A challenger to Mac Mini in the HTPC market arrives.
Most of the new devices vying for space next to your TV are based on a somewhat closed architecture such as Apple TV, Roku and even the Boxee box. I still prefer having a full blown computer in my living room as it allows me the flexibility of putting any Media Center application on it. And until now, the Mac Mini has been my choice of a mini HTPC because of its good looks, small form factor and reasonable power to handle anything I throw at it. However, there is a new challenger in town- the Zotac Zbox Blu-Ray.
Now Zotac isn’t new to HTPCs. I’ve reviewed their pevious line of HTPC’s but the lack of a built-in optical drive always made me shy away from using it in my living room. However, with the ZBox Blu-Ray, Zotac goes one up on the Mac Mini with a Blu-Ray drive instead of the DVD player found on the Mac Mini. Also present is USB 3.0 which is theoretically ten times faster than USB 2.0 found on the Mac Mini. We received the HD-ID34 model from Zotac that comes with 2GB RAM and a 250GB Hard Drive pre-installed but without an Operating System. Included in the package was a power adapter, a DVI to DSUB converter as well as a Quickstart guide, drivers CD and PowerDVD with Blu-Ray playback.
Internally, the Zotac Blu-Ray HD-ID34 is based on the Dual Core Atom D525 CPU running at 1.8GHz and the Intel NM10 chipset. For GPU, Zotac uses the NVIDIA ION GPU with 16 shaders and 512MB DDR3. System RAM is at 2GB while storage was taken care of with a 250GB 2.5” hard drive. Zotac sells a version without the RAM and HD with model number HD-ID33 for those wanting to build their own systems. The Atom CPU helps the Zbox Blu-Ray operate without getting much hot. Zotac also does a great job of noise control- I could barely hear the unit even when all my equipment except the Zbox was powered off.
Although the Atom CPU has a much lower performance than the Core 2 Duo found on the Mac Mini, the most taxing thing I’ve ever done on an HTPC is play a full 1080p Blu-Ray movie or an MKV file with extremely high bitrates. For that purpose, the Zotac Zbox works just fine and I did not notice any drop in frame rates even while playing the most demanding movies in full HD and 7.1 audio. For those interested in numbers, the ZBox Blu-Ray scored 414 in Performance Mark with a CPU score of 728 and a 2D/3D score of 129 and 220 respectively.