38 Aug 23, 2011

Mediacenter PC Review: Zotac ZBOX ID41

In this article I’ll be reviewing the Zotac ZBOX ID41, which is an inexpensive mini PC from Zotac. The thing about this PC is that it’s particularly appealing to media center owners and budget-constrained customers due to its price and small size.

In this review I’ll look at some of the factors that are important to me for a HTPC: noise, HD playback, expansion features and power usage.

What’s a HTPC/Media Center PC?

Basically, when you plug a PC into your flat-screen TV like the one in your living room, and run a software like XBMC, your PC turns into a HTPC (Home Theater PC).


A typical XBMC movie library, as it would be shown on your flatscreen TV

With software like XBMC, you can lean back and use the remote you connected to your PC to scroll through your movie, music and picture collection and view it all on your big screen. Who wants to watch movies on a laptop screen, right?

Why a Zotac?

The low price of the ZBOX was the main reason I bought it. Currently, there are many competing mini-PCs on the market with different features in different price brackets. I chose the bare-bone version, without the memory and harddrive, because I had some leftover parts from when I upgraded a MacBook Pro. Great way to save a little money.

Rear view of the Zotac in upright position.

There’s several versions of the ZBOX available, some with AMD processors and others with both faster and slower Intel processors. The ID-41 is one of the fastest models, but is more noisy and consumes more power than the AMD solutions, from what I’ve gathered on the Internet. I sacrificed some quietness for performance.

In the box

The Zotac comes in a fun briefcase-like box and includes both a vertical stand and an attachment so you can mount it on the back of your flat-screen TV. You also get a DVI to VGA adapter (in case your TV doesn’t support HDMI). Besides that, there’s not a lot of stuff.

Installation

I installed 4 GB ram, a 1 TB HDD and Windows 7 64bit. I downloaded the Nvidia drivers off nvidia.com, the rest of the drivers from zotacusa.com. I also upgraded the BIOS for good measure. Even though the ZBOX comes with a manual, it fails to tell you how to enter the BIOS, so here you go:

  • BIOS: cold boot (don’t restart), press DEL repeatedly.
  • Boot Device: cold boot, press F11 repeatedly.

Thoughts on Linux as HTPC OS

Ubuntu and other Linux distributions can do the things I want, but I had a spare Windows license, so I decided to use it. If I didn’t have a Windows license lying around, I probably would have installed Ubuntu and be happy with that, as most home entertainment software will work on both operating systems. I might try Ubuntu in the future, but Windows 7 works fine. I could also have used the XBMC live CD and installed that permanently, so don’t think you need an expensive Windows license.

Does It Play 1080p?

While traditionally it has always been difficult to play 1080p (full HD) videos on cheap mini-computers, that changed with the Nvidia ION chipset which facilitates hardware playback of many common media codecs. With it, the CPU can take a break — in many cases, CPUs like Atoms just aren’t fast enough to play HD videos.

I installed XBMC 10.1 from the official site and it ran well on the machine with all the latest updated drivers and Windows updates. The XBMC user interface seems to suffer from low fps (frames/second) but it runs well enough that it doesn’t bother me.

After you’ve enabled DXVA hardware acceleration in XBMC’s settings panel, the Zotac ZBOX ID41 really plays 1080p MKVs flawlessly in XBMC; no artefacts, tearing or skipping, even with subtitles. (Thanks, ION 2!) If you don’t enable DXVA, your media will skip, since hardware acceleration won’t be enabled.

At the time of writing, if you want to play 1080p MKVs in Media Player Classic Home Cinema, you have to get the CoreAVC codec, which costs $12. I tried to get libavcodec to play without skipping, but no success, which is weird since that’s what XBMC uses. I didn’t try a lot though – I’m always going to be using XBMC on this computer.

Forget about VLC Player. It doesn’t support hardware acceleration as far as I know.

General performance


The “Experience Index” for the Zotac ID-41. As you can see, the processor is clearly the bottleneck here. (Click for larger version) 

The speed of the machine feels OK considering the dual-core 1.6Ghz Atom processor. It struggles playing 1080p videos from YouTube with Flash 10.3. Some videos play smoothly, others don’t. As the Web moves away from the old Flash-standard, more and more high definition video will properly work on this hardware.

This machine would do well for internet surfing and office tasks like Word and Excel, but expect to have some patience launching heavy programs, especially those needing lots of CPU cycles.

This definitely isn’t a gaming computer, but I installed Steam and Counter-Strike 1.6 on it anyway, but it barely manages to get 60fps on that old game. So that says a bit about the gaming performance (pretty bad).

