Zotac has been producing compact computers for years and and the company’s ZBOX line of mini PCs now includes a wide range of models including expensive systems with discrete graphics cards, tiny low-power models that are small enough to slide in your pocket, and a number of models that fall somewhere in between.
The ZBOX C series may be one of the most interesting options for folks looking to turn a little PC into a home media center. That’s because these desktop computers are small and quiet thanks to their fanless design and relatively low-power processors. But they pack enough power to handle HD video playback and even some light-duty gaming. You can also use them for most general-purpose computing tasks.
Zotac recently provided Liliputing with a ZBOX CI321 nano unit to test. It’s a barebones fanless computer with an Intel Celeron 2961Y Haswell processor and a retail price of about $140 (if you can find a store that has it in stock).
For about $100 more, Zotac also offers a model with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of solid state storage, and Windows 8.1. It’s a nice option for folks looking for a basic PC, but part of the appeal of the ZBOX line is that you can outfit it with the hardware that best suits your needs.
I’ve tested the ZBOX CI321 with a few different configurations, but for the most part, this review focuses on the performance of the little computer when loaded up with 8GB of RAM, a 120GB SATA III solid state drive, and Windows 10.
So how does this little computer hold up under extended use? Well, that depends what you want to use it for.
What’s it good for?
I’m going to cut to the chase here and give you a brief performance run-down before we get anything else. Let’s look at a few different use cases:
Media Center: This is a great little PC for watching HD videos whether you’re using it to play local videos, stream content over a home network, or stream online video.
It’s small and quiet, especially if you equip the computer with a solid state drive rather than a hard drive. The ZBOX CI321 Nano has an 11.5 watt processor which means it won’t run up your energy bill all that much if you leave the PC running 24/7 to use as a DVR (with a USB TV tuner), home server, or Torrent machine.
There’s no optical disc drive though, so if you want support for CDs, DVDs, or Blu-ray discs you’ll need to connect a USB disc drive.
General purpose PC: The computer has a 4th-gen Intel Core “Haswell” processor, but it’s a relatively low-power example of the species. The Celeron 2961Y processor offers good enough performance for most common activities, but it won’t get the job done as quickly as a higher-power Core i3 or faster chip. In fact, there are plenty of Celeron and Pentium chips that offer better performance.
That said, you should have no problems editing documents, manipulating photos, surfing the web, or watching videos. Just make sure you add plenty of RAM: the system can get a bit bogged down when multitasking if you try using 2GB or less.
While I primarily tested this computer with Windows 10 software, I’ve also used it to run Windows 7 and Linux Mint 17.
Gaming: You don’t really expect a $130 PC to be a gaming machine do you? Well, surprisingly, the ZBOX CI321 nano could be a gaming system… as long as you temper your expectations.
Not only does it have enough oomph to handle casual Windows Store titles like Despicable Me: Minion Rush, but I also took Batman: Arkhum Asylum for a spin with pleasant results… at least when I adjusted the display resolution and graphics details. At the highest settings, the game was pretty much unplayable.
So if you’re primarily interested in picking up a small PC that you can use to play the latest games, you should probably look elsewhere. But if you’re putting together a compact PC for one of the other purposes listed above, and think you might want to play a game or two occasionally, you can do that with the CI321 nano. The integrated Intel HD graphics and Haswell processor are good enough for some gaming.
Overview (specs and design)
The ZBOX CI321 measures about 5″ x 5″ x 1.8″ and features a black case with a series of octagonal holes cut out of the top, bottom and sides in order to let air pass through the system. Since there’s no fan in the case, this helps hot air escape and keeps the system from overheating. The system can get pretty warm at times, but I’ve never noticed it getting hot enough to cause performance issues.
On the front of the case there are two USB 3.0 ports, mic and headset jacks, an SD card reader, a power button, and an IR receiver that lets you use an optional remote control.
The back of the case has two more USB 3.0 ports, a USB 2.0 port, HDMI and DisplayPort jacks, a power jack, and a connector for an adjustable antenna. There are also two Gigabit Ethernet ports.
