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Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano Mini-PC Review

Subject: Systems
Manufacturer: Zotac

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.

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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.

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Continue reading our review of the Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano!!

The only significant drawback that I saw at the outset was the clock speed of Celeron CPU, which is a scant 1.10 GHz, probably necessary for its Haswell cores to stay within its 11.5 W TDP. This still represents both lower clocks and higher power consumption than the Atom-based mini-PC's I’ve tested. Still, Haswell architecture will provide higher instructions per clock and that should mitigate the impact of such a low-speed CPU.

First we'll check out specifications:

Zotac ZBOX CI321 nano
Processor Intel Celeron 2961Y (dual-core, 1.1 GHz)
Graphics Intel HD Graphics
Memory 2 x 204-pin SO-DIMM (supports up to 16GB 1600 MHz DDR3L)
Storage SATA 6.0 Gb/s, 2.5-inch Hard Drive/SSD support
Ethernet 2x 10/100/1000Mbps
Wireless 802.11ac + Bluetooth 4.0
Audio 3.5mm analog stereo output, 8-ch via HDMI S/PDIF
Card Reader 3-in-1 (SD/SDHC/SDXC)
Video Output 1x HDMI, 1x DisplayPort
USB Ports 4x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
OS (Not included) Supports Windows 7, 8, 8.1
Price MSRP $139

First Impressions

First we have a look at the packaging and contents.

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Included with the ZBOX CI321 nano is a power adapter, optical digital adapter (for the unit's 3.5 mm combo audio jack) and a VESA mount. There is clearly a focus on the living room with this device, beginning with the passive cooling for silent operation.

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There's quite a bit going on with the front panel, which in addition to the power button and activity lights also has an SDXC slot, combo 3.5 mm headphone/optical audio jack, 3.5 mm microphone jack, IR receiver, and two USB 3.0 ports. Of note is that 3.5 mm combo jack, which provides the digital audio output via the included toslink adapter. The front location would make it impossible to hide that cable completely in a home theater environment; though with the lights on the front it likely wouldn't be oriented that way in a living room anyway.

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The back has the power jack, DisplayPort and standard HDMI, dual Gigabit NICs (nice!), another pair of USB 3.0 ports to go along with a single USB 2.0 port, and finally the removable wireless antenna.

Next we'll look at a quick build and see how this version of the ZBOX nano performed!


June 25, 2015 | 11:42 AM - Posted by funandjam

How would a box like this perform streaming games from Steam on a high-end PC in the next room?

(Assuming that this little box is hardwired for network connection)

June 25, 2015 | 12:30 PM - Posted by Cory (not verified)

Also interested in this

June 25, 2015 | 01:16 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

Great question, and I will test this out. There was a lot more to do to really explore the functionality of this mini PC. The dual NICs also provide a custom router possibility.

June 25, 2015 | 04:38 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

Ja, this may make one killer pfSense box - dual GbE and AC???!??
https://youtu.be/DcJFdCmN98s

The low clock speed of the 2961Y with no turbo and no HT might interfere with Steam Streaming, but should be enough for a really nice router.

June 25, 2015 | 01:19 PM - Posted by remc86007

For what it's worth, my A10-4657m stutters through 1080p60 HTML5 ever since a driver update a couple months ago, but it isn't due to the CPU load (around 20% on all cores). Is it possible the intel drivers just aren't cooperating on this machine too? It seems like a dual core Haswell part even at only 1.1GHz could handle 1080p60 if the hardware acceleration is working.

June 25, 2015 | 01:48 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

That might be the case, actually. I used the driver provided by Zotac on the product page, but I can try a new clean install and get the latest Intel drivers.

June 25, 2015 | 02:57 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

I thought immediately this could be a neat little pfSense box

July 2, 2015 | 06:57 PM - Posted by savagemike

I thought the same thing about a driver issue perhaps as it's really incredible that even a low clocked Haswell part would have trouble playing BlueRay or mkv files decently.

June 25, 2015 | 02:12 PM - Posted by JPCRacing24 (not verified)

For a HTPC I bought a Zotac Zbox Nano at the beginning of the year, but I bought the Quad Core version. It said 4K ready, and does an awesome job at playing Blu-Ray movies. I haven't tested it at 4K but have been very impressed with the 1080p performance! It also does well at streaming my games from my main pc.

