ZOTAC ZBOX PI221 Review

When it comes to small-form-factor computers, the Raspberry Pi is far from the only game in town. The concept of a “stick” computer, a whole desktop packed into a case smaller than your mobile phone, has been around for a while now. They tend to find their niche in retail displays, but these tiny machines can be used for so much more.

I spent some time testing the ZOTAC PI221, one such tiny computer. Indeed, right now I’m starting this review on one, hooked up to a Nexdock to fashion a kind-of crazy laptop.

Specifications

The PI221 spots a quad core 1.44Ghz Atom CPU, 2GB RAM and 32GB of eMMC storage. The CPU- the Cherry Trail Z8300, coupled with Intel HD Graphics 400- is the same as you’ll find on the LattePanda development board which I fortunately had to hand for comparison during this testing. In both platforms I’ve found it packs a mean punch for a small CPU- although context counts, I’d find the same CPU a little weak in a laptop- but kicks out a fair amount of heat in the process. Zotac use a finned enclosure to move this heat away from the CPU. The whole PI221 case appears to be, effectively, a heatsink and as a result it’s often pretty warm to the touch. A little real-world testing revealed the external *idle* external temperature to be somewhere around 46 degrees which is toasty, but not alarming or dangerous. HWiNFO reveals the CPU running somewhere between 60-70degrees, with the maximum clock speed at its full 1.8Ghz (for bursting, not continuous use) and a comfortable headroom before thermal throttling kicks in.

As a basis for comparison, I loaded both the Zotac PI221 and the Latte Panda with 4k video until they got good and toasty. Latte Panda, equipped with basically no heatsink whatsoever, quickly hit 85+ degrees and, while video still played, the UI quickly became sluggish and unresponsive. It also had trouble cooling down afterwards. By contrast, the finned heatsink-like design of the Zotac enclosure managed to dissipate heat effectively. The whole case gets hot enough to be uncomfortable to hold while the internal temperatures barley climb above 70, peak at 75, and cool quickly once the load is stopped. On average they seem to hover around 65 degrees. With good external airflow (read: a hairdryer on cold) I could get this down to 50 degrees, but not any further.

While the hot-to-the-touch PI221 might be alarming at first, it’s just the heatsink doing what it’s supposed to and dissipating heat effectively. Zotac are particularly proud of their passive cooling for this platform, and I’m pleased to report that it’s extremely effective. Besides, I’ve seen single-board computers get hotter; this one isn’t even enough to make the air above it go wavy!

This passive cooling means the PI221 is silent, making it a great audio/visual computer. Anyone who’s ever tried to watch a DVD on an original Xbox 360, or attempted to use a projector without the quiet bits of films sounding like someone’s drying their hair in the next room will appreciate this. Sheesh! My references are dated! Of course, with so many Android-based video streaming platforms on the market, and the Apple TV to boot, this is something of a solved problem, but the Zotac PI221 will, at least, let you pick your own OS and media software of choice… not to mention it makes a handy little retro emulation platform.

While it may not sound like much in an era where professionals are begging Apple for 32GB, 2GB RAM is plenty for the sort of tasks you’ll be devoting this tiny computer to. Zotac seem to think it’s the sweet spot, since bumping up to the PI223 will net you a faster CPU but no more RAM. I tend to agree. While doubling the RAM to 4GB might be nice for some uses it would have a significant impact on the price, pushing it close to the $200 mark, for very little impact upon performance.

Connectivity

The PI221 is, as you might except, thin on the ground when it comes to connectivity. There are only so many ports you can reasonably fit into such a small form factor. The PI221 squeezes in a microSD slot which supports SDXC and so, in theory, will support cards up to 2TB in capacity but you’re most likely to use something around the 32GB or 64GB mark to complement the 32GB available.

There’s only one USB 3 port, but Bluetooth connectivity means you can leave this port free and use a wireless mouse/keyboard instead. For networking it sports a 10/100 Ethernet port and there’s also an external connection for a WiFi antenna that’s supplied in the box. WiFi will work without this antenna, but you’ll probably find that you need it. Ethernet is a welcome addition, in an age where it’s often left out of systems, and is no doubt included to appease the more professional side of the PI221’s market.

Rounding off the connections is, of course, the HDMI connector. Zotac have opted for a direct male HDMI connector which is clearly aimed at the retail display and, perhaps, home-entertainment market; where the computer is inserted into the back of a display and forgotten about. Fortunately a short HDMI extension cable is supplied, so it’s easy to make use of the PI221 in other setups, or where there might not be enough clearance around your HDMI port. I found I could replace this cable with an HDMI to mini HDMI cable for connecting to the Nexdock. Unfortunately it wont work with the standard HDMI cables you might have knocking about, so you’ll need an HDMI-to-HDMI coupler if you want to use a longer cable.

