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Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano Fanless Barebones Mini-PC

ZBOX CI540 Nano Fanless Barebones Mini-PC

November 4, 2014 by Lawrence Lee

Product
Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano

Barebones Mini PC
Manufacturer
Street Price
US$335

Zotac is no stranger to the smaller side of desktop computing. The Macau-based company was notorious for quickly pushing out compatible mini-ITX motherboards whenever a new desktop CPU architecture was released. Though no longer in the motherboard business, they retain an impressive catalog of USFF systems under the ZBOX moniker. It's been some time since we've tested one, the last being the HD-ND-22 in 2010, which featured a Core 2-based CULV (consumer ultra-low voltage) processor with NVIDIA ION graphics. At the time, most of the competition featured first generation Atom CPUs, popularized by ASUS' Eee PCs.

However, as Atom was primarily based on Pentium III technology, the performance it provided was dismal. The HD-ND-22 delivered a much needed speed boast, but the genre stalled until Intel pushed the performance envelope higher with the NUC. Gigabyte's BRIX series uses a similar foundation, as does Zotac. The newest ZBOXs are offered in a wide variety of configurations with just about every low voltage processor on the market. Of most interest is the C-series, which can boast zero-noise operation.

Specifications: Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano

(from the
product web page
)
Product Name ZBOX CI540 nano
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4200
CPU Intel Core i5 4210Y (dual-core, 1.5 GHz) Intel Turbo Boost up to 1.9 GHz
Memory DDR3L

1600 MHz

1 x 204-pin SODIMM

up to 8GB
Networking 10/100/1000Mbps

802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0
Audio Analog Stereo output

Digital 8-ch via DVI-HDMI adapter, S/PDIF
Storage Support 2.5-inch SATA 6.0 Gb/s HDD/SSD

Memory Card Reader 3-in-1 (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
Ports HDMI x 1

DisplayPort x 1

SATA x 1 (SATA 6.0 Gb/s)

USB 2.0 x 2 on front, 3.0 x 4 on back

eSATA x 1 (not officially specified)

Consumer IR receiver (not officially specified)
Cooler
Passive cooling without cooling fan
Packaging Content 1 x ZOTAC ZBOX CI540 1 x WiFi antenna 1 x VESA mount 4 x Mounting screws 1 x AC adapter 1 x Power cord 1 x Warranty card 1 x User manual 1 x Quick Install Guide 1 x Driver disc

There are three base barebones models in the family, all with the same feature-set but differing processors. The CI320 uses a Bay Trail Atom, the Celeron N2930, the CI520 touts a Haswell-based Core i3-4020Y, and our review unit, the CI540, packs the slightly faster Core i5-4210Y. These three models are also available fully configured with RAM and SSDs, as well as with Windows 8.1 and Bing pre-installed. Compared to Haswell-powered NUCs, the CI540 is somewhat underpowered. Its clock speeds of 1.5~1.9 GHz are noticeably slower, though with this comes a lower 11.5W TDP (vs. 15W) which should reduce its cooling requirements. Memory support is halved, with only one SODIMM up to 8GB in size, but if you need 16GB, it's unlikely the CPU would be sufficient for whatever you have planned.

It does have more features though, with a wireless NIC included in addition to gigabit, and there's a memory card reader, and two extra USB 2.0 ports. Storage is limited to one 2.5-inch drive, which the larger NUC variants support in addition to mSATA. eSATA and consumer IR are also included and well-publicized on the box and pamphlet but these details are strangely absent from the official specifications.



Box and contents.



Assembly guide.



Support disc and flash drive.



Power adapter.

Unlike most fanless systems the CI540 Nano doesn't use its chassis for cooling, at least not directly. The main heatsink is inside and the plastic case around it is heavily ventilated. Included in the package is a power adapter, a WiFi antenna, VESA mounting bracket (not pictured), screws, an impressive fully-illustrated assembly guide in multiple languages, and both a disc and small USB flash drive containing the necessary drivers. The flash drive is a surprising but welcome addition that should be more common, especially as many modern PCs, especially notebooks, lack optical drives. The power brick is a Delta model with a class V efficient rating, and can output 19V/2.1A for a total of 40W.

