Zotac has been offering a line of tiny desktop computers for a few years, but the company’s new ZBOX PI320 pico is the smallest yet. It’s also one of the first to come not only with memory and storage, but also with an operating system pre-installed. It’s a fully functional PC that sells for about $200.
The Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico measures 4.6″ x 2.6″ x 0.8″ which makes it a bit smaller (but thicker) than my Nexus 5 smartphone. But this isn’t a phone. It’s a full-fledged PC with an Intel Atom quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and Windows 8.1 software.
It’s not a particularly powerful Windows PC. It has the same processor you’ll find in dirt cheap Windows tablets… and that’s led some folks to conclude that even at $200, this little desktop is overpriced. After all, you can pick up a Toshiba Encore Mini or Winbook TW800 for about half the price.
How did we get to this point? In order to fend off competition from upstart chip designer ARM, Intel is selling its low-power Atom processors at dirt cheap prices. Meanwhile Microsoft is literally giving away Windows licenses for free to makers of small, low-cost tablets, notebooks and other computers in an effort to compete with Google Android and other mobile operating systems.
That’s allowed device makers to start flooding the market with Windows tablets with Intel chips that are priced competitively with Android tablets featuring either ARM or Intel processors.
It remains to be seen whether these low prices are sustainable — we could see sticker prices go up once Microsoft and Intel have decided they’ve grabbed enough market share from their competitors. Or prices could stay low indefinitely… in which case we could see device makers start pulling out of the market due to ever-dropping profit margins (which is one of the reasons netbooks largely disappeared a few years ago).
Anyway, the point is that we now live in a world where folks call a tiny, fanless Windows desktop that’s small enough to slide into a pocket overpriced when it sells for $200.
But you know what? Even if it is overpriced, the ZBOX PI320 pico is still a pretty impressive device — as long as you keep its limitations in mind. It’s a small, low-power PC that you can use as a media center, home media server, or a basic desktop computer for web browsing, media consumption, or document editing. It isn’t a high-end gaming machine, but it’s more than powerful enough for basic Windows tasks.
Zotac sent me a demo unit to test, and after spending a few weeks with this little computer, I’m strongly considering picking one up for myself to use as a media center PC in my living room.
The Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico is a desktop PC in that it’s a computer-in-a-box that features ports for connecting a keyboard, mouse, display, and other peripherals, but it doesn’t have its own screen or keyboard. But it’s powered by the kind of hardware you’d find in a cheap Windows tablet.
It has a 1.33 GHz Intel Atom Z3735F quad-core processor, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB of flash storage. The computer can get warm to the touch at times, but since it uses a low power processor and lacks a hard drive, Zotac didn’t bother including a fan. That means there are no moving parts in the case, and the system runs pretty much silently.
There are 3 USB 2.0 ports, a 10/100 Ethernet jack, a microSDXC card reader, a headset jack, and an HDMI port. The system supports 802,11n WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
In other words, there are plenty of ways to connect in a keyboard, mouse, external storage, a gamepad, remote control dongle, printer, or other accessories. You can always hook up a USB hub if you need more ports.
Zotac’s little PC comes with Windows 8.1 with Bing. The operating system is virtually identical to the normal version of Windows 8.1. The only noticeable difference is that system builders promise Microsoft that they won’t change the default search engine for Internet Explorer before shipping the system. In exchange, Microsoft offers PC makers a break on Windows license fees. If you’re not a fan of Bing you can always change it yourself.
And if you’re not a fan of Windows, you can run other operating systems on the ZBOX pico. But it’s really designed to run Windows and it can be a little tricky to get a different operating system up and running. I’ll get into more detail in the notes for advanced users section below.
The system comes with a small power adapter that looks more like something you’d use to charge a smartphone than a PC power brick.
The computer has silver/gray sides and glossy plastic on the top and button. Press the power button and a white Zotac logo surrounded by a blue circle will light up on top of the system.
The logo and circle fade to black when you turn off the computer. If you think the lights are too bright you can disable either the logo, the circle, or both from the BIOS settings.
There are a few things that make the ZBOX PI320 impressive. First, it’s tiny. You can certainly find more powerful desktop computers, but good luck fitting them into your pocket.