For power the PI221 sports a standard microUSB connector. It’s labelled 3A and a 3A supply is included (a two-piece universal power adaptor identical to the one Western Digital use in their PiDrive kits), but in my experience a good 2A power supply has worked fine. Since single-board computers sporting the same CPU require a 2A supply, too, I’m guessing the 3A is just headroom. Simply put, a bad 3A adaptor will probably still supply 2A without any significant voltage drop, while a bad 2A adaptor will get you nowhere. When hooking up the PI221 to my Nexdock I found that a good, thick USB cable made all the difference. Again, voltage drop is the issue- across a junk USB cable you’ll lose power to resistance and, in accordance with Ohm’s Law, the more current your poor mini computer tries to draw, the lower the voltage will drop. And… the lower the voltage drops, the more current it will try to draw. You get the idea. The PI221 should quite capably run from a range of weird and wonderful power sources; make sure they’re good for 2A and you use a good cable and you’ll be fine.

Curiously the PI221 ships with a recovery CD. Without a USB hub and external optical drive it’s impossible to actually make use of this disk and I don’t even have an optical drive on my other computers to copy it over to a USB memory stick. It’s nice to have a recovery CD- I’ve bought systems before where it’s a paid add-on -but at the same time somewhat perplexing. Since I’ve never seen a Windows 10 USB recovery stick or microSD card to date, I wonder if there’s a licensing quirk that makes them impossible to include. Zotac seem to have a solution to this problem in the form of Zotac WinUSB Maker but the software only claims to support up to Windows 8 and was apparently last updated in 2014. I suspect just using Rufus along with the original install CD should do the trick. ***note: maybe dig up a CD reader and see if this works?***

The Windows 10 version included is 32bit – with only 2GB RAM the gains from a 64bit OS would be minimal – so keep this in mind when installing software. You’re free to opt for 64bit Linux if you desire.

Real-world Uses

Home Server

Whether your poison is Windows or Linux the PI221 will make a capable, minimal home server for tinkering with your web programming language of choice or connecting a USB hard disk to the network. Since the bus is USB3.0 it should do a better job of this than many, but not all, single-board computers and will also provide a more familiar environment to users used to Windows and its ilk.

Media, Audio, Video

With no external audio connections, save for the HDMI connector, you’re at the behest of your TV or monitors speakers if you want to use the Zotac as a radio. Alternatively you could use either USB or Bluetooth speakers. Suffice to say, the 1.44Ghz Quad Core CPU is completely overkill for this sort of task, and it will breeze through playing Spotify tracks without breaking a sweat.

But what about 4k video? I decided to queue up YouTube’s 4k UHD video playlists to see just how I could make this petite PC perform. At 1440p videos played flawlessly, and similarly at 2160p. However at 2160p- the full 4k/QHD resolution (3840×2160)- it had a little trouble pulling the video down fast enough to play without buffering. This will be your limiting factor in the UK, known for fairly terrible broadband. Still, giving the video a chance to buffer resulted in smooth playback, but took a lot of patience. This test is all very academic, however, since the highest resolution display you’ll get out of the HD Graphics 400 is 1920×1080 at 60Hz. The PI221 is not suitable for driving a 4k display.

Note: I’ve since hooked up the Zotac PI221 to a ~4k (actually 2650×1600) LG 38UC99-W monitor, and it supported the full resolution fine- in Ubuntu Linux and Windows 10!
I had previously connected it to one of my Dell 2560×1440 displays where it simply refused to output an HDMI resolution greater than 1920×1080. In retrospect, I should have guessed this was more the fault of the Dell display (which has always been troublesome over HDMI) than the PI221. While it will drive a display at 4k it’s clear that the dinky GPU is not up to driving the extra resolution while decoding video; the resulting playback is slightly stuttery.

Moving over to Netflix, video playback via the web app in Microsoft Edge is smooth although it can sometimes be a bit of a struggle to navigate the UI and select the content you want to play.

General Desktop Use/Kitchen Computer

As a small, silent, ambient computer the PI221 works well, it’s got enough horsepower to tackle internet browsing and basic productivity tasks and should compare pretty closely to the dozens of low-cost laptops which sport the same CPU. Incidentally those computers run the gamut from around £180 to £500 and, at the low end, are incredibly competitively priced against the PI221. However, if you’ve got an existing display, keyboard and mouse you want to put to good use you’ll have a much nicer experience with those than the garbage trackpads, keyboards and displays you’ll find on an 11″ notebook.

