The Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano is a small desktop computer with the guts of a decent laptop… but it outperforms most laptops I’ve tested in benchmarks despite the fact that it’s a fanless system that relies on passive cooling to keep its processor from overheating.
Zotac has been selling fanless mini computers since the company first introduced the ZBOX C-Series in 2014, but the CI660 nano is the first to feature an updated design featuring a larger chassis for better cooling… which, in turn, allows Zotac to user higher-power processors.
The ZBOX CI329 nano four years ago features a 5″ x 5″ x 1.8″ chassis, while the new CI660 Nano measures 8″ x 5.1″ x 2.7″ and has a significantly faster processor.
It’s still pretty compact by desktop computer standards, but it is more than twice the size of an Intel NUC — the difference is that Intel’s little computers feature active cooling, while the Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano is fanless.
That means if you configure it with a solid state drive, there are no moving parts under the hood. Theoretically that means it should run silently whether you’re surfing the web, listening to music, watching videos, playing games, or rendering videos.
In practice it’s not completely silent. But it is pretty quiet.
Zotac loaned me a CI660 nano featured in this review, and I’ve been using it as my primary computer for the past month.
The company hasn’t announced the price or release date yet, which makes it a little difficult to say whether the computer’s a good value. But it is a pretty good computer if you’re looking for something small and quiet.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Zotac’s little computers are often sold as barebones kits. They have a processor, wireless card, and power supply but you’ll need to provide your own memory, storage, and operating system.
There are a few different reasons you might want a fanless computer like the ZBOX CI660 nano.
One is for use in a business setting. For example maybe you want to set up a point-of-sales computer or a digital kiosk or digital signage system, and you don’t want a system that’s going to generate a lot of noise that will distract customers.
Another is for user in the home. Maybe you want a media center PC that doesn’t suffer from distracting fan noise during the quiet parts of movies. Or maybe you just want a PC that you can use in a quiet room without hearing the fan kick into high gear from time to time.
The same theoretically goes for gaming — although the ZBOX CI660 nano doesn’t have a discrete graphics card and is probably better suited for casual gaming than competitive gaming (I did spend a little time playing action-adventure game Darksiders and point-and click game Broken Age though).
When Zotac asked if I’d like to review this computer, the first thing that came to mind was podcast editing. I’ve been doing a lot of audio editing in my home office over the past few years, and a little bit of recording. The fan noise on my laptop makes recording a little difficult, and it can also be a distraction if I’m editing or mixing on speakers instead of headphones.
So the idea of using a fanless desktop PC for audio editing has intrigued me for a while, and I have spent some time using it to do some editing work for an upcoming podcast series I’m working on and for some radio stories using Reaper, a Yamaha MG10XU mixer, and a set of JBL 305P MK II studio monitor.
As expected, the computer was quieter and less distracting than the Acer Aspire S13 I’ve been using as my main computer for the last two years. That’s not a huge surprise — the Acer laptop has a particularly loud fan. But it still made editing audio projects without headphones a substantially more pleasant experience.
The CI660 nano also rendered complex audio projects a little more quickly. That’s also not surprising, it has an Intel Core i7-8550U processor, which is two generations newer than the Core i7-6500U chip in my laptop.
But when I ran some benchmarks on the CI660 nano, I was pleasantly surprised to see that it’s also a little faster than laptops I’ve tested that have the same processor. More on that in the performance section below.
Unfortunately, while the CI660 nano is quieter than my laptop it’s not entirely silent.
It does emit a low-volume scratching or clicking noise at times, particularly when the CPU is working hard.
If you use a solid state drive with the Zotac CI660 nano rather than a hard drive with spinning plates, then you’ll have a computer with no moving parts.
That means there’s one less thing to break. And theoretically it should mean that the computer doesn’t make any sounds other than the beeps you may hear when it starts up or whatever audio it sends out via the line out or HDMI ports.
In practice, the computer emits some quiet, but audible sounds — particularly when it’s working hard.