Noise level

The noise level of the computer is very good: the fan can be heard a tiny bit when playing 1080p files or doing CPU intensive tasks, but when it’s idle, it’s almost completely quiet. Not as quiet as my MacBook Pro, but it’s enough for me. The fan isn’t high-pitched, more of a low hum, and that’s a big plus.

I might drill some more holes in the cabinet to improve airflow (taking the cabinet off reduces the fan speed a bit), or mod it with a quieter fan some day to make it even more quiet.

Also note that the factory BIOS will run the fans at a higher speed than the new version from zotacusa.com.

Power Consumption

The energy usage of the ZBOX ID41 is relatively low, measured at about 26W idle with a consumer electricity gadget. While playing a 1080p movie, it consumed about 28W. Playing a 1080p movie and extracting zip files simultaneously made it go up to 31W.

When it’s powered off, it consumes 2W, which seems a little strange, but it’s probably due to the LED that’s on when the device is off. Why is there a LED that shines when the computer is off, Zotac?

So, when you turn your ZBOX off, you will have to turn the power off too (if you care about saving power).

Design

The Front. Not shown: an extra USB input at the top.

The ZBOX has a lot of expansion ports. eSATA for storage, DVI and HDMI for displays, Gbit LAN, 2x USB 3.0, 5x USB 2.0, SD card reader plus sound and optical outputs, so lots of room for expansion, compared to an AppleTV for example. One thing I missed was a FireWire jack for an external sound card.

You’ll have some difficulty mounting a 11mm 2.5″ HDD, like the WD Blue. It’s simply too tall, so I had to remove some foamy padding on the harddrive bracket so it would fit. By now there’s lots of normal sized 1TB HDDs out there, so it shouldn’t really be a problem.

I think the design is OK. You can hide it behind your TV with the included screw-on frame. The machine itself doesn’t feel robust when handling it, probably because it’s made from plastic.

I’ve turned off the blue round LED light on the case in the BIOS (thanks for giving me this option, Zotac) because it was too bright and annoying.  But I couldn’t disable the HDD activity indicators, and had to stick electrical tape on to hide them.

Conclusion

If you need a dirt cheap, somewhat quiet media center pc, get the Zotac Zbox ID41! If you don’t play games on your computer, and only surf the web, do office work and things like that, you’ll probably also enjoy this machine.

If you’re really noise sensitive, you’re probably better off getting a fanless HTPC, but those are a little more expensive.

All in all, I’m happy I got a Zotac.


38 Responses to “Mediacenter PC Review: Zotac ZBOX ID41”

  1. jordi says:

    Very nice and detailed personal review. I ordered one and will be playing with it soon. I’ll install ubuntu though, I hope it can play well 1080 video, however it’s not a priority since I’ll use it mainly for internet and office stuff.

  2. Joe says:

    Are you using HDMI output, if you do are you getting a sound?

  3. Simon Fredsted says:

    @Joe

    Currently it’s connected via DVI, but when I get the opportunity I’ll test if HDMI audio works and add it to the review.

  4. Mads says:

    Hej Simon. Godt blogindlæg (som jeg fandt via Google :))

    Nu har du haft din Zotac nogle uger og ville høre om du har oplevet noget skidt eller måske noget uventet godt ved maskinen?

    Har selv lige bestilt den samme med 4GB ram (hvilke ram bruger du?) og med en 60GB SSD. Da jeg endnu ikke har fået en NAS-server er planen at min eksterne usb 2.0 harddisk skal bruges til at streame mit mediaindhold i XBMC. Kører din harddisk 7200/rpm?

    Glæder mig meget til at modtage hardwaren med posten og få sat det hele op! Hvordan kører XBMC med Win 7 på maskinen? Oplever du at det hakker?

    Mvh. Mads

  5. Thomas says:

    Nice review, takker!

    Fandt indslag via google.

    Specielt godt var omtalen af lyd, som jeg er meget opmærksom på.

    Hvis du nogensinde modder den id41, håber jeg at du opdaterer din artikel med dette, da jeg ligeledes vil være interesseret i dette.

    Har du i øvrigt målt på strømforbug efter slukning af zotac logo’et?

    Mvh Thomas

  6. Simon Fredsted says:

    @Mads

    Har sådanset ikke oplevet noget jeg ikke har skrevet om i reviewet. Jeg bruger 2×2 GB Corsair.

    Min harddisk kører kun 5200 RPM, men det virker fint, men computeren tager selvfølgelig længere tid om at starte, end hvis jeg havde en SSD.

    XBMC kører sådanset fint. Som jeg skrev i reviewet, kan FPS blive lidt lave nogle gange. Specielt hvis man har Milkdrop kørende i baggrunden og går ud i menuen.

