Introduction and First Impressions
The Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano is a mini PC kit in the vein of the Intel NUC, and this version features a completely fanless design with built-in wireless for silent integration into just about any location. So is it fast enough to be an HTPC or desktop productivity machine? We will find out here.
I have reviewed a couple of mini-PCs in the past few months, most recently the ECS LIVA X back in January. Though the LIVA X was not really fast enough to be used as a primary device it was small and inexpensive enough to be an viable product depending on a user’s needs. One attractive aspect of the LIVA designs, and any of the low-power computers introduced recently, is the passive nature of such systems. This has unfortunately resulted in the integration of some pretty low-performance CPUs to stay within thermal (and cost) limits, but this is beginning to change. The ZBOX nano we’re looking at today carries on the recent trend of incorporating slightly higher performance parts as its Intel Celeron processor (the 2961Y) is based on Haswell, and not the Atom cores at the heart of so many of these small systems.
Another parallel to the Intel NUC is the requirement to bring your own memory and storage, and the ZBOX CI321 nano accepts a pair of DDR3 SoDIMMs and 2.5” storage drives. The Intel Celeron 2961Y processor supports up to 1600 MHz dual-channel DDR3L which allows for much higher memory bandwidth than many other mini-PCs, and the storage controller supports SATA 6.0 Gbps which allows for higher performance than the eMMC storage found in a lot of mini-PCs, depending on the drive you choose to install. Of course your mileage will vary depending on the components selected to complete the build, but it shouldn’t be difficult to build a reasonably fast system.
If you’re a fan of digital video and music, you’ve likely heard the name “Plex” floating around. Plex (not to be confused with EVE Online’s in-game subscription commodity) is free media center software that lets users manage and stream a wide array of videos, audio files, and pictures to virtually any computer and a growing number of mobile devices and electronics. As a Plex user from the very beginning, I’ve seen the software change and evolve over the years into the versatile and powerful service it is today.
My goal with this article twofold. First, as an avid Plex user, I’d like to introduce the software to users have yet to hear about or try it. Second, for those already using or experimenting with Plex, I hope that I can provide some “best practices” when it comes to configuring your servers, managing your media, or just using the software in general.
Before we dive into the technical aspects of Plex, let’s look at a brief overview of the software’s history and the main components that comprise the Plex ecosystem today.
Although now widely supported on a range of platforms, Plex was born in early 2008 as an OS X fork of the Xbox Media Center project (XBMC). Lovingly named “OSXBMC” (get it?) by its creators, the software was initially a simple media player for Mac, with roughly the same capabilities as the XBMC project from which it was derived. (Note: XBMC changed its name to “Kodi” in August, although you’ll still find plenty of people referring to the software by its original name).
A few months into the project, the OSXBMC team decided to change the name to “Plex” and things really started to take off for the nascent media software. Unlike the XBMC/Kodi community, which focused its efforts primarily on the playback client, the Plex team decided to bifurcate the project with two distinct components: a dedicated media server and a dedicated playback client.
The dedicated media server made Plex unique among its media center peers. Once properly set up, it gave users with very little technical knowledge the ability to maintain a server that was capable of delivering their movies, TV shows, music, and pictures on demand throughout the house and, later, the world. We'll take a more detailed look at each of the Plex components next.
The “brains” behind the entire Plex ecosystem is Plex Media Server (PMS). This software, available for Windows, Linux, and OS X, manages your media database, metadata, and any necessary transcoding, which is one of its best features. Although far from error-free, the PMS encoding engine can convert virtually any video codec and container on the fly to a format requested by a client device. Want to play a high-bitrate 1080p MKV file with a 7.1 DTS-HD MA soundtrack on your Roku? No problem; Plex will seamlessly transcode that high quality source file to the proper format for Roku, as well as your iPad, or your Galaxy S5, and many other devices, all without having to store multiple copies of your video files.