The sound seems to come from the top of the computer and it sounds almost like a little scratching or clicking noise. I believe this is what some folks refer to as “coil whine,” and it’s most likely noise generated by some of the electronic components of modern computers.
I wouldn’t exactly call this computer noisy. When I’m listening to music in my office I don’t notice any noise at all. But when I’m using my JBL speakers to edit audio, I can sometimes hear a bit of scratching coming from the CI660 nano which is located about two feet from my ear.
If I were going to keep this computer in my office long-term, I might consider moving it to the floor or putting it in another location that’s a bit further from my head. That might be enough to keep me from noticing any noise at all.
But when I did my unboxing and first look article, some of you asked me to keep an ear out for coil whine, so I did.
I also checked in with Zotac and I was told that company officials can confirm that they also hear a whine when they place their ears very close to the computer “on some samples.” So it may be that some units are quieter than others.
The company is looking into the issue but hasn’t announced a solution yet.
You can hear an example of the coil wine in the video below — but you’ll probably have to put on some decent headphones to hear the noise.
The ZBOX CI660 nano is basically a black and white box covered with holes. They’re on the top, bottom, right, and left sides as well as the back.
From the right angle, you can actually see straight through some parts of the computer.
Only the front of the computer doesn’t have holes that allow hot air to escape through the chassis.
The front of the ZBOX CI660 nano features a power button, SD card reader, mic and line-out jacks, a USB 3.0 Type-A port, and two USB 3.1 Type-C ports. There are also status LEDs for the power, SATA storage, and WiFi.
All of those components are found in a black panel on the front of the computer, which is surrounded by a white border.
The back of the computer features a white panel with ventilation holes and a whole bunch of additional ports, including:
- Two Gigabit Ethernet ports
- HDMI 2.0
- DisplayPort 1.2
- Three USB 3.0 ports
- Power jack
- WiFi antenna connector
Overall there should be plenty of input and output options for most people’s needs — although I would have preferred to have an audio jack on the back of the computer.
The front of the system has a nice clean look that’s marred a bit when you plug in a 3.5mm cable to connect a set of speakers, but that’s not an issue if you use the HDMI port for audio output — something I suspect some folks may do if using the computer for a home theater setup.
You can open up the computer without the aid of any tools. Just flip it over and unscrew the four feet that elevate the system so that the bottom panel doesn’t touch your table, desk or TV stand.
If they’re on too tight to get of, you can use a Phillips head screwdriver, but I didn’t need to do that.
Once the system is open you’ll see a SATA connector for a 2.5 inch hard drive or solid state drive and two SODIMM slots for DDR4 memory. There’s also an M.2 card for WiFI and Bluetooth. Both worked reasonably well in my tests, but it’s nice to know you can remove and replace or upgrade the wireless card if the need arises.
The Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano is powered by an Intel Core i7-8550U processor. That’s a 15-watt, quad-core chip that’s found in many recent thin-and-light laptops. But there are two things that make the CI660 nano different:
- It’s a desktop rather than a laptop.
- It’s fanless.
So the good news is there’s more room heat dissipation in a computer that’s 2.5 inches tall than there is in a laptop that may only be three quarters of an inch thick. The bad news is that there’s no fan to help dissipate that heat, so you need a pretty good active cooling system to keep the system chugging along at a decent clip.
The computer does get pretty warm when it’s in use for a while. You’ll notice that if you touch the top or bottom of the PC or if you run a diagnostic tool such as Speccy or HWMonitor that can actually spit out temperatures for different components of the computer.
It’s also noticeable if you plug in a USB flash drive that has a metal body — odds are that it will feel hot when you unplug it a few minutes later.
That said, while the heat buildup can cause some CPU throttling (more on that below), it doesn’t seem to affect performance any more than it would in a typical laptop with active cooling.
