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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that in mind, unless disc authoring is an important feature to you, I think a slightly lower MSRP is preferable to the outdated software bundle.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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  • dagamer34 - Thursday, June 09, 2011 - link

    Needs built-in IR, and then we can call it an HTPC. Reply
  • amdhunter - Saturday, June 11, 2011 - link

    You can always use a vnc based remote control program with your Android or iPhone. Reply
  • Khato - Thursday, June 09, 2011 - link

    There's been a troubling trend of late in a number of Anandtech articles where testbed configurations are not even mentioned in passing. While it's not as important here for the most part, when it comes to a comparison of power consumption, especially at low levels, the power supply used can play a larger part than the CPU. With the information available in this article, the conclusion would be that the E-350 based ZBOX is very efficient and an excellent low power choice... Whereas an article on another site that compared similarly configured systems using the same power supply had an E-350 at 100% CPU load at 23.9 watts while the same load on an i3 2100T was only at 33.6 watts. As well, the i3 2100T system actually idled a bit lower, 9.8 watts vs 12.8 for the E-350.

    It's details like that that make me quite interested to see what Zotac could come up with in terms of a sandy bridge based ZBOX.
    Reply
  • zupzop - Thursday, June 09, 2011 - link

    The article of xbitslabs entitled "every watt counts" you refer to, is completely misleading. If every watt would count they would have compared the E350 with the economical MSI board (they tested themselves), rather than with the energy wasting Gigabyte board.against the i3 2300. If you look for the MSI E350 on the xbitlabs pages you can verify for yourself that is consumes less power than the i3 2100 in every test reported
    (of course, given the testbed configuration used for the i3 2100).

    Xbitlab data:
    Power consumption:
    Test -> Idle, CPU-B , GPU-B, CPU+GPU B
    E350 + MSI 7.3 15.8 17.5, 22.1
    E350 + Gigabyte 12.8, 23.9, 27.7, 31.2
    i3 2100 9.7, 33.6, 22.8, 38.9

    (see http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/amd-e... )
    (and http://www.xbitlabs.com/articles/cpu/display/core-... )
    Reply
  • Khato - Thursday, June 09, 2011 - link

    Thanks for the further information. It's another excellent example of how the testbed configuration at these power consumption levels can have a marked effect upon how a product compares. Reply
  • duploxxx - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    xbitlabs also forgets that only for the price of the i3 2300T you can buy the brazos board+cpu......

    lets see how they fare soon against the E2and A4 launch LIano, in the end that is where an i3 should be compared with.
    Reply
  • octagonalman - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Xbitlabs didn't forget that - the price difference is mentioned clearly in the conclusion. Reply
  • burntham77 - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Just another reason why I have become a fan of MSI. Reply
  • duploxxx - Friday, June 10, 2011 - link

    Regarding the review:
    This is a design build for home consumers, so therefore first of all this should have been compared against those in the same class... Atom and ION like builds i.s.o these stupid compares with desktop parts. Sure those might have also a good low power and performance quality but then you get into the self-made designs with personal touches.
    THis is becomming a habbit for anandtech site, compare with what needs to be compared, it's always possible to find a cpu and gpu that will do things in a more performing way, if you want to review the ultimate self-made htpc , start building a few and compare those against each other.

    Khaot:
    THe reason why no provider will put a SNB inthere is first of all the price it will be much much more expensive from a cpu and mobo point of view to build and secondly since although those cpu are low power consumption they have a much higher TDP range which will force them to build and design towards the actual TDP..... not some homebrew user who makes something (which will never be that thin btw) and doesn't care about rated TDP, when intel will release lower power cpu there will also be again a pricetag.
    Reply
  • Randomblame - Thursday, June 09, 2011 - link

    I just put together an htpc in the bedroom from the pile of broken acer laptops I have. It is just the bottom of the laptop without a battery and a few of the bottom covers have been replaced with patches of duct tape but it's small, quiet, efficient, powerful enough to stream movies off my desktop, and the best part is it has a keyboard and touchpad built in - small footprints ftw Reply

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