System Build, Performance, and Conclusion
Just as with the Intel NUC you will need to install your own RAM and storage drive before using the nano mini-PC. 2.5-inch drives and DDR3L notebook memory are supported, and I installed 4GB of 1600 MHz DDR3 memory a Plextor SSD and I had on hand for this review.
The installation process was very simple as removing the four feet securing the bottom panel provides full access to the interior.
I was worried at first about memory compatibility as there is almost no space between a standard SoDIMM and the 2.5” SSD when installed. It does work, but low-profile notebook memory would make sense here if you have the option.
With the components in place I performed an uneventful Windows 8.1 installation from a USB stick, and after downloading drivers from Zotac's product page (since the included drivers are on a DVD) I was ready to test this out.
To really test this out as a desktop replacement I challenged myself to use it exclusively as my primary computer for a few days. The results surprised me, as that low CPU speed had painted a bleak picture of performance. In general desktop use the nano didn’t feel like a mini-PC for the most part, with the standard SSD and 4 GB of memory I installed certainly helping speed things along. The limitations of the CPU speed were not obvious for light use, with basic activities like web browsing providing very good performance with a 5-6 tabs open in FireFox.
I installed Microsoft Office 2013 and though it was useable there were some noticeable performance differences compared to working on my usual Core i5 notebook. Working with a larger spreadsheet in Excel felt a little sluggish, and in if I typed quickly in Word I could watch as letters lagged behind on the screen. I encountered no performance issues using Google Docs in a browser window, pointing to the hardware overhead needed to keep the more recent versions of MS Office performing well.
To complete my standard workflow test on the ZBOX nano I installed Adobe Lightroom, and I was surprised that it was actually possible to import and edit RAW files from my DSLR without any problems – though the process was many times slower than it would be on more powerful hardware, of course. Effects and exports took longer with this lighter hardware, but I was able to do everything I needed without the system hanging once. Not bad!
The ZBOX nano home office
After three days I was left with a favorable impression of the nano as a desktop productivity machine, especially considering that for many people in an office environment working on slower hardware is a daily reality. In some respects this little computer outclasses some of likely PC hardware in a typical business (and certainly some of the computers I've had to use). There is more than adequate I/O and enough performance from the Celeron processor to allow for basic productivity from a machine that sits about 5" square and makes no noise.
Using the nano: Living Room
Moving the ZBOX nano out to the living room I had my doubts about video performance. Smooth video playback has become a requirement for any PC, though the demise of Flash as the defacto player in most instances has certainly made this easier on hardware. With the nano YouTube posed no challenge for standard 720p content (now HTML5), and the 1080p content I streamed was also smooth. I tried forcing the issue with a search for 1080p/60 content and the result wasn't really watchable. Very high bitrate video bogged down the system and there were obvious dropped frames and stuttering.
With an external Blu-ray drive connected the nano was unable to play movies without dropping frames, and switching to an MKV rip of the same title didn't help – actually creating a more unwatchable experience as VLC couldn't play it without significant frame drop and occasional freezes. This was disappointing as in every other way to this point the improvement over Bay Trail-M powered machines was clear, and while the Haswell Core technology shows great IPC gains in general the low clock speed might have been a factor.
Still, the nano performed admirably for what I would consider "typical" video streaming, with great performance from Netflix in particular. I played a few HD shows from my watch list without issues, and the quality was very good. There is definitely a mobile focus to streaming video content these days as we move away from reliance on Flash, so most online video content will be playable on even the lightest of computing devices. However the superior quality video available like Blu-ray (and more UHD streaming content coming) would make me think twice about using the nano as a serious home theater PC.
The ZBOX nano has a high build quality and surprisingly good performance from its dual-core Celeron processor, though more demanding applications will bog down the system immediately. I was able to complete all of my usual desktop tasks easily on the nano, including document and even photo editing, though two 1.1 GHz cores are only going to take you so far with modern apps. Still, the utility and small size of the computer made it a nice addition wherever I placed it around the house, and the passive cooling made it an unobtrusive addition.
Bottom line, if you can find one near the $139.99 MSRP (or find one at all, actually, as I was unable to locate one on Amazon or Newegg before posting this review) it's definitely worth a look.