ProsReasonable performance; ultra-low power use; includes 64GB SSD and Windows 8.1; exceptional pricing
ConsRough-sounding fan becomes noticeable when the PC is under heavy load; no built-in WiFi
In our "product of the month" reviews, we aim to feature products that provide fantastic value along with broad-based appeal. Ideally, these are products anyone could use and enjoy. There's no better example of just such a product than the one we're reviewing this month, the Zotac ZBOX BI320-U-W2, a compact, low-powered "nettop" PC. Featuring an Intel Celeron processor, it's more than fast enough to handle all manner of Internet-focused tasks, such as video streaming, video chat, and e-mail, while coming in at a frankly amazing price. Introduced at $220 (the price we paid for it at retail back in September 2014), it's dropped as low as $140 on at least one occasion, and trust us, that price is absurdly low given what the ZBOX brings to the table. Even at its retail price, it's still an amazing value, as we'll demonstrate below.
Description and Features
To hit what we consider to be a very fair pricepoint, Zotac had to rely on a special program instituted by Microsoft in mid-2014. In essence, Microsoft lowered the cost of a Windows 8.1 license to between $0 and $10 for manufacturers loading it onto low-priced laptops and nettops. You can thank Google's ChromeOS for forcing Microsoft's hand on this. You see, whereas a $50-100 license fee made perfect sense in the days of $1,000+ PCs, consumers are now moving onto very different devices, and typically buying more of them. So an average household may now have a couple of smartphones, one or two tablets, a laptop, plus a desktop. Microsoft's licensing fees were a significant barrier to Microsoft-based products staying competitive in this environment.
What does all this mean to you, the consumer? Luckily, it's all good news. The only catch is that any system with this low-priced version of Windows 8.1 will use Bing Search and Internet Explorer by default, but we'd wager that just about anyone can figure out how to change those defaults once they have the product in hand. In return, a whole new class of products was born, and the ZBOX is just about the perfect example of what a cheap Windows license can translate to in the desktop environment.
The ZBOX is equipped with an ultra-efficient, low-priced laptop processor, the Intel Celeron 2957U 1.4GHz dual-core CPU. There's nothing mysterious about this product - it's based on the relatively-new Haswell architecture (which until January 2015 was the latest generation, supplanted by Broadwell in the newest of laptops). As we'll show in our benchmarks, its performance can be readily inferred from its clock speed - it's just under half the speed of a desktop-class Haswell dual-core.
What really sets the ZBOX apart from its competitors is its inclusion of a 64GB solid-state drive. The particular model it uses, by a company called Foresee, isn't a stand-out in any way, except for the fact that it's just about infinitely faster than the hard drives used in most low-end PCs. Unless you need more capacity for media storage (and we'd argue that streaming media makes this a rare requirement in a secondary system like this one), we'd suggest you run in the opposite direction of any PC sold today without a solid-state drive! The ZBOX is also equipped with a single 2GB stick of Crucial DDR3-1600 1.35V laptop-style RAM. It has an open slot for a second stick, although we didn't attempt to upgrade it during our testing, as 2GB is plenty for the intended uses of a system in this price range.
Zotac packed all of the ZBOX's components into a sleek, compact chassis. It measures 1.8" thick, and just 7.5" by 7.5" in height and width (note that its stand adds another 0.5" in height). It features a glossy finish, which you'll either love or hate - the photo above makes clear just how reflective it is. Fingerprints can collect pretty easily on this surface, but overall, we didn't find it too hard to keep looking nice enough. On the front of the ZBOX, Zotac provides a power button, two LED indicator lights, an SD card slot, headphone and microphone jacks, and a USB 2.0 port, with another USB 2.0 port coverd by a rubberized cap on top of the case. The back of the case, shown below, is where you'll find most of the ports you'll end up using, including four USB 3.0 ports, an ethernet jack, DVI and HDMI video ports, and even a digital optical audio output, a nod to home theater users, perhaps (although we'd just as soon use HDMI audio in such setups). Alas, one thing the ZBOX doesn't have is built-in wireless networking, an unfortunate omission in a system likely to be perched on a TV stand or in a kitchen.
Also visible in the photo to the right is the array of venting on top and on the backside of the case. The CPU is actively-cooled, and the fan pulls air in through the figure-8-shaped vent on the back, and exhausts it out the top. Note that rubber feet allow you to easily place the ZBOX length-wise on a desk, in which case you'd want to make sure the main intake vent isn't obstructed by papers or other items. We'll come back to the ZBOX's cooling a bit later, as it leads to one of the system's very few downsides.