As it happens I had a tiny 5″ 800×480 display that paired extremely well with the Zotac PI221, making for an ultra-compact setup to rival even a netbook. This could be used as a home status display, for basic web browsing, videos and more:

Linux

A Linux virtual machine, complementing a fleet of Raspberry Pi’s, is a vital part of my daily toolset. Sometimes I need to compile something for the Pi that might take longer than I’m willing to tolerate, or I may need to tinker with some Linux-based tools or code on a slightly faster system. Often I need to rescue an SD card, and this can be a hassle to share and mount on a Virtual Machine. My typical setup for this is Ubuntu or Debian running in Virtual Box, but this often isn’t ideal for many reasons- not least of all it being an extra burden on my workstation.

Installing Ubuntu on the PI221 was straight-forward enough. Actually booting it, however, took a little tinkering since while the system is 64bit, it only actually supports a 32bit bootloader. Since I couldn’t seem to boot from the microSD slot directly, I used a regular microSD card inserted into a USB reader and dangling off a hub in the PI221’s USB port.

I prepared the microSD card with Rufus as described in Liliputing’s guide and then booted up into Live Mode to the Ubuntu Desktop.

In live mode I used gparted to perform some surgery on the internal disk, resizing the Windows 10 partition (which I wanted to keep in place for testing) to use approximately half the available storage at 16GB. This left around 12GB for Ubuntu, which I set up as an empty ext3 primary partition. If you *just* want to install Linux, you can completely erase your desk and let the installer do its thing.

I also configured Wireless. I found out on my first run through of the installer that it wouldn’t or couldn’t set up wireless during the install process- it gave the option, but something went awry with the process and it wouldn’t detect my newly created connection. Setting up wireless before starting the installer seems to work fine, however, and Ubuntu will pull down any new packages for a fresh, up-to-date install.

Upon firing up the installer I chose to use a custom partition setup and picked my pre-made ext3 partition, mounting it as /. The installer proceeded to say that no partition changes or formatting were necessary and warned me that any system folders on this existing partition would be deleted. I’d just created it, though, so all good!

The install process continued until the installer eventually threw a “grub-efi-ia32 failed to install” error. At this point it closes/crashes. No worries! The important part of the install had completed and I had a runnable system. It was just not possible to boot.

This is convoluted to fix, but the steps are fairly straight-forward. I fired up a terminal and- testing my German to the limit- made my way through the instructions at linuxforen.de to install the proper 32bit bootloader.


sudo -s
mount /dev/mmcblk0p5 /mnt
mount --bind /proc /mnt/proc
mount --bind /dev /mnt/dev
mount --bind /dev/pts /mnt/dev/pts
mount --bind /sys /mnt/sys
mount --bind /etc/resolv.conf /mnt/etc/resolv.conf
chroot /mnt

apt-get update
apt-get install grub-efi-ia32

mount /dev/mmcblk0p1 /boot/efi
grub-install /dev/mmcblk0

One reboot later and, voila, I had a tiny dual-booting system I could switch between Windows 10 and Ubuntu Linux.

I found the Linux experience on the PI221 a little smoother than the Windows one, perhaps because I do a lot of what I do in the Terminal and don’t notice any sluggishness that might plague the GUI. I was able to fire up Firefox and begin writing this article with ease- connected to the Nexdock it’s basically a low-end notebook and it was a pleasure to work on something relatively cool, and totally quiet for a change.

In Summary

Small-form-factor computers in all shapes and sizes are a category I hope to see grow and evolve over the next few years, particularly with the existence of USB Type-C to bring enhanced connectivity in a connector that’s not quite so difficult to squeeze in. The Zotac ZBOX PI221 represents another small step forward in this niche and delivers enough horsepower to make it worthwhile for projects or tasks where a full, x86 Windows system makes it simpler and quicker to get up and running. As much as I loathe to admit it, tiny embedded-Linux computers aren’t for everyone and if you’re already invested in the Windows desktop and development ecosystem the PI221 presents a familiar way to get stuff done.

For the more casual user, it will make an adequate home media player, games console, home automation monitor and many other things but how well it performs at these tasks will depend on your software choices and how much time you’re willing to invest setting it up. I’ve had brushes with various media centre solutions, but have always come crawling back to the simplicity and reliability of an Apple TV. If you want ultimate customisability and freedom to roam from garden to garden without walls, however, then this kind of platform will be much more your cup of tea.

For me the PI221 found its place as a compact Linux computer, relieving my primary workstation of the more knitty-gritty tinkering minutiae that Ubuntu on Windows 10 isn’t quite cut out for. While I use a Raspberry Pi for this most of the time, some things it’s just not quite cut out for. Granted a physical Linux computer is much less of a sandbox than a VM, but it can still churn through a long compile operation, or similar task, while my laptop is closed, or being uprooted to move between locations.

Above all else. Mini PCs are flippin’ cool, and Zotac have a heck of a variety of them. Even if the PI221 doesn’t fit your needs, there’s no doubt something out there that will.