Home entertainment systems have been big business for years and with the addition of Smart TV’s now playing a big part of peoples home cinema setups we find more and more ways of consuming media every day. But for the true entertainment enthusiast, a few apps on their TV that give them access to things like YouTube and Netflix simply isn't enough. The next step up from Smart TV’s has to be the HTPC, which in most cases is a compact design PC, which is capable of functioning much like any other PC, but with a strong focus on multimedia playback.
While many experienced users set themselves to building their own HTPC, picking a computer chassis, motherboard, processor, storage and the half dozen other bits and pieces needed to build a computer, not everyone even knows the first thing about building their own computer. This is where the Zotac HTPC comes into play, offering an all-in-one solution that is pre-built and configured to be a great multimedia PC.
To go by its full name the Zotac ZBOX Plus Giga is every bit a full computer, much like your desktop or laptop computer, it’s capable of running an operating system such as Windows or Linux, will browse the web, maybe even some light gaming. But most importantly it will play movies and music from the usual multitude of sources you would expect from a full equipped computer, but with the added ability of being able to fit it on your home entertainment stand and connect it to your TV.
As you can see from the front of the box, the ZBox is fairly well equipped specification wise. With the very popular Intel Core i3 processor, this is one of the most versatile CPUs on the market today, as it offers a decent amount of processing power while maintaining excellent energy efficiency. It also comes fitted out with a 320GB hard drive, 4GB of ram, built in 802.11n WiFi, Bluetooth, Gigabit Lan and a slot loading DVD drive. So it’s very well connected and the inclusion of a powerful WiFi adaptor is a welcome addition as this saves on extra cables being required behind the device.
Out of the box we find there is a nice assortment of accessories, from left to right we have; A USB remote antenna, twin WiFi aerials, DVI to VGA adaptor, multimedia remote control, power adaptor and power cable.
The most important thing here in my opinion is the included remote control. It’s nothing fancy but it is a vital component to a quality HTPC setup as the last thing you want to be doing is messing around with a keyboard and mouse in front of your TV every time you want to pause/play your movie. It comes fully equipped with the usual functions as well as a Windows Media Centre button.
As you can see, the main unit is very compact, using the DVD slot loading drive for scale. It comes finished with brushed aluminium and has a very sleek look to the front panel. Across the front you will find a DVD slot loader, SD Card reader, power button and HDD/Power LEDs. There is no reset button though, but you can just hold the power switch to force power off if required.
Around the back of the system is where all the interesting stuff is happening. With a PS/2 port for older keyboards and mice, a pair of USB 3.0 ports, four USB 2.0 ports, eSATA, LAN and WiFi connections taking care of all the data and input functionality.
For displays you have the choice of Display Port, HDMI, DVI and VGA if using the included DVI to VGA adaptor. This allows for great flexibility with your monitor or TV dependant on your connection options. But furthermore it allows you to use the device over multiple screens should you feel the need.
For audio connectivity you can use Audio over HDMI, this keeps cables to a minimum, or you can output analogue audio through the multi-channel audio jack plug sockets or Toslink optical output. So overall a very well equipped back panel with plenty of connectivity options, exactly what you want and need for a good HTPC to function properly.
Setup and Performance
Given that this is a multimedia home entertainment solution, it only made sense that I should hook it up to my TV. The Zotac will be put through its paces on a 46” HDTV and a 5.1 AV Receiver cinema system. Setup of the device took about 5mins and was as simple as connecting the HDMI cable to my AV receiver and plugging in the power cable.
Now the Zotac doesn't come pre-installed with an operating system, so I opted to do a fresh install on Windows 7 64 bit. I chose to install from DVD and the Windows 7 installation took a little over 30 mins to complete. This wasn't helped by the mechanical hard drive, which has an operating speed of 5400RPM. For those of you who aren't familiar with the speed of hard drives, this is a very slow speed drive. Once Windows had finished installing and I had finished installing the included driver DVD for the systems graphics, motherboard, cpu, etc, I would say it took around 1 hour to get to a finished usable state of operation.
The first thing I noticed when powering up the system though was noise, and plenty of it! This was apparent throughout the Windows installation and general use. If there is one thing a HTPC needs to do its be discreet, as when you're kicking back to watch your favourite movie, the last thing you want to hear are whirring fans.
Because of this noise issue, I decided to dig a little deeper into the issue and take a look at the system temperatures of the Zotac.
Using the popular HWMonitor software I could see that at idle the system was running at 37-41c with an ambient room temperature of 21c, which is actually pretty good. The downside here though is the system fan (SYSFANIN) and CPU fan (CPUFANIN) are running at around 3200 and 1300RPM respectively, combine this with the fans being small in diameter due to the chassis size adds up to quite a lot of turbulence and noise. It basically tells me the fans are working hard to keep the system cool.
I left HWMonitor running while I put the system trough a few stress tests, the end results were that the CPU was running at around 50c, putting the CPU fan up from 1300RPM to 1850RPM. Fortunately this did not increase noise output from the system. This tells me that the noise from the system is from the chassis fan which is used to cool components like the power supply and motherboard, as well as extract air from the system as a whole.
The i3 CPU features the Intel 2000 integrated graphics solution, it's a powerful CPU but as far as gaming is concerned, it's fairly terrible without the help of a dedicated graphics card being installed. Now I can't really knock the system for this, it’s not a gaming machine anyway, but it is worth keeping in mind, while it won't play Battlefield 3, it does still perform really well with Facebook or flash based games.
Moving on from there I fired up Windows Media Centre, VLC and Winamp to test a range of movies, video and audio formats on the system. This is where the Zotac really started to shine. DVD playback was superb and it handled the decoding of HD AVI files with ease. Music and movie audio playback worked superbly too and the ability to use Audio over HDMI or Optical meant I could really enjoy the surround sound capabilities of the system.
The included remote was put to great use and worked straight away out of the box, really made navigating my networked media library a breeze and everything else on the system operated much as you would expect any other PC. With a keyboard and mouse connected I was able to browse the web, watch videos on YouTube, and even play a few flash games on Facebook without any performance issues.
While noise was an issue for the system at first, it was soon forgetting when installed properly on my TV stand. Once you're sat back on the couch to watch a movie it sounded no louder than a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 while in use.
Overall the Zotac is a decent little system, while it’s not ideal for those who want their media centre to play a few games of Skyrim, it can handle popular day to day Facebook games with ease. Its movie and audio playback are faultless and video playback is clearly one of the i3 processors strong points. Plus It has a great selection of connectivity options and accessories that are easy to setup and easy to use.
But are there better options on the market? Yes there are, but to get more performance for your money in a HTPC you're likely going to have to build your own system, which is not really an option for a lot of consumers. Most people just want to take it out of the box, plug it in and get to work and that really is the Zotacs strong point. While I do think they could have installed a faster hard drive and an operating system it still delivers and does exactly what it says on the box.