    @ Thomas

    Ja, hvis det bliver nødvendigt, med at modde smider jeg nok nogle billeder op på bloggen her.

    Alle målinger er lavet, med Zotac logoet slukket i BIOS. LED’en jeg snakker om er en rød diode, som sidder bag powerknappen.

  7. Mads says:

    Hej Simon,

    Nu har jeg modtaget den og er sådan set rigtig godt tilfreds.

    Jeg oplever dog at YouTube videoer i 720p/1080p hakker. Jeg har læst mig frem til, at man kan gå ind i BIOS og sætte rammene på GPU’en op fra 256MB til 512MB, og at det skulle hjælpe. Mit problem er, at jeg simpelthen ikke kan finde den indstilling i min BIOS.

    Har du en idé om hvordan det gøres?

    Med venlig hilsen,

    Mads

  8. John says:

    Nice article. Definitely considering a Zotac now

  9. Inspired By Nature says:

    Website Trackback Link…

    […]the time to read or visit the content or sites we have linked to below the[…]…

  10. Anonymous says:

    Wow, fantastic blog layout! How long have you been blogging for? you make blogging look easy. The overall look of your website is great, as well as the content!

  11. eadmaster says:

    Can the fan be controlled with SpeedFan?
    Which temperature does it reach on heavy load?

  12. android tablet review says:

    android tablet review…

    […]Simon Fredsted » Blog Archive » Mediacenter PC Review: Zotac ZBOX ID41[…]…

  13. mario says:

    good review, many thanks, I had also some problems playing full hd videos but I done as you’ve suggested, using xbmc with hardware acceleration and the result is incredible (first I was allmost ready to sell the zotac since was nor playing full hd movies!)

  14. viltsu says:

    I got my Zbox up couple of days ago and have been playing with it. I have it connected to Samsung TV with HDMI and I have Ubuntu 11.10 on it. If you want to play HD video with Ubu, you need to install VDPAU but that was not hard. On TV I had to select ‘Just scan’ mode to see whole working area and not to miss the menus. I’m very happy on my new box.

  15. novi sad laptop servis says:

    novi sad laptop servis…

    […]Simon Fredsted’s blog » Blog Archive » Mediacenter PC Review: Zotac ZBOX ID41[…]…

  16. René says:

    I have troubles viewing HDMI from this box using XBMCbuntu, not sure if it is the TV though.

  17. nicola says:

    Can you play full 3d movies?
    I mean, full 3d Iso?

    please reply
    Mail: articoli.universitari @ gmail.com

  18. Fueler67 says:

    Great review, I am a Noob and have just purchased this unit and your review has helped me immensely.

    Keep up the good work!

    F67

  19. Maverick says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for your review. I finally bought one with 4GB Ram and a 64GB SSD. I find the fan to be very loud and after turning the fan down a little the box gets very hot (CPU tejmp around 70°. Did you play with the fans, and do you have experience with the acceptable temperature?

    Cheers, Christian

  20. american alternative rock bands|american rock hollywood|indie rock groups|indie rock bands| says:

    Hi, Neat post. There’s an issue together with your website in web explorer, would check this? IE still is the market chief and a huge element of folks will miss your excellent writing due to this problem.

  21. обновить драйвера бесплатно says:

    Hello, Neat post. There is a problem along with your site in web explorer, could test this? IE still is the marketplace leader and a big component of people will leave out your wonderful writing due to this problem.

  22. article directory says:

    Thanks for some other informative site. The place else may I get that kind of info written in such an ideal way? I’ve a project that I’m just now operating on, and I have been at the look out for such information.

  23. Samsung servisi says:

    It’s really a cool and helpful piece of information. I’m happy that you shared this helpful info with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.

  24. sac louis vuitton says:

    A revived version of a cool 1920s timepiece, the American 1921 watch comes from Vacheron Historiques series of watches that pay tribute to the maison venerable past.The clothes were also accessorized with either a pocket watch or umbrella.Most of the branded timepieces are restricted to gold and steel colors.In later elaborations on the Jason-Medea legend, Medea murders her children in an insane attempt to win back Jason’s lovethe gods’ belated payback to Jason’s thievery of the fleece years before.

  25. http://tivisamsunggiare.blogspot.com says:

    Hiya very nice blog!! Guy .. Excellent .. Amazing .. I will bookmark your blog and take the feeds additionally?I am satisfied to search out so many helpful information right here in the post, we’d like work out more techniques in this regard, thank you for sharing. . . . . .

  26. Don says:

    There’s no way the LED is consuming 2w at power down. Only a flashlight LED would consume in that range. Most LEDs in gear like this are more like millwatt.