Second, the ZBOX PI320 may have cheap tablet-like hardware… but we’re living in an age when cheap tablet-like hardware is good enough for most basic computing tasks. I’ve hooked up this little computer to a 1080p display and used it for blogging, HD video playback, video editing, and a number of other tasks. While it’s certainly not a speed demon, it’s at least capable of doing all of those things.
You can use the ZBOX PI320 as a Windows-powered media center PC, as an always-on home media server or backup device, or as a general purpose computer. It takes up nearly no space, and if you want to hide it away behind your display, the system comes with a small plastic VESA mount that you can slip over the system in order to screw it to the back of a monitor or TV.
There’s a lot you can do with this little computer… because it is a full-fledged computer. Sure, you might buy a device like this to stick next your TV and use like a Roku or Apple TV device. But it’s a much more versatile device, capable of running Office, Photoshop, Quicken, Firefox, Chrome, VLC, XBMC, Plex, or just about any other Windows app.
Are you going to use a machine like this to play Crysis, Dota 2, or other games which require heavy-duty CPU and graphics processing? Not really… unless you want to try using the ZBOX pico to stream games over the internet using a service like OnLive or over a home network using Steam.
But in either of those cases, games aren’t really running on the ZBOX. They’re running on a remote PC and you’re using the ZBOX like a thin client/remote control.
But here are a few examples of things I’ve been able to do with the ZBOX PI320 pico:
- I wrote most of this review on the system, using the WordPress web app in one Google Chrome window while I leave another browser window open with up to 10 different tabs for conducting research while I write.
- Stream internet video from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video, and YouTube.
- Stream HD video from a shared network drive using XBMC.
- Connect a USB TV tuner and use Media Portal to watch and record live TV.
- Compressed video files using Handbrake.
- Run Ubuntu Linux using a LiveUSB (see below for more details).
During those tests, I haven’t run into any real bottlenecks from the Intel Atom CPU, Intel HD graphics, or 2GB of RAM. But I have been underwhelmed by the computer’s WiFi performance.
It features 802.11n WiFi, but it only recognizes the 2.4 GHz network in my home, not the stronger 5 GHz network. Since my router is on the first floor of the house and my office is on the third, I spent a lot of time watching internet videos buffer when I first started testing the ZBOX PI320.
After setting up a WiFi extender near my office, performance picked up a bit. But you’ll probably get better network performance if you connect the ZBOX to your network with an Ethernet cable instead of WiFi or if you use a third-party USB WiFi adapter. Note that the system doesn’t support Gigabit Ethernet, but at least you won’t have to worry about the signal dropping out if you use an Ethernet cable.
To test the raw compute power of the ZBOX PI320 I ran a few different tests. I used VirtualDub, WinLame, and 7-zip to run the same video and audio compression and folder zip tests I’ve been running for years. I also used the more efficient Handbrake video encoder to compare the ZBOX with a few more recent computers.
All told, the Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico took 188 seconds to complete my old video encoding tests, 46 seconds to finish the audio test, and 81 seconds to create a ZIP archive from a large folder with more than 2,000 files.
That makes this system slower than a Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet or Acer Aspire V11 laptop. That makes sense because while both of those computers also have Intel Bay Trail processors, they have faster Bay Trail chips.
But Intel’s low-power chips have come a long way in recent years. I reviewed the HP Envy X2 2-in-1 tablet in early 2013. That system has a last-gen Intel Atom Z2760 Clover Trail processor, and it took more than 2 minutes longer than the ZBOX to finish the video encoding test.
The Handbrake tests tell a similar story: the ZBOX PI320 isn’t as fast as even the Dell Venue 8 Pro tablet. But it still managed to compress my 4.5 minute standard definition video file in just over a minute when using the fastest settings.
Sure, there are plenty of computers that can do the same thing even more quickly, but I’m still pretty impressed that you can use this little computer to perform that kind of CPU-heavy task in such a reasonably short time.
