HTPC Credentials

The absence of any moving parts inside the ZBOX CI540 nano enables a completely silent PC irrespective of the workload. This makes it an ideal HTPC. While acoustics form one part of the HTPC story, there are a few other aspects that we will cover in this section.

Refresh Rate Accurancy

AMD and NVIDIA have historically been able to provide fine-grained control over display refresh rates. The default rates are also quite accurate. Intel used to have an issue with 23 Hz (23.976 Hz, to be more accurate) support, but that was resolved with the introduction of Haswell. As expected, the Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano has no trouble with refreshing the display appropriately in the 23 Hz setting.

The gallery below presents some of the other refresh rates that we tested out. The first statistic in madVR's OSD indicates the display refresh rate.

Network Streaming Efficiency

Evaluation of OTT playback efficiency was done by playing back our standard YouTube test stream and five minutes from our standard Netflix test title. Using HTML5, the YouTube stream plays back a 720p encoding, while Adobe Flash delivers a 1080p stream. Note that only NVIDIA exposes GPU and VPU loads separately. Both Intel and AMD bundle the decoder load along with the GPU load. The following two graphs show the power consumption at the wall for playback of the HTML5 stream and the Adobe Flash stream in Mozilla Firefox v32.0.1. The GPU load while playing back the HTML5 version is around 23.46%. In the Adobe Flash case, it is a bit lower at 18.84%.

YouTube Streaming - HTML5: Power Consumption

YouTube Streaming - Adobe Flash: Power Consumption

Netflix streaming evaluation was done using the Windows 8.1 Netflix app. Manual stream selection is available (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S) and debug information / statistics can also be viewed (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-D). Statistics collected for the YouTube streaming experiment were also collected here. The GPU load during playback averaged around 4%.

Netflix Streaming - Windows 8.1 Metro App: Power Consumption

Despite being passively cooled, the ZBOX CI540 nano (as we configured it) is not particularly power efficient when it comes to network streaming. This is in part due to the powerful DRAM component (8 GB, clocked at 1600 MHz). That said, we did see the CI540 nano come out better in the benchmarks sections. It is clear that there is performance to be exploited in the Y-series CPUs, but the obvious penalty is the power consumption.

Decoding and Rendering Benchmarks

In order to evaluate local file playback, we usually concentrate on EVR-CP and madVR. We already know that EVR works quite well even with the Intel IGP for our test streams. madVR performance hasn't been great with the Intel HD Graphics 4400-equipped PCs. Instead, we decided to focus on a more common use-case for this PC: XBMC. For EVR-CP, the decoder used was LAV Filters bundled with MPC-HC v1.7.7. The latest stable XBMC version (XBMC 13.2) was used with default configuration for the second set.

Zotac ZBOX CI540 nano - Decoding & Rendering Performance
Stream EVR-CP XBMC 13.2
  GPU Load (%) Power (W) GPU Load (%) Power (W)
480i60 MPEG2 29.29 13.07 16.73 11.00
576i50 H264 27.21 12.98 15.26 10.63
720p60 H264 37.46 14.79 39.62 14.01
1080i60 MPEG2 46.55 16.14 23.43 11.87
1080i60 H264 45.91 16.59 27.24 12.56
1080i60 VC1 43.86 16.26 22.23 12.34
1080p60 H264 47.46 16.74 46.4 15.37
1080p24 H264 19.01 12.55 18.88 11.40
4Kp30 H264 43.47 13.46 23.53 12.21

One of the surprising aspects with XBMC was that the default home screen resulted in a constant GPU loading of around 35.68% and idle power consumption at the wall of 13.52W (and the GPU loading / power consumption actually decreased during playback of most of our test streams). This shows that there is plenty of scope for power optimization when it comes to XBMC on Windows. Coming back to the decoder / rendering benchmarks, both DXVA2 decoding with LAV filters and rendering using EVR-CP as well as XBMC get through our test suite (including 4K decode) without any issues. HD audio bitstreaming is also not a problem. For the average media playback application, the ZBOX CI540 nano is a winner in every aspect other than power consumption.

Networking & Storage Performance Power Consumption & Thermal Performance
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  • wintermute000 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    For some people that's worth the 50% cost saving (plus the laptop can be used as... a laptop? in a pinch lol). Not everyone is OCD about their TV setup. Reply
  • BrokenCrayons - Tuesday, November 4, 2014 - link

    As long as performance doesn't matter much, $200 USD of inexpensive Bay Trail laptop would really be a far less costly solution. Quite a few modern low-end notebooks with 11 inch screens with those sorts of specifications don't have cooling fans and are kitted out with solid state memory making dust ingestion a non-issue. Yes, there's a lot less performance potential, but being able to grab the HTPC and use it someplace else when you need to leave the living room is sort of nice too since it's still a laptop. Reply
  • p@nc@k3s - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    Glad to see an Intel WiFi NIC. What is the gigabit Ethernet NIC? I hope it's not Realtek. Reply
  • saiga6360 - Friday, October 31, 2014 - link

    This one has Bluetooth so you can probably have better luck with those remotes. I would avoid IR if I can help it. Reply
  • abufrejoval - Saturday, November 1, 2014 - link

    I think that's a very interesting little box! Thanks for the evaluation!