You can connect up to two displays at a time, with the HDMI port supporting displays with resolutions up to 1920 x 1200 pixels, while the DisplayPort works with screen resolutions up to 2560 x 1600 pixels.
Under the hood there’s a wireless card with 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0 support, a 2.5 inch drive bay for a hard drive or SSD, and two SODIMM slots for up to 16GB of DDR3L-1600/1333 memory. The
Want to open up the case so you can add memory and storage? You don’t need a screwdriver.
There are four little plastic feet on the bottom of the case that prevent the base of the PC from actually touching your desk or table (which helps with cooling, among other things).
Those feet also hold the computer case together: just unscrew the feet with your fingers and you can simply lift the bottom panel of the case to peek inside.
All told, the ZBOX CI321 may not be quite as small as some other mini PCs, but it has a nice looking case, a fanless, silent design, and support for as much memory as it makes sense to throw at a PC with a Celeron chip and support for just about any laptop-sized storage drive.
The abundance of USB, Ethernet, and display ports also makes this system more versatile than some other mini PCs, such as an Intel Compute Stick… and the Celeron Y-series processor makes it a lot faster than current Compute Stick models.
Since the ZBOX Nano CI321 pico is sold as a barebones system, its performance can vary greatly depending on the operating system, amount and type of memory, and hard drive or solid state drive options you choose.
I’ve briefly tested this computer with 2GB of RAM and both a hard drive and SSD. But while basic tasks performed well in those configurations, the system started to feel sluggish once I opened more than half a dozen browser tabs or tried other memory-heavy tasks.
So I upgraded the RAM to 8GB, which pretty much resolved the issue. While the extra memory didn’t make much difference for benchmark scores, the computer felt more responsive when multitasking.
While performing the bulk of this review, I tested the system with 8GB of DDR3-1600 RAM, a 128GB OCZ Agility 4 SSD, and Windows 10.
I also briefly ran Windows 7 and Linux Mint 17 from a 5200 RPM hard drive and didn’t have any difficulty with either operating system. In fact, Zotac includes a driver DVD in the box with the CI321 nano computer and I had to use that DVD to install Windows 7 drivers before some of the hardware worked properly. I didn’t need to use the driver disc at all with Linux Mint or with Windows 10 — all of the hardware was instantly recognized.
One thing that cannot easily be upgraded is the processor: Zotac offers other ZBOX mini PCs with different chips. But if you buy the ZBOX CI321 nano, you get a 1.1 GHz Intel Celeron 2961Y dual-core processor.
The company recently launched a few newer models including a CI322 nano with a Celeron J1900 quad-core Bay Trail processor (which may have better multi-core CPU performance in some cases, but which has less power graphics), and the CI521 nano, which has an Intel Core M Broadwell processor instead of a Y-series Haswell chip.
As mentioned above, the system featured in this review performs reasonably well as a general-purpose computer, works beautifully as a media center, and can even handle some light gaming.
Want some hard numbers? I ran a few tests to see how CPU and graphics performance stacks up against an Intel Compute Stick (with an Atom Z3735F Bay Trail CPU), Asus Zenbook UX305 (with a Core M-5Y10 CPU), an Acer Aspire Switch 11 (Core i3-4021Y Haswell), and a Dell XPS 13 (Core i5-5200U Broadwell).
Note that most of these computers are laptops or tablets… but for the most part they still outperform this desktop, because the Celeron 2916Y is a low-power, laptop-class chip. That said, the CI321 nano was noticeably faster than the only other desktop in this roundup because the Intel Compute Stick has an even lower-power Intel Atom chip.
The ZBOX CI321 nano was faster than the Compute Stick at audio and video transcoding tests, a folder zip test, and using several different methods to convert video files with Handbrake (the fastest method is pretty much always to use Intel’s QuickSync technology to speed things up).