PHYSICAL DETAILS & ASSEMBLY

The Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano has a plastic exterior with dimensions measuring
12.7 x 12.7 x 4.7 cm or 5.0 x 5.0 x 1.9 inches (W x D x H). Its footprint is
somewhat larger than the NUC but the overall difference is small. It's a bit
taller than the NUC units we've reviewed but looks far better proportioned than
the tall NUCs with 2.5-inch drive support.



Front features: power button, status LEDs, IR receiver, memory card reader, line-out, microphone, 2 x USB 2.0.



Ports at the rear: DC power, DisplayPort, HDMI, 4 x USB 3.0, RJ45 (gigabit), eSATA, wireless antenna.



The entire exterior is blanketed with a honeycomb pattern punched into every side except the front.



Like the NUC, the ZBOX can be VESA-mounted and access to the interior is facilitated through four screws at the bottom.



Popping off the cover reveals the trace side of the motherboard, an Intel wireless adapter, a single SODIMM slot, and a 2.5 inch drive mount.



We tested the CI540 Nano with a Kingston HyperX 3K SSD and a single stick of Mushkin Blackline DDR3-1600 (1.35V SODIMM required).

TESTING

System Configuration:

  • Intel Core i5-4210Y processor (included) - 1.5~1.9 GHz, 22nm, 11.5W, Intel HD Graphics 4200
  • Delta ADP-40KD DC power supply (included) - 19V, 40W (stock)
  • Mushkin Enhanced Blackline SO-DIMM memory - 1x4GB, DDR3-1600, CL9
  • Kingston HyperX 3K
    solid state drive - 2.5-inch, 120GB
  • Microsoft
    Windows 7 Ultimate
    operating system, 64-bit



Test configuration device listing.

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Timed CPU Benchmark Test Details

  • Adobe Photoshop: Image manipulation using a variety of filters, a derivation
    of Driver Heaven's Photoshop
    Benchmark V3
    (test image resized to 4500x3499).
  • Eset NOD32: In-depth virus scan of a folder containing 32 files of varying
    size with many RAR and ZIP archives.
  • WinRAR: RAR archive creation with a folder containing 68 files of varying
    size (less than 50MB).
  • iTunes: Conversion of an MP3 file to AAC.
  • TMPGEnc Xpress: Encoding a XVID AVI file with VC-1.
  • HandBrake: Encoding a XVID AVI file with H.264.

3D Performance Benchmarks

Testing Procedures

Our main test procedure involves and recording the various temperatures and fan speeds, power consumption, and noise level, with the system in various states as we deemed appropriate. This includes idle, H.264 and Flash playback, video encoding with TMPGEnc, and full CPU and GPU load using Prime95/CPUBurn and FurMark. This is followed by a series of both CPU (timed tests of real-world applications) and GPU-centric (gaming tests and synthetics) benchmarks.

Certain services and features like Superfetch and System Restore are disabled
to prevent them from affecting our results.
We also make note if energy saving features like Cool'n'Quiet and SpeedStep
do not function properly.

TEST RESULTS

Energy Efficiency Comparison (externally powered systems)

For this type of system, the CI540 Nano was quite energy efficient on light
loads, idling at just 8W and using 13W when playing back video. However, despite
utilizing a processor with a lower TDP, it wasn't able to beat out the D54250WYK,
a Haswell-based NUC. Our guess is the difference is made up by the extra peripherals
the ZBOX has to support/power, namely the included a wireless adapter and memory
card reader. Also, as the NUC has a fan, it' may be better cooled, allowing
the electronics inside to operate more efficiently.

Energy efficient was much better on heavier loads as the Core i5-4210Y is limited to relatively modest clock speeds. The ZBOX pulled 3~4W less than the Haswell-based NUC and 2~3W less than the original.

