Introduction and First Impressions

A mini-PC kit with Haswell and dual NICs

The Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano is a mini PC kit in the vein of the Intel NUC, and this version features a completely fanless design with built-in wireless for silent integration into just about any location. So is it fast enough to be an HTPC or desktop productivity machine? We will find out here.

I have reviewed a couple of mini-PCs in the past few months, most recently the ECS LIVA X back in January. Though the LIVA X was not really fast enough to be used as a primary device it was small and inexpensive enough to be an viable product depending on a user’s needs. One attractive aspect of the LIVA designs, and any of the low-power computers introduced recently, is the passive nature of such systems. This has unfortunately resulted in the integration of some pretty low-performance CPUs to stay within thermal (and cost) limits, but this is beginning to change. The ZBOX nano we’re looking at today carries on the recent trend of incorporating slightly higher performance parts as its Intel Celeron processor (the 2961Y) is based on Haswell, and not the Atom cores at the heart of so many of these small systems.

Another parallel to the Intel NUC is the requirement to bring your own memory and storage, and the ZBOX CI321 nano accepts a pair of DDR3 SoDIMMs and 2.5” storage drives. The Intel Celeron 2961Y processor supports up to 1600 MHz dual-channel DDR3L which allows for much higher memory bandwidth than many other mini-PCs, and the storage controller supports SATA 6.0 Gbps which allows for higher performance than the eMMC storage found in a lot of mini-PCs, depending on the drive you choose to install. Of course your mileage will vary depending on the components selected to complete the build, but it shouldn’t be difficult to build a reasonably fast system.

The only significant drawback that I saw at the outset was the clock speed of Celeron CPU, which is a scant 1.10 GHz, probably necessary for its Haswell cores to stay within its 11.5 W TDP. This still represents both lower clocks and higher power consumption than the Atom-based mini-PC's I’ve tested. Still, Haswell architecture will provide higher instructions per clock and that should mitigate the impact of such a low-speed CPU.

First we'll check out specifications:

Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano
Processor Intel Celeron 2961Y (dual-core, 1.1 GHz)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
Memory 2 x 204-pin SO-DIMM (supports up to 16GB 1600 MHz DDR3L)
Storage SATA 6.0 Gb/s, 2.5-inch Hard Drive/SSD support
Ethernet 2x 10/100/1000Mbps
Wireless 802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0
Audio 3.5mm analog stereo output, 8-ch via HDMI S/PDIF
Card Reader 3-in-1 (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
Video Output 1x HDMI, 1x DisplayPort
USB Ports 4x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
OS (Not included) Supports Windows 7, 8, 8.1
Price MSRP $139

First Impressions

First we have a look at the packaging and contents.

Included with the ZBOX CI321 nano is a power adapter, optical digital adapter (for the unit's 3.5 mm combo audio jack) and a VESA mount. There is clearly a focus on the living room with this device, beginning with the passive cooling for silent operation.

There's quite a bit going on with the front panel, which in addition to the power button and activity lights also has an SDXC slot, combo 3.5 mm headphone/optical audio jack, 3.5 mm microphone jack, IR receiver, and two USB 3.0 ports. Of note is that 3.5 mm combo jack, which provides the digital audio output via the included toslink adapter. The front location would make it impossible to hide that cable completely in a home theater environment; though with the lights on the front it likely wouldn't be oriented that way in a living room anyway.

The back has the power jack, DisplayPort and standard HDMI, dual Gigabit NICs (nice!), another pair of USB 3.0 ports to go along with a single USB 2.0 port, and finally the removable wireless antenna.

Next we'll look at a quick build and see how this version of the ZBOX nano performed!

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