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Introduction

Promising the GPU prowess of ION with Atom-like power consumption, AMD’s Fusion E-series (Brazos) Accelerated Processing Unit (APU) finally enables truly minuscule small form factor (SFF) home theater PCs (HTPCs). Besides full hardware acceleration for important codecs like H.264/AVC, MPEG2 and VC-1, audio enthusiast finally have an alternative to Intel HD graphics for multi-channel LPCM and HD audio bitstreaming for Dolby TrueHD/DTS-MA. Sporting a 1.6GHz AMD E-350, the ZOTAC ZBOX Blu-ray AD03BR-PLUS-U all-in-on HTPC provides a chance to find out how AMD’s APU solution stacks up in the increasingly completive smallest-of-the-small HTPC market.

The ZBOX AD03BR-PLUS-U arrived in retail friendly packaging including a laptop-style power adapter, DVI-to-VGA (DSUB) adapter, manual, driver CD, and an OEM copy of CyberLink’s BD Solution in the box. An operating system (OS) was not included though, so buyer’s will need to purchase (or download in the case of Linux solutions) that separately. While the thought behind including BD Solution is appreciated, the revision of PowerDVD (PDVD 8) included on the disc is three versions behind the newest release (11) and lacks support for the ZBOX’s HD audio over HDMI feature, so it’s really just a stand-in until users purchase a more capable replacement. With that in mind, unless disc authoring is an important feature to you, I think a slightly lower MSRP is preferable to the outdated software bundle.

Zotac ZBOX AD03BR-PLUS-U Specifications
Dimensions 11.02” (280mm) x 7.36” (187mm) x 1.5” (40mm)
APU (CPU + GPU) AMD E-350 (2x 1.6GHz CPU + Radeon HD 6310)
RAM 1x 2GB DDR3-1066 (two slots available, 8GB max)
Optical Drive Slim slot loading Blu-ray (4x BD, 8x DVD-RW, 24x CD-RW)
Storage Samsung 250GB (5400RPM 8MB)
Networking Realtek GbE
Ralink 2.4GHz 802.11b/g/n
I/O 1x HDMI
1x DVI-I
1x TOSLINK (optical S/PDIF)
1x Mic, 1x Headphone
2x USB 3.0
1x USB 2.0
1x eSATA/USB 2.0
1x 6-in-1 Card Reader
Expansion 2x Mini PCIe (one available)

Looking at both the ZBOX and its specifications, including a 2GB SO-DIMM and a 2.5” 5400 RPM hard drive, it should be clear that this mini-PC has more in common with a laptop than a “normal” HTPC. Unlike most laptops, there is still a small window for upgrades with one mini PCIe slot (the other is filled with a 2.4GHz 802.11n card) and a free SO-DIMM available. The system is very compact, which pays obvious dividends in size, but this is also a limitation with the cooling solution being the most tangible, immediate artifact. As with most laptops, the ZBOX is very quiet under minimal load but fans quickly spin up when the system is stressed to produce an audible hum in environments with a low noise floor. That said, the form factor is generally a good match for an E-350 Fusion based system, but ZOTAC’s [understandable] preference for product flexibility influences the placement and availability of external ports that hampers the execution more than I prefer in a dedicated SFF HTPC.

Taking a closer look at the I/O options on the front, we find a slot loading Blu-ray (BD) drive, 6-in-1 card reader, analog audio in (Mic) / out (Headphone), and USB 2.0 and USB 3.0 ports. On the rear of the unit are another USB 3.0 port, Ethernet, combo eSATA/USB 2.0, DVI-I (video only), HDMI, TOSLINK (optical S/PDIF), Kensington lock, and the power input. Depending on the intended use the port layout may not be an issue, but the lack of options on the rear creates a less visually appealing install in a few scenarios. Specifically, we have the following concerns:

  • Analog audio output is only available on the front, so users without an HDMI display or audio/video receiver (AVR) that accepts HDMI/TOSLINK will need to attach a 3.5”-to-stereo adapter to the front of the ZBOX
  • USB 3.0 ports are not able to reliably wake the PC from standby, so at least one device (keyboard, mouse, keyboard-mouse combo, or infrared receiver) must be installed on the front USB 2.0 port.
  • When using an eSATA device, either a USB hub (which can also cause resume issues) must be attached to the front or only one device can be used to wake from standby

That said, the AD03BR-PLUS-U is mountable with VESA hardware provided, so that can be an attactive workaround to an unsightly dongle situation.

Gallery: ZBOX BIOS

The ZBOX’s American Megatrends BIOS has quite a few knobs and dials, but I only found the need to adjust two items. The first is that by default the “OnChip SATA Type” is set to “Native IDE”; unless you are planning to install Windows XP, AHCI is a better option because it supports features like NCQ, disk hot swapping, and TRIM (which is important for SSDs). The second is that I disabled the “Backlight Control”, which is strictly a personal preference. When this setting is enabled a blue ring lights the right side of the ZBOX when it is on. This can be desirable in the right environment, but when enabled it also pulses slowly in standby (S3), and that’s an unacceptable distraction in most locations. The BIOS and startup screen are available over HDMI and DVI, so it is easy to do all of the configuration and installation on a TV at full resolution (i.e. 1080p/720p) if desired.

