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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  • heffeque - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    Why weren't 2 slot memory + ssd benchmarks posted?
  • biffzinker - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    The motherboard only has one slot, bandwidth to the CPU/iGPU is cut in half (out of 25.6 GB/s.)
  • biffzinker - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    My bad it has two slots, so yeah why wasn't it tested with two sticks?
  • ct909 - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    We deployed a number of the D54250WYKH units, and although the i5-4250U is not in the same league as the i7-4770R of the Brix, for standard office apps, they work well enough.

    Apart from the usual "I like it but could I have a faster one" request, the wish-list feature that seemed to get the most requests was a QI charger built into the lid, so you can place your phone on the computer to re-charge - we have them sitting on the desk.

    It seems that Intel are planning this for the next iteration, and personally, I can't see that working with a sphere.
  • Impulses - Tuesday, August 5, 2014 - link

    Hmm, phones usually get a little warmer charging thru Qi, not sure I'd want that atop a small form factor case... Unless you're working in like a 3ft cubicle or something.
  • ct909 - Thursday, August 7, 2014 - link

    Intel have this feature on the roadmap for the next version, so presumably it will be designed to manage any heat issue.
  • duploxxx - Monday, August 4, 2014 - link

    intel GPU 4400 on the 15W part so downscaled like hell in combo with a default HD...
    The kaveri a10-7300 with 19W and SSD for the same price would be awesome in that box.

    same price since intel cpu are way more expensive.
  • Haravikk - Monday, August 4, 2014 - link

    It's nice to see something a little different, but I can't help but feel like they could have utilised the space better. For example, an internal PSU that occupies some of the extra internal space. I dunno, I just think it'd be more pleasing to have a unit that has nothing coming out of it besides a power cable and monitor cable, a brick kind of spoils that IMO. It also seems like it could have been a prime candidate for a passively cooled case, due to the sheer amount of surface area compared to the more compact, flat NUC systems.
  • briansmccrary - Tuesday, August 5, 2014 - link

  • Doomtomb - Saturday, August 9, 2014 - link

    Google Nexus Q much?

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