In my testing, the computer feels pretty zippy for day-to-day tasks. I used it as my primary work machine for a couple of weeks. That means I spent 8-10 hours a day writing articles for Liliputing in Google Chrome with up to 20 browser tabs open at once, while editing images in GIMP and/or Irfanview and listening to music from Spotify.
The computer never felt sluggish.
Again, the computer felt as least as fast as any laptop I’ve used when doing those things, and it scored just a little higher in most of the benchmarks I ran when compared with notebooks featuring the same processor — despite being fanless, the CI660 nano is larger than a notebook, which allows for better cooling and better performance, apparently.
Interestingly the Dell XPS 13 with a (theoretically) slower Intel Core i5-8250U processor came out ahead in my Handbrake H.264 video transcoding tests.
The Huawei MateBook Pro X came out ahead in some graphics benchmarks, thanks to its discrete graphics card. But the Zotac system came out ahead of most similarly-specced machines.
And while I haven’t run GeekBench on as many computers, the ZBOX CI660 Nano did outperform the Huawei Matebook X Pro in both single-core and multi-core performance. I also threw in a few significantly less powerful machines in that chart just because I happened to have those scores — but it hardly seems fair to compare the ZBOX CI660 nano with the One Mix Yoga.
As I mentioned, the computer does slow down a bit when it gets hot — but that’s true of most of the computers mentioned above.
I fired up HWMonitor to see what happens when the computer gets warm. When a resource-intensive job starts up, the package power and CPU clock speeds jump pretty quickly… but if the job goes on for a long time they start to fall.
GeekBench doesn’t take long to complete, so the scores above probably reflect the kind of performance you can get in short bursts.
PCMark takes much longer to complete, so those scores are probably more indicative of sustained performance.
But just to be certain, I spent about 45 minutes running Prime95, a resource-intensive application that searches for prime numbers.
When the program starts, the CPU clock sped jumps to 3.6 GHz, but it only remains there for about half a minute before dropping to 2.8 GHz, where it stays for another five or ten minutes.
After that, the frequency hovered at around 2 GHz until I stopped the test more than half an hour later.
In other words, you get a burst of speed when you start a CPU-intensive task, but you won’t be able to sustain those speeds indefinitely. The burst of speed come in handy for loading applications or doing other quick tasks.
Sustained performance is less impressive — but as the benchmarks above show, even with some throttling, the fanless Zotac ZBOX CI660 nano compares favorably with laptops featuring the same processors and active cooling.
While I didn’t run throttling-specific tests on those other laptops, the folks at Notebook Check have tested for throttling on both the ZBOX CI660 nano and the Matebook X Pro and confirmed that the Zotac computer continues to outperform the Huawei laptop in sustained performance tests.
Interestingly Notebook Check didn’t hear any coil whine — lending credence to Zotac’s claim that only some units are affected.
Anyway, here are a few screenshots to give you an idea of how CPU throttling plays out when transcoding a 1080p video.
The first pictures shows the processor speeds when I start a video exporting job using Shotcut, and then again toward the completion of that job.
Notice that the frequency and power goes down a bit during the several minutes it takes to complete the job.
The next set of images show what happens about one minute and then five minutes after the job is complete. Notice that the wattage and frequencies go way down as the CPU core temperatures drop by about 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
One thing I’ve noticed is that while throttling helps keep the CPU temperatures and package power within a tolerable range, the motherboard always seems to run hot, as indicated by the third image, which is a screenshot from Speccy.
I doubt anyone is considering a computer with a 15 watt laptop-class processor for 4K video editing, complex mathematics calculations, or other tasks that would be better suited to a workstation PC. And while audio editing doesn’t usually require a super-powerful processor, I probably wouldn’t mind having a slightly more powerful machine for rendering some effects on long podcast episodes.
But overall this computer has plenty of horsepower for the sorts of tasks I’ve been using it for — the CI660 nano is at least as fast as a high-end ultraportable laptop, but a lot quieter.
