breeze. If you're looking for a HTPC primarily and only for HD media playback, you can be rest assured this will do the job well. If you're going to be using the ZBOX as an HTPC, you're likely to use a software such as XBMC. XBMC by itself is a sort of CPU and memory intensive program, so expect some performance drop. We ran the same 1080p video clip on XBMC and found the CPU utilisation to be around 30 per cent, which is still very good.

A look inside the ZOTAC ZBOX AD03BR PLUS

A look inside the ZOTAC ZBOX AD03BR PLUS

There are no heating issues whatsoever and there's a steady flow of warm hair from the side of the case, where the exhaust fan is. The older ZOTAC MAG used to heat up quite a bit. We ran the ZOTAC ZBOX through the night with no fans or airconditioners in the room and in the morning, it was idling at around 37C. The ZBOX then also works great as a download box. Setup a client with remote access and you're good to go!

2GB of memory tucked in place

2GB of memory tucked in place

We also ran a whole bunch of core computing tests. Video encoding for example would be one of those. Our sample video clip took 5 minutes 54 minutes to encode using the x264 codec, which is only a tiny bit faster than the MSI E350 board we reviewed a few back. Cinebench rendering as well as the OpenGL graphics performance scores were a tad faster than the MSI, but only by the tiniest of margins. 

2.5-inch drive inside

2.5-inch drive inside

File transfer speeds over USB 2.0 drives touches 31.26 MB/s and an internal file copy test is completed at an average speed of 25MB/s. Synthentic tests show that the drive can easily cross 60 MB/s. Gaming isn't what this HTPC was built for but it can handle a few older games. For example, Doom3 at 1280×1024 and high settings manages to churn out a 36.3 fps. 

Verdict

We think the ZOTAC ZBOX is a very good attempt at building a low-power HTPC solution that you can buy off the shelf. Anyone assembling an HTPC will tell you that finding a board, a compatible chassis and getting them for as cheap as you'd like doesn't always happen. The ZBOX model with the Blu-ray drive sells for Rs. 26,999. We think this is an option to consider if you don't want to go through the trouble of building your own HTPC. It's expensive for sure, especially when you consider you don’t get a bundled wireless keyboard-mouse set, a remote or even an operating system. The Blu-ray drive is something you don’t find on most PCs and the integrated WiFi 802.11n support is handy as well. Setup with the right software, this can end up being a very sold HTPC-download rig, assuming you leave your gaming to your gaming rig.

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