Introduction and Setup Impressions

The Intel NUC has created a very successful niche for itself in the SFF PC market. It provides us with insights into where the traditional casual / home use desktop market might end up. While vendors such as Logic Supply have taken the Intel NUC motherboard as the base and built effective designs on top of it, companies like Gigabyte have their own take with the BRIX lineup (which has more options compared to the traditional NUC line, including AM-based ones and NVIDIA GPU-equipped units). In this situation, we have Zotac come out with the ZBOX Sphere lineup. A motherboard tracing its origins (like the Intel-based BRIX units) to the Intel NUC, it differentiates itself mainly in its aesthetics. Even though the features like support for a mSATA SSD in addition to the standard 2.5" drive immediately remind users of the NUC, Zotac is itself no stranger to UCFF motherboards and systems. We have seen the Zotac nano xs units predate the NUC, making Zotac a pionner in this domain..Update: Zotac confirmed to us that the motherboard inside the OI520 is based off their existing Haswell-based nano units.

Zotac provides both barebones and Plus models, as is customary with all their pre-built PCs. The Plus model comes with a disk drive as well as some DRAM bundled. Our review configuration was the Plus model with the following configuration.

Zotac ZBOX Sphere OI520 Plus Specifications
Processor Intel Haswell Core i5-4200U
(2C/4T x 1.60 GHz (2.60 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 3MB L2, 15W)
Memory 1 x 4GB DDR3L-1600
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4400
200 MHz / 1 GHz (Turbo)
Disk Drive(s) 500 GB Seagate Spinpoint 2.5" HDD + Spare mSATA Slot
Networking 1 x Gigabit Ethernet, 1x1 802.11ac mPCIe
Audio Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (mini-HDMI / mini-DP 1.2)
Operating System

Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 8.1 x64

Pricing (As configured) $470 on Amazon
Full Specifications Zotac ZBOX Sphere OI520 Plus Specifications

The Zotac PCs don't come with any pre-installed OS, but we do have a read-only USB key with Windows drivers. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 65 W (19V @ 3.42A) adapter, a US power cord, a Quick Start guide and an user manual. We installed Windows 8.1 Professional x64 for our evaluation purposes.

There is no doubt that the ZBOX Sphere series owes its design aesthetics to the ill-fated Nexus Q. The rear of the unit has been modified a bit to accommodate the motherboard at an angle. Unlike some of the other mini-PCs that we have evaluated, this one ticks the right box in having a USB port on the side. The gallery below takes us around the hardware.

Prior to moving on with the rest of the review, we have a small table that gives an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the ZBOX OI520 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 OI520 when we come to those sections.

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect Zotac ZBOX OI520 Plus
CPU Intel Core i5-4200U Intel Core i7-4770R
GPU Intel HD Graphics 4400 Intel Iris Pro Graphics 5200
RAM Crucial CT51264BF160B.C16F
11-11-11-28 @ 1600 MHz
1x4 GB
Corsair Vengeance CMSX8GX3M2B1866C10
10-10-10-32 @ 1866 MHz
2x4 GB
Storage Samsung/Seagate Spinpoint M8 ST500LM012
(500 GB, 2.5in SATA, 5400 RPM)
Samsung SSD 840 EVO
(120 GB, 2.5in SATA 6Gb/s, 19nm, TLC)
Wi-Fi Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Realtek 8821AE Wireless LAN 802.11ac
(1x1 802.11ac - 433 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $499 $829


Performance Metrics - I
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  • wintermute000 - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    Do you call 729.95 the same price as 499?

    To paraphrase a genius as yourself, IMHO I'd still opt for anything without the apple tax kthxbye
  • tim851 - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    599 at Apple.

    Has a better CPU and an internal PSU, which makes the form factor more convenient.
  • Glaurung - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    Huh. Newegg must be smoking something. The exact same machine goes for $599 on the site: And when they're in stock, you can get a refurbished one (identical to new except it comes in a plain white box) for $509:
  • M/2 - Sunday, August 10, 2014 - link

    I used to use the AppleTax word myself. I used to build my own machines. Having two minis running 24x7 , the new one for 3 years straight, the old one 4 years. Thus, I'm over both of those habits. If you compare them side by side, spec by spec, you may see the so-called AppleTax is minimal at best. ....OBTW, it's just a machine, not a religion. Both of mine are buried in the behind all my other AV gear. I rarely touch them, they just work.
  • know of fence - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    You are absolutely right. The mac mini was the first to create this form factor in 2005, It was Apple's strategy to sell frequency constrained mobile parts as silent and eco-friendly. From tablets, ultrabooks to NUCs it's all just uninspired imitation.
    Buying a laptop is also always the better choice (same parts after all), which is why the minis aren't all that popular in the apple camp either.
  • Glaurung - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    "Buying a laptop is also always the better choice"

    Unless you're using it as a desktop or server and don't need or want to pay for the screen/keyboard/trackpad/battery.
  • know of fence - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    Thing is laptops can make great desktops or servers, but not vice versa. They don't look to shabby on the desk, the shelf or the living room either, and they come with an uninterruptable power supply build in.
    When everyone is on an electronic bugdet with almost omnipotent devices like smartphones, PCs, consoles all of which require replacement in perpetuity, is there room for a limited purpose blue skull, with a 281 $ Intel dual core?

    There is a sensible TDP limit for eco-friendly PCs, but it ain't 15 W. There is also no pupose to cramming a stationarry PC into a little box, beyond "neat". "Neat" doesn't sell, either, or help anyone to improve their social status.
  • wireframed - Monday, August 4, 2014 - link

    Laptops aren't designed for 24/7 usage, so no, they aren't great servers. Neither are they particularly expandable. Getting a few TB of storage into a laptop isn't cheap or easy. Neither is getting lots of RAM.
    As for desktops, sure, if you don't mind the premium. If you think the formfactor and screen come without a price, well...
    Lastly, laptops typically make more noise running full-tilt, or else they throttle. While this system probably doesn't run completely silent either, at least you don't pay the full laptop premium. The footprint is also smaller than a laptop (because laptops are low and wide, even when the volume is identical).
  • bobbozzo - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link


    1. How's the thermal performance?
    We'd probably leave it running 24/7 with a larger-capacity HDD installed

    2. I don't think 'Credentials' is the best word, in the title of page 4

  • ozzuneoj86 - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    They need to stop calling these things boxes if they're going to continue to make them spherical.

    Just sayin...

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