Introduction and Setup Impressions


Over the last couple of years, mini-PCs in the ultra-compact form factor (UCFF) have emerged as one of the bright spots in the troubled PC market. Zotac is no stranger to this segment. Even though the Intel NUC is credited with kicstarting the UCFF trend, the Zotac nano xs units actually came to the market before them. With the nano xs, Zotac redefined the small form-factor (SFF) PC. The nano series units use slightly bigger motherboards, but they are still small enough to mount discreetly behind monitors with the supplied VESA mounts.

Along with the emergence of the UCFF PC market, tablets also gained popularity. The industry also saw an overall push towards power-efficient computing for the average user. These two trends resulted in Intel creating a new Y series for their Core microprocessors, starting with Ivy Bridge. Unfortunately, the impact of these SKUs in the tablet market has been minimal. However, Zotac has repurposed the Haswell Y series CPUs for the 'ZBOX C Passive Cooling Series' of mini-PCs. The ZBOX CI540 nano, equipped with a Core i5-4210Y, is currently the most powerful unit in the lineup and that is what we will be looking at today.

Zotac usually samples the PLUS models (which come with a 2.5" drive as well as DRAM). This has always been mentioned as a minus point in our previous reviews (either due to the usage of a hard drive instead of a SSD, or leaving one of the DIMM slots empty). However, the PLUS models of the C series come with a SSD and there is only one memory slot in the units. This is one of the few ZBOX models where purchasing a PLUS model might actually make sense. In any case, Zotac is putting more emphasis on the barebones models, letting users choose their own 2.5" drive and DDR3L SO-DIMM stick. We were sampled the barebones version of the ZBOX CI540 nano. The unit was configured with a few additional components to end up with the following specifications:

Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-4210Y
(2C/4T x 1.5 GHz (1.9 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 3MB L2, 11.5W TDP, 6W SDP)
Memory 1 x 8GB DDR3L-1600
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4200
Disk Drive(s) Samsung SSD 840 EVO 120GB 2.5" SSD
Networking 1x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x1 802.11ac/Bluetooth mPCIe
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Operating System

Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 8.1 Pro x64

Pricing (As configured) ~$350 (barebones) + $168 (DRAM + 2.5" SSD)
Full Specifications Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano Specifications

The ZBOX CI540 nano kit doesn't come with any pre-installed OS, but does come with a CD and a read-only USB key containing the drivers. In any case, we ended up installing the latest drivers downloaded off Zotac's product support page. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 40 W (19V @ 2.1A) adapter, a US power cord, a VESA mount (along with the necessary screws), a single 2.4 GHz / 5 GHz antenna for the Wi-Fi feature, a driver CD / read-only USB key, user's manual and a quick-start guide.

The gallery below takes us around the hardware in the unit.

The dimensions of the ZBOX C series units are quite close to that of the standard Intel NUC. The gallery below shows the smallest actively cooled Intel NUC (i.e, the one without support for a 2.5" drive) and the ZBOX CI540 nano side by side. Despite having support for a 2.5" drive, the differences in the dimensions are minimal.

In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the ZBOX CI540 nano against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the ZBOX CI540 nano when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano
CPU Intel Core i5-4210Y Intel Core i5-4250U
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4200 Intel HD Graphics 5000
RAM Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B1600C9
9-9-9-24 @ 1600 MHz
1x8 GB
Corsair Vengeance CMSX8GX3M2B1866C10
10-10-10-32 @ 1866 MHz
2x4 GB
Storage Samsung SSD 840 EVO
(120 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 19nm, TLC)
Intel SSD 530 Series
(240 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 20nm, MLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 7260
(2x2 802.11ac - 867 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $518 $671
Performance Metrics - I
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  • p@nc@k3s - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    To me, it really is the footprint and fanless design that would make me buy this over a notebook.
  • james16 - Monday, November 3, 2014 - link

    Same for me. From my own anecdotal experience and expecting to use a PC for 6+ years, fans can suck in a lot of dust over time. The dust can cause overheating and throttling issues. Sometimes, the fans fail at some point too. I'm done with opening up PCs to clean/replace things. It's just not worth my time anymore. Also, notebooks are even more time consuming to open up to clean/replace stuff.

    So far with my experience with fanless devices is that they don't attract as much dust and, of course, no fans that can fail. However, you have to choose the right device. I've encountered some devices where the thermal design wasn't very good and you get throttling under normal conditions.
  • Aikouka - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Sure. Pretty much anything can be a HTPC as long as it meets your media needs. Some people just have different needs. For example, you probably cannot VESA mount a laptop on the back of a monitor/TV, but you can do that with a NUC/UCFF PC (I do that with my touch-based HTPC).
  • Spectrophobic - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Pretty sure it isn't that hard to DIY a mount for a laptop behind a monitor/TV.
  • gopher1369 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    In a corporate environment installing 500 of them at once?
  • barleyguy - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    In a corporate environment the solution would be to check the laptops out to employees and buy docking stations for the desks. My current corporate environment is primarily that way, as was my previous employer.

    They did have quite a few thin clients as well, but in general, people hated them.

    That said, my work laptop is WAY more powerful than this. It's a Dell mobile workstation with a Quad i7, an SSD, Radeon graphics, and 16 GB of RAM. Only downside is that it weighs about 10 pounds.
  • Johnmcl7 - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    I'm not sure how we've suddenly jumped from a single HTPC to 500 devices in a corporate network however having been down both routes in a corporate environment, I preferred the laptop mounting option. There are standardised brackets available and it meant we could use a standard laptop that was properly supported (the company was a large one and standardised on a handful of models from a single supplier) making them much quicker to set up and much easier to get them fixed thanks to next day on site warranties.

    I immediately lost all interest in the Zotac when I saw the price, there's no way I'd pay such a huge premium when there's plenty of cheaper laptops with similar hardware that can do the job.

  • barleyguy - Monday, November 3, 2014 - link

    Keep in mind the retail price is probably temporary. The Gigabyte BRIX products tend to sell for about half of retail after they've been out for a while. This will probably be the same way.

    Right now Newegg is bundling a free 4 GB memory stick with this.
  • wintermute000 - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    Absolutely correct, aside from aesthetics.
    my standard go to recommendation for semi-technical friends is to grab a 200-300 dollar laptop and leave it connected to the telly permanently.
  • Michael Bay - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    And it instantly becomes a dust magnet.

    Not even mentioning how extremely nice cheap laptop fits into TV cabinet aesthetic.

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