Introduction and Setup Impressions


Over the last couple of years, mini-PCs in the ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) have emerged as one of the bright spots in the troubled PC market. Zotac is no stranger to this segment. Even though the Intel NUC is credited with kicstarting the UCFF trend, the Zotac nano xs units actually came to the market before them. With the nano xs, Zotac redefined the small form-factor (SFF) PC. The nano series units use slightly bigger motherboards, but they are still small enough to mount discreetly behind monitors with the supplied VESA mounts.

Along with the emergence of the UCFF PC market, tablets also gained popularity. The industry also saw an overall push towards power-efficient computing for the average user. These two trends resulted in Intel creating a new Y series for their Core microprocessors, starting with Ivy Bridge. Unfortunately, the impact of these SKUs in the tablet market has been minimal. However, Zotac has repurposed the Haswell Y series CPUs for the 'ZBOX C Passive Cooling Series' of mini-PCs. The ZBOX CI540 nano, equipped with a Core i5-4210Y, is currently the most powerful unit in the lineup and that is what we will be looking at today.

Zotac usually samples the PLUS models (which come with a 2.5" drive as well as DRAM). This has always been mentioned as a minus point in our previous reviews (either due to the usage of a hard drive instead of a SSD, or leaving one of the DIMM slots empty). However, the PLUS models of the C series come with a SSD and there is only one memory slot in the units. This is one of the few ZBOX models where purchasing a PLUS model might actually make sense. In any case, Zotac is putting more emphasis on the barebones models, letting users choose their own 2.5" drive and DDR3L SO-DIMM stick. We were sampled the barebones version of the ZBOX CI540 nano. The unit was configured with a few additional components to end up with the following specifications:

Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-4210Y
(2C/4T x 1.5 GHz (1.9 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 3MB L2, 11.5W TDP, 6W SDP)
Memory 1 x 8GB DDR3L-1600
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4200
Disk Drive(s) Samsung SSD 840 EVO 120GB 2.5" SSD
Networking 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x1 802.11ac/Bluetooth mPCIe
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Operating System

Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Pricing (As configured) ~$350 (barebones) + $168 (DRAM + 2.5" SSD)
Full Specifications Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications

The ZBOX CI540 nano kit doesn't come with any pre-installed OS, but does come with a CD and a read-only USB key containing the drivers. In any case, we ended up installing the latest drivers downloaded off Zotac's product support page. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 40 W (19V @ 2.1A) adapter, a US power cord, a VESA mount (along with the necessary screws), a single 2.4 GHz / 5 GHz antenna for the Wi-Fi feature, a driver CD / read-only USB key, user's manual and a quick-start guide.

The gallery below takes us around the hardware in the unit.

The dimensions of the ZBOX C series units are quite close to that of the standard Intel NUC. The gallery below shows the smallest actively cooled Intel NUC (i.e, the one without support for a 2.5" drive) and the ZBOX CI540 nano side by side. Despite having support for a 2.5" drive, the differences in the dimensions are minimal.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the ZBOX CI540 nano against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the ZBOX CI540 nano when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano
CPU Intel Core i5-4210Y Intel Core i5-4250U
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4200 Intel HD Graphics 5000
RAM Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B1600C9
9-9-9-24 @ 1600 MHz
1x8 GB
Corsair Vengeance CMSX8GX3M2B1866C10
10-10-10-32 @ 1866 MHz
2x4 GB
Storage Samsung SSD 840 EVO
(120 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 19nm, TLC)
Intel SSD 530 Series
(240 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 20nm, MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
(2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $518 $671
Performance Metrics - I
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  • CrazyElf - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    To be honest, I'm not too crazy about this "super small" mentality. It seems like people are going super small as an end into itself more than anything else.

    The problem is that smaller means that more heat has to be put through a small space, as this example here shows. A slightly larger design here I think would have been an advantage.
  • jabber - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Yes it seems you can go from a m-atx box to something minute. Doesn't have to be 'as small as you can make it'. Something the size of say a PS2 or a little smaller would be fine.
  • Calista - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    Fully agree, even something in the 20x20x20 cm size doesn't occupy much more size then say a NUC once we include space for cables for power, monitor, keyboard and mouse.
  • Alexvrb - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    Agreed. I can't imagine going smaller than a baby ITX box, if for no other reason than it's easier to upgrade or modify. :D
  • josue16 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Will you guys add LAN latency tests? That is if it can be reliably measured. Also, gigabit Ethernet tests would be nice too.
  • knightspawn1138 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    I like the thermal pictures. It looks like a space age furnace or reactor. Or like it's a box of lava. Not sure if I want to hang this on the VESA mount on the back of a $1500 TV set.
  • bobbozzo - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Can SSDs tolerate 75C?
  • Shadowmaster625 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    $500 for a notebook with no screen and no battery/UPS. What a great deal! Sign me up for 3. NOT
  • zodiacfml - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    i agree. the notebook i'm using now is only 250 USD with probably the same performance of this low voltage cpu.
  • kmmatney - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    I've never had an "HTPC" (I have a windows home server and a WD live player) so I'm not an expert on this, but couldn't a laptop perform the same function? It's cheaper and a lot more capable. $350 gets you a core i5 laptop with HD4400 graphics not to mention a keyboard, screen, and OS. Maybe it takes a little more space, but having the screen would make it easier to setup.

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