Another option for cable-cutters emerges
Does the cable-cutter movement have a name yet? Yes, it’s called, “I’m cheap as hell, and I don’t want to pay for your 250 channels of garbage anymore!”
For those cable TV and satellite abandoners, we present to you Zotac’s Zbox HD. Think of it as the ultimate streaming box. OK, we’re exaggerating. It’s not. It’s really just a nifty, stylish PC made by Zotac. But it will certainly give you far more flexibility and options than any streaming box available today.
That’s because as a PC, just about anything you can view in the browser, you can view on the TV. The Zbox HD includes an HDMI port, a DVI port, and optical S/PDIF outputs. In storage I/O you get a gigabit LAN port and—très cool on a HTPC—three USB 3.0 ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA port. There’s a sole USB 2.0 port in front and also a slimline, slot-fed Blu-ray combo drive.
With Blu-ray and discrete Ion graphics, the Zbox HD puts dedicated streaming boxes to shame.
The guts of the Zbox HD are moderate. There’s a dual-core 1.8GHz Atom D525 chip, 2GB of RAM, and an Ion graphics chip connected to the Intel NM10 Express chipset. Unlike prebuilt HTPCs from Dell, Polywell, and others, the Zbox HD ships as a DIY kit. It comes with drivers on a disc and an empty hard drive. You bring your own OS to get this mini-HTPC up and running.
Before we go on, we have to say that the world is a different place than it was in June 2010 when we reviewed Dell’s Inspiron Zino. While the Zino could not handle HD Flash content or 1080p QuickTime, that was really the fault of Apple and Adobe. Today, with Flash 10.1’s solid GPU acceleration, it’s a different ball game.
The Zbox HD’s 1.8GHz Atom D525 is, in our opinion, still a marginally weak CPU. The Nvidia Ion chip, however, does much of the lifting in HD content. We were able to watch Flash content in HD without issues. Blu-ray playback, which was problematic on Polywell’s Giada Atom/Ion combo (reviewed in March 2010) also went without a hitch on the Zbox. Even nicer, Zotac includes an OEM version of PowerDVD with Blu-ray support in the box.
The Zotac is still serviceable for its size, and the company uses only one SO-DIMM, so there’s room to add a second module.
Getting an OS onto the machine was a bit of a head-scratcher, though. For our testing, we installed 64-bit Windows 7 Professional. But, with only one standard USB port and no PS/2 ports, we could not run a keyboard and mouse at the same time. To solve that problem we just alternated between mouse and keyboard, plugging in whichever one we needed. Once the OS was up and running, we installed the drivers to enable the USB 3.0 ports in the OS. Also confusing, Zotac includes driver discs for its Ion and non-Ion-based units in the box.
Performance is nothing to write home about. In “gaming” (if you can even use that term for the 8- to 12-year-old benchmarks we ran), the Zbox HD does better than Dell’s Zino. That’s likely due to the Ion’s dedicated memory versus the shared memory used by the Zino’s 780G chipset. In raw computing power, however, the Zbox HD does worse than the Zino. Not terrible, but still slower. In general use, the Zbox HD just feels less responsive. Some of that comes from the 2.5-inch drive the unit uses versus the 7,200rpm desktop drive in the Zino, and the rest is just general Atom suckitude.
Overall, the Zbox HD has some merit. We’re not convinced it’s the perfect solution, as we’d still like something with a bit more x86 heft, perhaps a low-power Sandy Bridge CPU? But the Zbox handles the key needs: Silverlight, Flash, and Blu-ray, with no issues, and that’s more than most streaming boxes can claim.