Introduction: The HTPC Slims Down
There are many reasons to consider a home theater PC (HTPC) these days, and aside from the full functionality of a personal computer an HTPC can provide unlimited access to digital content from various sources. “Cord-cutting”, the term adopted for cancelling one’s cable or satellite TV service in favor of streaming content online, is gaining steam. Of course there are great self-contained solutions for streaming like the Roku and Apple TV, and one doesn't have to be a cord-cutter to use an HTPC for TV content, as CableCard users will probably tell you. But for those of us who want more control over our entertainment experience the limitless options provided by a custom build makes HTPC compelling. Small form-factor (SFF) computing is easier than ever with the maturation of the Mini-ITX form factor and decreasing component costs.
The Case for HTPC
For many prospective HTPC builders the case is a major consideration rather than an afterthought (it certainly is for me, anyway). This computer build is not only going into the most visible room in many homes, but the level of noise generated by the system is of concern as well. Clearly, searching for the perfect enclosure for the living room can be a major undertaking depending on your needs and personal style. And as SFF computing has gained popularity in the marketplace there are a growing number of enclosures being introduced by various manufacturers, which can only help in the search for the perfect case.
A manufacturer new on the HTPC enclosure scene is a company called Perfect Home Theater, a distributor of high-end home theater components. The enclosures from P.H.T. are slick looking aluminum designs supporting the gamut of form-factors from ATX all the way down to thin mini-ITX. The owner of Perfect Home Theater, Zygmunt Wojewoda, is also the designer of the ultra low-profile enclosure we’re looking at today, the T-ITX-6.
As you can see it is a wide enclosure, built to match the width of standard components. And it’s really thin. Only 40mm tall, or 48mm total including the feet. Naturally this introduces more tradeoffs for the end user, as the build is strictly limited to thin mini-ITX motherboards. Though the enclosure is wide enough to theoretically house an ATX motherboard, the extremely low height would prevent it.
Often times, one of the suggestions of what to do with older PC components is to dedicate it to a Home Theater PC. While in concept this might seem like a great idea, you can do a lot of things with full control over the box hooked up to your TV, I think it's a flawed concept.
With a HTPC, some of the most desired traits include low power consumption, quiet operation, all while maintaining a high performance level so you can do things like transcode video quickly. Older components that you have outgrown don't tend to be nearly as efficient as newer components. To have a good HTPC experience, you really want to pick components from the ground up, which is why I was excited to take a look at the Steiger Dynamics Maven Core HTPC.
As it was shipped to us, our Maven Core is equipped with an Intel Core i5-4690K and an NVIDIA GTX 980. By utilizing two of the most power efficient architectures available, Intel's Haswell and NVIDIA's Maxwell, the Maven should be able to sip power while maintaining low temperature and noise. While a GTX 980 might be overkill for just HTPC applications, it opens up a lot of possibilities for couch-style PC gaming with things like Steam Big Picture mode.
From the outside, the hand-brushed aluminum Steiger Dynamics system takes the form of traditional high-end home theater gear. At 6.85-in tall, or almost 4U if you are comfortable with that measurement system, the Maven Core is a large device, but does not stand out in a collection of AV equipment. Additionally, when you consider the standard Blu-Ray drive and available Ceton InfiniTV Quad PCIe CableCARD tuner giving this system the capability of replacing both a cable set top box and dedicated Blu-Ray player all together, the size becomes easier to deal with.
Digging deeper into the hardware specs of the Maven Core we find some familiar components. The Intel Core i5-4690K sits in an ASUS Z97-A motherboard along with 8GB of Corsair DDR3-1866 memory. For storage we have a 250GB Samsung 840 EVO SSD paired with a Western Digital 3TB Hard Drive for mass storage of your media.
Cooling for the CPU is provided by a Corsair H90 with a single Phanteks fan to help keep the noise down. Steiger Dynamics shipped our system with a Seasonic Platinum-series 650W power supply, including their custom cabling option. For $100, they will ship your system with custom, individually sleeved Power Supply and SATA drive cables. The sleeving and cable management are impressive, but $100 would be a difficult upsell of a PC that you are likely never going to see the inside of.
As we mentioned earlier, this machine also shipped with a Ceton InfiniTV 4 PCIe CableCARD tuner. While CableCARD is a much maligned technology that never really took off, when you get it working it can be impressive. Our impressions of the InfiniTV can be found later in this review.