  27. Simon says:

    Thanks for the comment – would you have any idea what would causing it then? I mean, it’s *powered off*, not on standby. It should use 0 W.

  28. facebook Security certificate says:

    Thanks for ones marvelous posting! I truly enjoyed reading it, you are a great
    author.I will always bookmark your blog and definitely will come back from now on.
    I want to encourage you to definitely continue your great job, have a nice
    weekend!

  29. Greg says:

    Regarding the power consumption when “off”. I’m sure I read a recommendation somewhere about physically disconnecting a PC from the mains before attempting to add or remove components, because some of the more recent changes to standard hardware specs mean that some components are still connected to power – and therefore presumably still drawing current – when the PC is switched off.

    I think the reason was to enable a remote PC to be woken by a network command, even when it had been powered down, or something like that. Anyhow, that could be the reason for your device drawing 2W even when switched off.

  30. Simon says:

    Hi Greg, thanks for that tip, it makes sense. I might try turning Wake-On-LAN off and see if that helps bring down the power to 0 W when off.

  31. Andy says:

    Hey Simon,
    How’s the power usage hunt going? I wanted to mention that the front USB port is still powered when the box is shut down. Maybe that’s the source of the draw? Its a fully powered port, so it can output more than 1A. Maybe disabling (somehow) the “always on” of the USB port could help bring it down? The PSU could be regulating the source, even when off. Thanks for the Blog. I’m currently using Win 8.1 x64 with a 60GB SSD, and 4GB RAM, and it does almost everything we need. Occasionally we find a codec it doesn’t like in 1080p (MKV’s come to mind), so we power up our main machine to watch those. I think since its now out of warrenty, I might tackle the heat sink with a polishing/lead removing cloth and some arctic silver. See if that helps with the playback. A most helpful blog. Cheers,

  32. Andy says:

    Note: Adding ArcticSilver and polishing the heatsink to a mirror finish around the CPU and GPU contact points helped out quite a bit. Temps went down 5* and the fan runs slower, and less frequently now. Hope it helps,

  33. Jony says:

    I belive that possible to make a mod in case. Cut and place a 12cm fan in vertical stand. Hope this gonna help a lot the temps. And thats easy to do.

  34. Jony says:

    Like that: http://www.hardwareluxx.de/community/f89/zotac-zbox-id41-vs-zotac-zbox-ad02-822992.html

  35. Simon Fredsted says:

    Hi Andy, I’ve given up on the power hunt – 2W is not a whole lot, but I still think it’s a little weird. Also, I’ve started using Netflix in the mean time, and the Zotac just wasn’t fast enough to play Netflix videos smoothly via Silverlight. So now I’m using a Mac mini as HTPC that I got with a rebate – and the Zotac runs 24/7 as media/web/backup server with a couple USB harddrives connected.

    Jony, thanks for the link to the mod. I’ll probably try it – my Zbox get’s *very* hot, especially the harddrive – I almost burned myself on the harddrive when I was switching it out last time.

  36. Ovi says:

    Hello Simon,
    I purchased my ZBOX-ID41 PLUS about 3 years ago and had no problem with it until a few weeks back.
    I connected to my TV and also to Home Theater system, I used wireless router connection to the internet. All functions worked properly, we used mainly for kids streamline cartoons or youtube, sometime movies from USB or HDD. For this purpose my family and I were happy about having this nice device.
    Before breakdown, a couple of weeks ago I found the LED shown green after switch off. It was strange, but could switch on and off also use for its function, too. So, I didn’t worry about it. But the last few days when I try to boot, it shows ZBox on the screen and not moving forward.
    I tried to access to BIOS without success. I opened the box, switched off, reconnected all plugs, remove HDD, RAM, etc and retried, but unfortunately no success.
    It seems, it doesn’t want to boot up at all.

    Can you please advise me if there is any possible step should do further?

    I am still happy about this model performance and for the purpose we use it’s good enough. I would give another chance to live longer.
    Thanks in advance.

    You have a great blog site, congratulations.

    Ovit

  37. Ovi says:

    Just one more thing. When I complete remove the power from the device and re-powered again the main LED shows RED. But after trying boot up and switching off by holding main button the LED remaining GREEN while device is switched off. Repeating the booting procedure (without success) the main light remains always GREEN even if it switched off.
    Reconnecting the main power results RED light again only.

    I tried several boot ups. Tried also without RAM and others and didn’t get error message. Could not moved on to BIOS menu.
    My friend told me, the motherboard is dead.
    Is there anything that I should try more?

    Thanks
    Ovit

  38. MARK says:

    I have one box of my friend full of movies, how i can connect to my PC to copy all those movies?

    thanks

Leave a Comment