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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  • Assimilator87 - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    You guys are forgetting that the NUC and related SFF PCs all use mobile chips. If you want a full Kaveri with 512 shaders, the FX-7600P has a 35W TDP. For something with similar TDP to the i5 U, there's the FX-7500 at 19W, although that only has 384 shaders.
  • Voldenuit - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    Needs copper foam afro.
  • Bobs_Your_Uncle - Sunday, August 3, 2014 - link

    Given the spherical nature of this beast, maybe even a copper foam Goatee would be a stylish compliment to the fro action.

    ( Scratching your head? => )
  • know of fence - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    Any chance that those Benchmarks find their way into Bench?
    I'd really appreciate some perspective of just how a dual core i5 fits into the full picture or how it compares to the 10W 4C/4T J1900 CPUs formerly known as Bay Trail, which also come with 9-19VDC adapters and are available as mini-ITX boards.
    With the piddly cooling system being the Achilles heel of these SFFs, some noise testing would be appreciated.
  • Josh Peck - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    It's only the most sophisticated gaming experience ever created by humans.
    And it's spherical!
  • arod916 - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    Looks like the design was ripped off from the Nexus Q. Google could sue them hmmm.
  • M/2 - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    A Mac Mini is the same price... why do Mini's never make the "compared to" list? You can run MS & Linux as well as OSX on a Mini.... At the risk of being called a Fanboy (they're all JUST MACHINES). IMHO, I'd still opt for a Mini
  • M/2 - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    PS: Sound is the only thing I see that may be better than a mini. Mini's have options for i7, 2 memory slots, so someone tell why this hardware set (or most of the others) are better?
  • Iketh - Friday, August 1, 2014 - link

    what's a "mac" ?
  • FelixDraconis - Saturday, August 2, 2014 - link

    The mini is lacking the newest Haswell chip, which should hopefully come soon. Should be an even better value proposition.

    But people also didn't take into account that it comes with an OS, whereas the Zotac does not.

    We often use Mac Minis for light servers and compile machines, as you can fit a whole bunch of them in a small space and span virtual screens with software. They're not amazing but they're solid and dependable and get the job done.

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