Monitoring Software



AIDA64 vs. SpeedFan.

Unfortunately Zotac doesn't offer any sort of system monitoring utility for
the ZBOX so we tried out both AIDA64 and SpeedFan. Both applications picked
up a motherboard/system temperature sensor but the value was unusually high.
We later found that this reading dropped with increasing thermal load so it
seemed to be functioning in reverse. Overall, we had much more confidence in
AIDA64's data. It also registered a few different CPU sensors and core temperature
readings were corroborated by RealTemp, while SpeedFan's readings were consistently
15°C higher.

Thermal Performance

System Measurements (Extended Use)
System State
CPU Temp
HDD Temp
Ext. Temp*
System Power (AC)
Idle
52°C
42°C
39°C
8W
MPC-HC H.264 Playback
60°C
47°C
46°C
12W
TMPGEnc Video Encoding
81°C
61°C
57°C
18W
Prime95
96°C
64°C
70°C
23W
Resident Evil 5 Benchmark
96°C
65°C
72°C
25W
Prime95 + FurMark
98°C
68°C
74°C
24W
*measured at the hottest point on the top of the machine

Ambient temperature: 21°C.

Red boxes indicates overheating resulting in CPU throttling.

The CI540's cooling design leaves much to be desired as evidenced by the temperatures we recorded during our extended use tests. During video playback the CPU temperature reached 60°C, video encoding pushed that figure to a balmy 81°C, and a scorching 96°C was hit after a lengthy run of Prime95. During our heavier load tests, the hottest portion of the exterior (near the Zotac logo on the top of the chassis) eclipsed the 70°C mark.

Despite the considerable heat being produced, CPU throttling was not detected
until the integrated graphics were heavily taxed. The CPU operated in the 1.5~1.7
GHz range during the first run of the Resident Evil 5 Benchmark but after looping
for about half an hour, we found it had dropped to 0.9~1.0 GHz. Our most demanding
test, Prime95 with FurMark running simultaneously, hobbled the i5-4210Y, forcing
it to run between 0.6 and 1.0 GHz.

Do keep in mind that Prime95 and FurMark are torture stress programs that push
the CPU to much high power draw than any program you'd normally run. These are
absolute worst case scenarios, and there
is well-documented evidence that current Intel CPUs run fine up to ~100°C
.

System Measurements: ZBOX CI540 Nano vs. Fanless Intel NUC
System
ZBOX CI540 Nano

(i5-4210Y)
Intel NUC (i5-4250U) w/ Akasa Tesla H
System State
H.264 Playback
TMPGEnc Video Encoding
H.264 Playback
TMPGEnc Video Encoding
CPU Temp
60°C
81°C
53°C
69°C
Ext. Temp*
46°C
57°C
39°C
41°C
System Power (AC)
12W
18W
9W
20W
*measured at the hottest point on the top of the machine

Results adjusted for ambient temperature of 21°C.

The most comparable fanless system we have data on is from the Akasa
Tesla H
, which we used to house the interior of a NUC with an i5-4250U
processor. During video encoding, the CI540 Nano's exterior was 16°C hotter
and the CPU was beaten by 12°C. It's a considerable difference but keep
in mind the Tesla H is an aftermarket case with a more substantial chassis that
uses much of is exterior as a big heatsink.

 

CPU Performance



Compared to other SFF PCs and embedded motherboard systems, the CI540's Core
i5-4210Y CPU is a middling processor for single-threaded tests and substantially
worse in multi-threaded applications. This is not a surprise when you consider
its low clock speed range of 1.5 to 1.9 GHz.

We arrived at our relative CPU performance score by giving each system/chip a proportional
score in each real world benchmark with each test having an equal weighting.
The scale has been adjusted so that the CI540 Nano is the reference point with
a score of 100. By this metric, the Core i5-4210Y falls well short of its Haswell brother, the Core i5-4250U. Its performance was much closer to that of the Ivy Bridge based Core i3-3217U in the original NUC.