Once nice thing about reviewing a barebones computer and installing the memory, storage, and operating system from scratch is that I didn’t really have to worry about messing up the disk partitions before sending the computer back to the manufacturer.
So instead of just running Ubuntu from a USB flash drive like I usually do, I went ahead and installed it on the CI660 nano in a dual-boot configuration that allowed me to choose between Window 10 and Ubuntu 18.10 every time I turned on the PC.
I spent more time testing Windows than Ubuntu, since that’s the operating system I’m most familiar with. But I did use Ubuntu all day for several work days and it worked perfectly.
In fact, in some ways it worked better than Windows 10 — but only because I didn’t feel like spending money on a Windows license, so I’ve actually running an unactivated version of Windows for the past few weeks, which means that some Windows customization options aren’t available.
For example, I can’t manually switch between audio inputs in Windows 10 without activating it. So if I want to choose whether audio should play on the speakers plugged into the computer’s line out 3.5mm jack or from the speakers plugged into my USB audio mixer, I sometimes need to physically turn off the mixer or unplug the 3.5mm cable.
That’s not a problem in Ubuntu. Again, this is only really an issue because I didn’t pay to activate Windows.
But it is nice to know that if you’re comfortable with Linux, there may be no reason to pay for a Windows license to use this computer.
There are still a few Windows programs I rely on, like QuickBooks, that aren’t available for Ubuntu and which don’t run well under WINE. And while there’s a Linux version of Reaper, it doesn’t run quite as well as the Windows version.
But these days you can even play many Windows PC games on Linux. I’m more and more tempted to permanently switch every day.
Anyway, WiFi, audio and video all work out of the box with Ubuntu. I had no problem using the Firefox web browser, but I still prefer Chrome, which works just as well on Linux as Windows. I used GIMP for most of my image editing, since it tends to load more quickly on Linux than Windows and I’ve had difficulty getting Irfanview to work under WINE in the past.
Overall, not only does Linux run well on this computer — it runs so well that when I was using it I almost never felt the need to reboot into Windows (although I did fire up my laptop to log expenses in Quickbooks from time to time).
Overall I’m quite impressed with this quiet little computer. Sure, it’s not the smallest mini PC on the market. And it’s not the most powerful desktop around. But it strikes a nice balance between power, performance, and nearly silent operation.
The system offers better performance than most laptops with the same processor, and it has a more powerful processor than most other small form-factor fanless PCs (many of which feature chips with a 10 watt or lower TDP.
It would be nice if there was no coil whine noise at all, but careful placement of the computer might be enough to help make the sound barely noticeable. I’m using the ZBOX CI660 nano in the same room as my QNAP TS-251 network attached storage device, and the clicking of the hard drives in the NAS are more noticeable than the coil whine from the Zotac computer.
And who knows, you might get lucky and receive a unit with no coil whine at all. Zotac claims the issue only affects some units.
The system also comes with a VESA mount that you can use to attach the computer to the back of a TV or monitor if you want to create a pseudo all-in-one PC.
The only things that are keeping me from wholeheartedly recommending the ZBOX CI660 nano are the lack of a second M.2 slot that could be used for additional (and possibly faster) storage, and the fact that Zotac hasn’t announced the price yet.
For the right price, this computer could be a great addition to a home theater, home studio, or home office. But it’s not clear yet whether it has the “right” price.
The good news is that the new ZBOX CI660 nano series will likely come in a range of price points. While Zotac sent me a top-of-the-line model, there will be several different configurations when the system goes on sale:
- CI620 nano barebones PC with Intel Core i3-8130U dual-core CPU
- CI620 nano Plus with 4GB RAM 120GB SATA SSD
- CI640 nano barebones PC with Intel Core i5-8250U quad-core CPU
- CI640 nano Plus with 4GB RAM and 120GB SATA SSD
- CI660 nano barebones PC with Intel Core i7-8550U quad-core CPU
- CI660 nano Plus with 4GB RAM and 120GB SATA SSD