While this system has a tablet-like processor, it’s designed to be hooked up to an external display and used with a keyboard and mouse. That means you’re more likely to run desktop-style apps on this system than you would be on a tablet with an 8 or 10 inch touchscreen display. It’s nice to know that the ZBOX holds up pretty well under those conditions.
As I mentioned above, the computer does get a little warm when it’s been in use for a long time. It probably gets a little warmer than a typical Windows tablet with a similar processor because there’s less space for dissipating the heat — and because you’re more likely to use a desktop for heavy duty multitasking and other silly things like transcoding videos using Handbrake.
But the CPU temperatures tend to hover between 50 and 55 degrees Celsius. I never noticed it going any higher, and I never really found myself worrying that the PC was going to overheat.
Notes for advanced users
Want to upgrade the processor, memory, or storage in a desktop tower PC? No problem. Just open the lid, pull out the RAM, remove the CPU and heat sink, or take out the hard drive and swap in a replacement.
Want to do the same thing on the ZBOX PI320 pico? Tough.
The CPU, RAM, and storage aren’t easily removable, and the processor only supports up to 2GB of RAM anyway.
I did manage to open the lid and peek inside without breaking anything, but it wasn’t easy (and even with a few different spudgers I haven’t been able to re-open the case a second time). But I didn’t see any parts that were really designed to be replaced.
Fortunately the system has 3 USB ports and a microSD car slot, so there are plenty of ways to add extra storage. But that’s about all you can do to upgrade the hardware. If you need a system with more powerful components under the hood, you should just buy a different system.
What about the operating system? Part of what makes the ZBOX PI320 special is the fact that it comes with Windows 8.1 pre-loaded. But can you run other operating systems?
Yeah… kind of.
The computer only supports UEFI bootable media, and it only supports 32-bit UEFI media. Unfortunately most Linux distributions that support UEFI are 64-bit software.
You can boot a 64-bit version of Ubuntu (or possibly other Linux-based operating systems), but you’ll need to modify your boot media with a 32-bit bootloader.
I’ve explained the process in more detail in another article, and you can pretty much follow step-by-step directions from John Wells to prepare your own bootable Linux distro. His instructions were written for the Asus Transformer Book T100, but the first few steps are exactly the same for the ZBOX PI320 pico.
While I was able to boot into Ubuntu 14.10 beta, the operating system didn’t recognize the computer’s WiFi adapter. The Ethernet adapter did work, so I was able to connect to the internet using a wired connection. You may also be able to use a third-party USB WiFi adapter.
In other words, this isn’t the most hacker-friendly PC I’ve ever seen. It’s a small, cheap, low-power desktop computer that runs Windows 8.1. If you’re looking for something else, you should probably buy something else.
The Zotac ZBOX PI320 pico isn’t the cheapest computer on the market, it’s certainly not the most powerful, and depending on your definition of a desktop PC, it might not even be the smallest.
That said, it’s still a remarkable little device that won’t be the right choice for everyone… but which could certainly be a good choice for some users.
For about twice the price of a ROKU 3 or Apple TV, this little box is a device you can stick next to the TV in your living room to stream internet music and movies… and surf the web, edit office documents, play games, and do much more. Since it runs Windows you can also stream videos from practically any online video site and not just those that have an app for your TV box — and you can use the free version of Hulu. No subscription is required.
Don’t want to use the system as a media center PC? No problem. You can just use it as a desktop. Connect a keyboard, mouse, and display and you’ve got an inexpensive, silent computer for basic Windows tasks.
Want to turn the system into a home media server? Just hook up a USB storage device, set it up as a shared network drive and leave your ZBOX on whether it’s connected to a display or not. With a processor that uses an average of 2.2 watts, you won’t waste a lot of power by leaving the computer on 24/7.
Theoretically you could buy a cheap Windows tablet and use it much the same way by connecting a display, mouse, and keyboard. But you probably won’t find a tablet in this price range with 3 full-sized USB ports, a full-sized HDMI port, and an Ethernet jack.
Overall I’m pretty impressed with what Zotac has managed to achieve with this little PC… although it may just be the first of many tiny Windows PCs. A Chinese manufacturer has already managed to pack a Windows computer with an Intel Atom processor into an HDMI TV stick-sized device.
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