ECS hosted a press event in the third week of August to unveil its new product lineup and corporate direction. The press event, named "Live, Liva, Lead, L337", lays out the important aspects of the "new ECS" and its intended market direction. They introduced the LIVA mini computer with integrated 32GB and 64GB integrated SSDs, their Z97-based product line-up, and the North America LIVA design contest.
Their naming of the event was apropos to their renewed corporate vision with the first two terms, Live and LIVA, referencing their LIVA mini-PC platform. ECS developed the name LIVA by combining the words Live and Viva (Life in Spanish), signifying the LIVA line's aim at integrating itself into your daily routine and providing the ability to live a better life. Lead signifies ECS' desire to become a market leader in the Mini-PC space with their LIVA platform as well as become a more dominant player in the PC space. The last term, L337, is a reference to their L337 Gaming line of motherboards, a clear reminder of their Z97 offerings to be unveiled.
ECS seeks to consolidate its product lines, re-focusing its energy on what it excels at - offering quality products at reasonable prices. ECS seeks to leverage its corporate partnerships and design experience to build products equivalent to competitor lines at a much reduced cost to the end user. This renewed focus on quality and the end user led to a much revised Z97 board lineup in comparison to its Z87-based offerings. Additionally, their newly introduced mini-PC line, branded LIVA, seeks to offer a cheaper all-in-one alternative to the Intel NUC and GIGABYTE BRIX systems.
Subject: General Tech | September 5, 2014 - 12:35 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: linux, wine, htpc, Netflix, ubuntu 14.04
As with all things Linux, nothing is impossible but that doesn't mean it will be easy but compared to many projects the steps at Linux.com to set up Ubuntu, Linux Mint or Deepin to run Netflix are not overly onerous. By following the steps in the article you can get Wine, Mono, msttcorefonts and Gecko installed and then continue on to install Netflix and in very little time you will be streaming videos. There is another way for the more experimental and seasoned Linux user, with the latest beta or dev build of Chrome an updated libnss3 and a little tweaking of your browsers user agent string you can also launch the latest version of Netflix. Enjoy your streaming.
"This is Linux, though, so as always the adage ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ very much applies. With just a few quick steps, you can have a Netflix client on your desktop. This client does require the installation of the following extras:"
Here is some more Tech News from around the web:
- Intel reveals Core M specs, performance @ The Tech Report
- IFA: Intel launches 14nm fanless Core M processor for 2-in-1 devices @ The Inquirer
- Hey hipsters: Tabs are so last year, fat phones are where it's at @ The Register
- Galaxy Note 4 release date, specs and price @ The Inquirer
- Twitpic Shutting Down Over Trademark Dispute @ Slashdot
- 4th Century GOBLET could REVIVE CORPSE of holographic storage @ The Register
Subject: General Tech, Systems | September 3, 2014 - 07:23 PM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: fanless, htpc, windows, Android
Because fanless and cheap PCs are awesome, MINIX is launching the Neo Z64. Priced at $129 USD, it will contain an Intel Atom Z3635F SoC with 2GB of DDR3L and 32GB of eMMC internal storage. The device will ship loaded with Android 4.4.4 (KitKat) but is compatible with Windows 8.1, if you have a license for it.
Externally, the device features a microSD card slot (maximum size not specified), one 10/100Mbps Ethernet port, two USB 2.0 ports, an IR receiver (with remote), and HDMI 1.4. Note that HDMI is the only audio outputs on this device, which could be tricky if you want to run it as something other than a home theater PC (if you do not have a USB sound card that is compatible with your chosen OS). Lastly, it also has 802.11n and Bluetooth 4.0 wireless support.
This is still a significant price premium over some other devices, like a Roku, but could be useful for some. The lack of any SteamOS mention is a bit disconcerting, given that the free OS could be applied to turn the device into an In-Home Streaming target (or host of simple, Linux-compatible games, like Super Meat Boy). Hopefully, future products will consider Valve's home theater platform.
The MINIX Neo Z64 will be available in October for $129.
Subject: General Tech | September 3, 2014 - 01:50 AM | Scott Michaud
Tagged: steam os, steam, htpc
In a recent Steam Beta update, Valve added a few new entries to its EAppType structure. Previously, the options were invalid, game, application, tool, demo, media, DLC, guide, driver, config, shortcut, and "depotonly". The recent update adds five new ones: film, TV series, video, plugin, and music.