GPU Performance

The Core i5-4210Y features Intel's HD 4200 graphics with 20 EUs (execution units) and a clock speed of 200 to 850 MHz. Synthetic tests peg its performance at a similar level to the Core i7-3770K, an Ivy Bridge desktop CPU with HD 4000 graphics with 16 EUs but much higher clock speeds of 650 to 1150 MHz.

In a pair of real game benchmark tests, the ZBOX had a slight advantage over other small systems with entry-level integrated graphics but not enough to make for a better experience — you can still expect low framerates at low resolutions. Despite having a similar graphics engine to the i7-3770K, the lower clock speeds seemed to severely hamper what it could do.

Boot Performance

To test boot time, the BIOS/UEFI was optimized by setting the hard drive recognition and other delays set to minimum, taking care not to disable common functionality like full USB support, POST messages, etc., and we measured the time required to reach the Windows 7 loading screen (we stop here because this is the point where the speed of the drive becomes a factor.

Like the NUC and Gigabyte BRIX Pro, the ZBOX wastes little time on the pre-boot sequence. It reached in Windows loading screen in just 6.5 seconds.

Wireless Performance

The CI540 Nano is equipped with an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 adapter but we found its performance somewhat disappointing, which was surprising considering Intel's reputation in regards to NICs. On our file transfer speed, it averaged about 40 mbps both ways, significantly less than the last few WiFi-capable systems we've tested.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We're no strangers to fanless systems but they typically involve using a sizable
portion of the external casing as massive heatsinks, giving them a very industrial
look. By comparison, the Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano comes out of left field with
its heavily ventilated plastic chassis and the cooling component tucked away
inside. The end result isn't ideal as the machine runs quite hot when pressed
to do anything substantial but our sample remained completely stable no matter
what we threw at it. The only caveat was CPU throttling during GPU-intensive
tasks that pushed the system to its thermal limits. This issue is not big in
the grand scheme of things as this occurred only during artificially high power
torture tests.

The CI540 Nano's main competition is obviously the Intel NUC line. The NUC
D54250WYK
we reviewed late last year is comparable in price but sports
the superior Core i5-4250U processor with HD 5000 graphics, and more memory
support, up to 16GB in dual channel. Both systems are relatively energy efficient,
with the NUC using less power on light loads while the ZBOX used less power
when heavily taxed. The NUC chassis is more elegant and has a slightly smaller
footprint and shorter body, though a more ungainly tall NUC variant (D54250WYKH1)
is sold with 2.5-inch drive support in addition to mSATA as well as eSATA for
the same price.

The ZBOX's main selling point is passive cooling. The NUC does have a fan that
gets noisy under load, but under typical conditions, it stays relatively quiet.
The ZBOX also blessed it with more features by including a wireless 802.11ac/BlueTooth
adapter with external antenna, a built-in memory card reader, and a couple of
additional USB ports. The overall package feels more complete and considerate
as well, as evidenced by the detailed assembly guide and the driver disc being
accompanied by a USB flash drive version. The NUC doesn't even ship with a disc,
and for some reason all the Haswell versions lack full-sized HDMI and DisplayPort
outputs, which for many users means having to purchase a separate adapter.

With an SSD, both barebones systems are fairly snappy and perfectly suitable
for the typical grind of a lay person, surfing the web, data processing, video
and audio playback, etc. so perhaps Zotac's approach is better balanced. They've
cut back a touch on horsepower to give users more extras and a completely silent
computing experience. The NUC is a more meat and potatoes type of system, focusing
on the core: Computational power, graphics, memory, and storage. It's a somewhat
better machine for getting work done, but chances are if the work is of any
importance, a much faster desktop or laptop is warranted.

Our thanks to Zotac
for the ZBOX CI540 Nano sample.



The Zotac ZBOX CI540 Nano is recommended by SPCR

* * *

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