    Idle power in the French article linked behind Fanless Tech seems a little higher: They quote a 9-31Watt range.

    Could the plastic foil they found between the thermal pad and the chassis actually also have increased power consumption? Don't hotter chips consume more power?

    They also say that checking for the presence of the "isolated human error" would void the warranty, which is, well, bizarre in this case...

    Can you measure DRAM bandwidth on the unit?
    I'm a little worried that the single DRAM socket would be limiting the bandwidth unnecessarily.

    I guess I'd still perfer a somewhat more massive design with the i5-4200U (same CPU price), which I've seen sustain 2.1GHz peaks pretty long as well as the 2.6GHz spikes for things like spreadsheet recalcs.

    Or even with the vastly more expensive i7-4500, all the very same silicon inside.

    Unfortunately Intel gauges and charges for perceived performance pretty well: These little Haswells do deliver quite acceptable performance for those little sprints in typical desktop work, which you can't really see under these synthetic benchmark loads, where the first thermal limits kick in pretty pretty fast.

    Thus the i7-4500U really does feel no slower than a true 3GHz i7 quad core with 8 threads, when you browse a complex web page, reformat a complex document or recalc a huge spreadsheet.

    Because it a) does actually go to 3GHz for a comple of seconds when cold and b) none of these tasks exploit multiple cores or run long enough to heat up the CPU.

    Chances are you could even put the 4200 or 4500 into the very same chassis and just risk that they arrive at speeds very similar to the 4210Y under continued load.

    But they'd still "feel" a lot faster on office work stuff.

    And I might be tempted to spend an extra 50 bucks or so on a case which foregoes convection through the case and uses large external fins instead to avoid issues with dust and cleaning staff "whet cleaning" these cases to the point where create solid composite crusts of dust and dried cleaning agents.

    Too bad Broadwell will soon render these a lot less attractive far too soon!
    Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    This is very true. With broadwell supposed to be even more energy efficient the Y series (or is it called core M now instead of Y series or is the core m a power level below Y and there is still a Y and a u?) the fanless mini pc will end up able to convert the broadwell energy savings into even more performance at the same temperature and the U series with the new iGPU should make it actually able to game many popular titles at a respectable 30 fps and 1366x768 resolution and maybe even some at 1920x1080. I could see myself chilling in the living room loading up a game of hearthstone which would definitely run as the ipad air 1 is known to run it well and that is just an apple a7x proc not even the new A8x. Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    and before u bash the 768p gaming quite a few xbox one titles will end up at this resolution and fps. It's not as terrible as the low numbers make it sound. And games like hearthstone and league of legends should run at 1920x1080 on the intel graphics 5000 (the igpu in the intel mini pc) successor without a hitch. Broadwell might just take this category to a new level. Reply
  • Laststop311 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    I only see this being a good buy for the noise nazis out there. My personal favorite was the intel box that was only an extra 153 as configured and it had a u series cpu with intel 5000 graphics instead of y series with intel 4200 and an intel 530 240GB SSD instead of a samsung 840 evo 120GB SSD and dual channel 1866 ram instead of single channel 1600mhz and intel 7260 2x2 wireless instead of intel 3160 1x1 wireless.

    The intel box beats it on every single specification for only a 153 dollar premium. So it would seem that unless being fanless is the number 1 thing you care about by a large margin you would have to be senile to choose the zotac nano over the intel.
    Reply
  • wintermute000 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    well TBH unless size/noise is your only concern you're better off served via a mITX or better still a mATX build. They can still look pretty good aesthetically with the right case, and with right part selection don't make any appreciable noise. Reply
  • kaczor47 - Sunday, November 2, 2014 - link

    I have been using this box for a couple of weeks now. Main use: XBMC for movies and audio. I am surprised that the silent aspect of the device is not appreciated more here - when listening to audio on hi-end speakers, last thing I want is to hear the fan noise in the background (during the quite parts of a classical piece). Not to mention that this thing is in my living room, where occasionally I want to relax in a quiet environment - again, the hum of a fan would sometimes be irritating.

    Of course, there you can get higher performance for an extra $X,but it is all about balance.
    Reply

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