Zotac’s computer also features more powerful graphics capabilities than the Compute Stick, but as the 3DMark and Street Fighter IV benchmarks show, the computer was slower than anything I’ve tested with a newer Intel Broadwell processor (although it did come out ahead of the Dell Inspiron 11 3000 Series computer with an Intel Pentium N3530 Bay Trail processor and Samsung Series 9 laptop with a Core i5 Sandy Bridge processor).
In terms of real-world performance, I had no problems using this computer to research and write articles for Liliputing, which involves sometimes having up to a dozen Google Chrome browser tabs open at once while using image editing software and streaming music in the background (in this case, since I’m testing Windows 10, I used the new Microsoft Groove Music player).
I’ve also streamed online video from YouTube and other sites, install the Kodi media center app to stream HD videos from a shared network drive, and tried several video games including Arkham Asylum, Minion Rush, and Prime World: Defenders.
One thing to note is that even though Arkham Asylum is about 5 years old at this point, the game still requires a better graphics card than the CI321 has got if you want to play at 1920 x 1080 pixel resolution with graphics settings at “very high.” But when I adjusted the settings so that the game runs at 1280 x 720 pixels and uses “high” settings instead, everything felt very smooth.
Since there’s no fan in the case, the computer runs silently as long as you don’t use a noisy hard drive or USB disc drive. But you’ll want to make sure not to stack anything directly on top of the case: the passive cooling system only works if the hot air can escape.
After using the computer for an extended period, the case does start to feel pretty warm. And while I never noticed the CPU temperature rising to dangerous levels, Speccy tells me the motherboard could get pretty hot.
One other thing I should note is that a few times during my tests, I found that the computer would boot and the LED status lights on the front of the system would do their thing… but I wouldn’t see anything on the monitor connected to the HDMI port.
Zotac advised me that there’s a reset button on the motherboard, by the edge of the case next to the memory SODIMM slots. You can unplug the power source, wait about 15 seconds for residual power to drain, then press the reset button for 3-5 seconds in order to reset the BIOS to its factory default settings.
This can help if you have any problems related to unrecognized hardware configurations.
You probably won’t run into this kind of problem if you don’t try swapping out components as frequently as I did while fishing around my junk pile for the best hardware to use while testing the CI321 nano. But since I went through the trouble of finding a solution, I figured I might as well share it with you.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with this little, low-power computer. Given the right memory, storage, and operating system, it could be a small, inexpensive alternative to a desktop computer or a good option as a home theater PC.
There are certainly more powerful mini computers on the market, and there are smaller options as well. But the ZBOX CI321 nano offer perfectly acceptable performance for a machine that’s as small, silent, and affordable as it is.
For the sake of comparison though, here’s the ZBOX CI321 nano next to a recent Intel NUC model and an Intel Compute Stick:
Unfortunately, Zotac isn’t selling the model featured in this review in North America yet.
$240 isn’t a bad price for a model with everything you need to get started. But if you were planning to use your own memory, storage, and operating system anyway, the cheaper model might be worth waiting for.
It’s also kind of nice being able to review a computer that comes with no bloatware… something I rarely get to do.
Since there’s no operating system pre-loaded on the barebones version of the computer, the only software that runs on thee mahcine is the software you install, whether that’s Windows 7, Windows 8, Windows 10, or a Linux distribution.
Zotac also has other fanless mini-desktop computers in the ZBOX C-Series family including the upcoming CI521 nano which should be another compact, fanless machine that’s good for general-purpose computing and media playback.
With a 5th-gen Intel Y-series processor (Core M) rather than a 4th gen Intel Y-series (Celeron) processor, the CI521 should have better graphics and lower power consumption, although I suspect it might also have a higher price tag than the CI321.
Overall, the ZBOX CI321 strikes a nice balance between price, performance, and… whatever it is that makes a little PC into something you’d feel comfortable sticking next to your TV. It’s small, unobtrusive looking, and quiet.
Just make sure to install 4GB of RAM or more if you plan to run multiple apps at once or do a lot of multi-tab web browsing. When I initially started testing the computer, I only had 2GB of laptop memory lying around, and it made the CI321 nano a little painful to use at times. Upgrading to more memory solved that problem completely.