June 25, 2015 | 02:23 PM - Posted by erod20 (not verified)

Would you try installing openelec this pc? Openelec is a custom version of linux that uses kodi for media. It has built in support for video acceleration on Intel hardware.

June 25, 2015 | 10:39 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

That sounds interesting. I'll try it out. I think there have been enough good suggestions in the comments to warrant a followup post!

June 25, 2015 | 03:57 PM - Posted by sanadanosa

This is what I'm looking for. I wonder why others (inclding intel) use bay trail with inferior igp instead.

June 25, 2015 | 05:45 PM - Posted by Mobile_Dom

Interesting, personally i think i would have preferred a review on the AMD version, just because there isnt a heck of a lot of info on that one from sites i trust, might just bite the bullet though

June 25, 2015 | 08:05 PM - Posted by Glenn Van Acker (not verified)

I purchased one of these little guys and what a fantast machine. Enough USB ports for added storage, disc drive and much more.

June 25, 2015 | 09:04 PM - Posted by Richardg (not verified)

Morning
Thanks for the review
How is this cpu compared to the CI320 which is
quad core and 1.8Ghz clock?
thanks

June 25, 2015 | 10:48 PM - Posted by Sebastian Peak

This CI321 was noticeably faster across the board compared to the Bay Trail N2808 I used in the ECS LIVA X computer, and the CI320 uses an N2930 (also Bay Trail) Atom CPU that isn't much faster than the N2808.

The Haswell-based processor in the CI321 might only have two cores running at 1.1 GHz, but it seemed a heck of a lot more powerful than the quad-core Bay Trail SoCs I've tried. Still, I need to go back and do some CPU benchmarking to find out in a more scientific way (and not just drawing conclusions subjectively).

June 26, 2015 | 02:02 AM - Posted by Pixy Misa (not verified)

A direct comparison with both single and mult-threaded loads would be very welcome. At $139, this is tempting even with the limited CPU.

June 26, 2015 | 02:33 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

are these intel nics?

July 3, 2015 | 08:52 AM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

would really like to know this as well!!

July 3, 2015 | 09:17 PM - Posted by Anonymous (not verified)

OK I found it on their web site. The driver download says Realtek GLAN so I believe it is safe to say they are not Intel NICs. Deal breaker.

June 28, 2015 | 12:22 PM - Posted by Robert Jones (not verified)

When will the CI321 show up in the US and who will have them?

June 28, 2015 | 05:04 PM - Posted by Yannick (not verified)

Just purchased this online, it will be my new pFsense box =) Hopefully works good with it. Cant wait to receive it!

July 2, 2015 | 03:28 PM - Posted by Blasius (not verified)

I have just purchased one. I was thinking about installing a sleek Linux distro, but finally decided to go with Windows 8.1, as I am much more familiar with it, and I needed to use the machine for productivity immediately. I installed 4GB 1600 RAM and a 60GB relatively fast SSD, and I use a single full HD screen. The goal was to keep total costs at a minimum. I can confirm that the CI321 is totally excellent for standard office work: Email client, browser with multiple windows, Office2013 (Word and PowerPoint), and music streaming run perfectly in parallel. I admit that as a lawyer I am not a power user in terms of complexity (no big docs, databases, graphics, videos), but for my needs it is perfect. I do not experience slowdowns, noticeable waiting times, etc. And this is a _big_ compliment, as the previous system I used was a HP EliteBook with Core i7 and SSD. I am not saying the single fan in the HP was noisy, as it was not, but still, sitting all day long in complete silence is such a refreshing change!!

July 19, 2015 | 03:35 PM - Posted by ssartor (not verified)

This looks like a great little box for a home router but I can't find one for sale! Neither Newegg nor Amazon carry it. Anybody know where to get one?

July 27, 2015 | 05:34 AM - Posted by Fred M. (not verified)

I share your pain. It's been more than half a year since the introduction of the CI321 and they seem to be unavailable in the U.S. No retailers have U.S. Zotac CI321 systems. Emails to Zotac go unanswered or they get a worthless 'check with distributors', none of whom seem to know anything about the CI321.

July 31, 2015 | 06:57 PM - Posted by Bootbill

Newegg has them in stock.

August 15, 2015 | 08:38 AM - Posted by daf (not verified)

I wonder what the wattage is at the wall socket, in idle and under heavy load. Don't you think that for a device like this, that is one of the most important questions?

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