These additions could mean that Steam is intending to distribute film, TV, video, plugins, and music; alternatively, it could just allow users to integrate existing catalogs into the same interface. Of course, this is coming from someone with just about zero knowledge of Steam's internal structure. Someone who is more familiar with Steam might be able to say that I am stupid and this specific enum structure is only used the interface with the catalog or the store. I do not know.
What I am confident in saying is that Valve is serious about making Steam a full home theater PC platform. At LinuxCon, prior to the announcement of SteamOS, Gabe Newell discussed the family ownership (and sharing) of music and movie libraries right alongside his discussion of video games. Whether they want to deal with media company relations is a different story, however.
But let's not get too caught up in media for a second. What is a "plugin"?
This entry was what really caught my eye. Could Valve be designing a plugin architecture for the Steam client? Its built in web browser (or third-party browsers if Valve allows)? Or could it be a method of delivering user content for other apps on their system (similar to how DLC has its own type). If it is a Steam Client or SteamOS plugin, what would that even entail? I am definitely curious.
Subject: Systems | August 27, 2014 - 01:08 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: zotac, zbox, PI320 pico, baytrail, win 8.1, htpc
Zotac's tiny new ZBOX PI320 pico should arrive in stores towards the end of September for $200, which includes not only the hardware but Win 8.1 meaning you can simply plug it in and start using it. At 115.5mm x 66mm x 19.2mm (4.5" x 2.6"x 0.75") it is smaller than your average Galaxy smartphone and every bit as capable.
HONG KONG – Aug. 27, 2014 – ZOTAC International, a global innovator and manufacturer of graphics cards and mini-PCs, today shrinks the mini-PC further with the pocket-sized ZBOX PI320 pico. The new ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico delivers a superb quad-core Windows 8.1 with Bing computing experience in a compact and versatile form factor.
“ZOTAC is a major innovator when it comes to miniaturizing the traditional PC. We began our push towards smaller and smaller mini-PCs with the ZBOX nano form factor and followed up with the ZBOX nano XS,” said Tony Wong, CEO, ZOTAC International. “Now with the all-new ZBOX PI320 pico, we have created our smallest mini-PC that can fit in your pocket.”
The pocketable form factor measures in at 115.5mm x 66mm x 19.2mm, which is roughly the same size as a small smartphone. Thanks to the tiny size, the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico is the perfect mini-PC for any room in a house, specialized installations, and for seasoned travelers on the go.
At the heart of the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico is an Intel Baytrail quad-core processor with Intel HD Graphics technology for snappy system responsiveness and stunning high-definition video playback capabilities. The very energy-efficient processor is cooled with a fan-less heatsink that generates zero noise for an excellent silent computing experience.
Microsoft Windows 8.1 with Bing is preinstalled on the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico mini- PC for instant out-of-box use. Just unbox the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico, plug it in, connect peripherals, and power it on.
The ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico ships with 2GB of DDR3L memory and 32GB solid-state storage with a micro SDXC slot to instantly increase storage up to 128GB. External expansion is available via three USB 2.0 ports on the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico.
A single HDMI output that’s capable of up to 1080p resolution enables the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico to easily connect to most LCD monitors and displays. High-speed 10/100 Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth 4.0 technologies ensure the ZOTAC ZBOX PI320 pico delivers fast networking performance with and without wires.
Subject: Systems | August 22, 2014 - 01:44 PM | Jeremy Hellstrom
Tagged: SFF, sale, LIVA, htpc, fanless, ECS
The ECS LIVA is currently on sale at NewEgg for $165 after instant rebate and you can knock another $33 of that price until August 31st with the code LIVADISC.
This tiny little machine contains a Bay Trail-M N2807 @ 1.58GHz, 2GB of DDR3L and 32GB eMMC storage with 802.11a/b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.0 thanks to the NGFF card installed in the M.2 slot. As you can see below it has both HDMI and D-Sub ports which can be used simultaneously and has onboard stereo audio thanks to the Realtek ALC282. It only draws 15W and is completely fanless, making it a perfect HTPC. You can get the full specs from ECS here.