It should also be noted that the current “release” BIOS has an issue where settings changes are not persisted reliably when power is removed, so a beta BIOS should be applied.

System Performance and Power Use
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  • cjs150 - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Every time a new HTPC comes out we get closer and closer to an ideal main room solution. Sure it is not a gaming rig, but for watching media, maybe doing some web browsing and emails it looks good. However there are 3 or 4 areas which need work:

    1. Built in IR remote, absolutely essential and needs to have ability to shut off/sleep and bring back the machine to live

    2. Noise. We are never going to get total silence (probably) with this size of case but I am worried about Andrew's comment in the article. Cannot help but conclude that a slightly larger case and a slow running fan might be a better combination.

    3. Noise (2). I have a high end AV rack but the thing that bugs me is the Blu-ray player (Onkyo). In the quiet sections of movies I can hear the player. Crucial therefore is the noise of the slim line player in the ZBOX. Is it properly isolated/dampened from rest of case

    4. TV cards. I know you can get USB TV tuners but quality never seems to be as good as internal cards. Again given the size of the ZBOX I can forgive this not being included (and the cable set top box can do this for me) but would be on my wish list as the perfect HTPC.

    5. Finally picture quality. Always subjective but what worried me is the "drifting" Andrew reported. Intel cannot play 24 fps movies at the absolute correct frame rate (which is not exactly 24 fps), AMD can... or at least I thought that was the case until reading this article. "Drifting" worries me, but maybe improved drivers will help.

    Now can I have one in pure black to match the rest of the AV rack please!
    Reply
  • burntham77 - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    All great ideas.

    Using Brazos inside a larger case that would allow the use of the one PCIe slot would allow for a PCIe CableCard tuner, or if you just wanted local channels an HDHomerun works too. A larger case (like my Antec Fusion Remote Black) allows for better airflow and a quieter system (I never hear mine even when it's spinning a blu-ray disc).

    My only real concern with moving to a Brazos setup from my Athlon X2 is your fifth item, about image quality. Although my only real concern is with Netflix. Until Silverlight adds GPU acceleration, I guess I can switch over the Xbox 360 if I need Netflix.

    Despite the concerns, this is another article has brought me that much closer to this setup.
    Reply
  • jaydee - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Nice review overall!

    An Atom-based HTPC should have been included for comparison. Something like this guy, that AT has already reviewed: http://www.anandtech.com/print/4081

    I think it's important in reviews to consider what is underneath your test article, as well as what is higher performing, for balance purposes. Not to mention that Brazos is sort of the natural upgrade path from Aom/ION in the low-power HTPC segment.
    Reply
  • babgvant - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    I agree that an ION system would have made a great additional data point. Unfortunately I don't have one on hand, but I did have a first gen ZinoHD so it was included as a reference (with some very interesting results). Reply
  • bhigh - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Most people I know use Linux and XBMC for their HTPC.

    It would be nice to know how the E350 supports this.
    Reply
  • Penti - Saturday, June 11, 2011 - link

    While technically possible XBMC's stable release do not support it and it's not trouble free to get it to work with hardware acceleration on the distro side with the development version of XBMC since you need it to go through libva/vaapi with xvba backend so it wouldn't workout of the box. It would also be quiet pointless with a blu-ray system and running Linux where you won't get it to work (cleanly) and even most of (your normal) illegal ripping tools do not work. Neither does XBMC support blu-ray on Windows without launching something like PowerDVD. Reply
  • djkebhri - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Anand,

    I have an issue with this quote at the bottom of page 3:

    "Historically, AMD has provided the best level of refresh rate precision by default, but unfortunately that is not the case with the E-350’s 6310. As you can see from the pictures and video tracking accuracy for 24p content, it certainly can hit the target, but it has issues maintaining the correct frequency over time."

    This is incorrect. I assure you, there is nothing wrong with the E-350 and/or the 6310 playing 23.976 or 24 fps content when Catalyst is properly set to that mode.

    I have an ASUS E35M1-M Pro connected to my Samsung LN40C630 and it has no issues. Any issues you have are not due to AMD. They might be from an issue in the test setup, equipment, or the Zotac itself.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    The experience with AMD cards for 23.976 Hz refresh rate varies across different systems and setups. Unless AMD provides a way for the end user to tweak the refresh rate according to the setup, I wouldn't consider it as reliable 23.976 at all. Reply
  • Slaimus - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    How come a complete E-350 laptop like the dm1z or X120e can be bought for under $400 but a box like this is over $500? The LCD/battery/keyboard/touchpad should outweigh the price of a BD reader upgrade. Reply
  • jaydee - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Volume maybe? Laptop makers buy everything in much higher volumes than Zotac buys HTPC components. I don't know if this alone makes the difference or not. Maybe Zotac is pulling a lot higher profit margin?

    But your logic is valid. Can one just connect a E350 laptop to an HTPC setup and do everything that this unit can do? Minus the blu-ray, which can be added on later?
    Reply

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