A capable media centre PC with an eye-catching design that can play Ultra HD video
Processor: Dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U, RAM: 4GB, Front USB ports: 1x USB2, Rear USB ports: 4x USB3, 2x USB2, Total storage: 500GB Hard disk, Display: N/A, Operating system: N/A
Zotac has a lot of experience when it comes to building mini-PCs, but the Zotac ZBox Sphere might be its most visually captivating and stylish yet. As its name implies, the ZBox Sphere is constructed to resemble an orb, but you can see that it has a flat base and back when you view it from the side. Indeed, the ZBox Sphere’s shape is so unconventional that it met with a number of puzzled when we pulled it out of the box, and many people didn’t realise it was a PC at first glance.
One neat feature of the Sphere is a blue strip around its circumference that lights up when the system’s powered on. You can even change its behaviour in the Sphere’s BIOS so that it pulsates, stays lit or gradually orbits around the unit. You can also turn the light off if you find it too distracting.
While the chassis is pretty compact at just 154x154x161mm, you might find it’s difficult to fit ZBox Sphere within the shelves of your TV stand due to its height. This is worth keeping in mind if you’re planning to use the system as a living room PC or HTPC. The power button is also tucked away at the back of the system, which could prove annoying if it’s tucked away in a hard to reach place, but you can wake the PC from USB and your network.
The Zotac ZBox Sphere comes in two distinct versions: the OI520 (around £270), which comes with no memory or hard disk, and the OI520 Plus (£370) which includes 4GB SODIMM DDR3L and a 500GB HDD. Both models include an Intel Core i5 4200U 1.6GHz dual-core processor that supports Intel Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz. Neither version comes with a Windows licence, so you’ll need to buy your own copy, or install a free operating system such as Linux. We’ve reviewed the OI520 Plus.
Both Windows 7 and Windows 8/8.1 are officially supported by Zotac, and we opted to install Windows 8.1 on our review system. Once you’ve installed an operating system you will, of course, have to install all the necessary drivers manually. Zotac provides drivers on a USB flash drive, which is convenient because the Zotac does not include an optical drive. You’ll need to install the drivers to use the ZBox Sphere’s built-in Wi-Fi adaptor.
We subjected the Zbox Sphere to our application benchmarks and were pleased to see that it scored 51 overall, as this is a few points higher than we’d expect from an Intel Core i5-4200U-based PC. This score shows that the ZBox Sphere is powerful enough for most general-purpose tasks, such as browsing the web, running productivity software and play movies. The ZBox Sphere even played our 4K resolution test files without a hitch.
Sadly, the processor’s built-in HD 4400 graphics processor isn’t suited to 3D gaming, and the ZBox Sphere only managed to produce an average frame rate of 19.5fps in our Dirt Showdown benchmark at a resolution of 1,280×720 with 4x anti-aliasing and graphics quality set to High. You should have no problem with casual games, though, and we played Minecraft at a decently smooth average frame rate of 51fps.
At the back of the system you’ll find display outputs for HDMI and DisplayPort, audio connections for a microphone and headphone, four USB3 ports, two USB2 ports and a 4-in-1 card reader with support for MMC, SD, SDHC and SDXC cards. There’s also a Gigabit Ethernet port, a built-in 802.11ac adaptor and Bluetooth 4.0 support, so you won’t have a problem connecting to networks or attaching wireless peripherals. On one side of the Sphere is an additional USB2 port and a Kensington lock.
It’s easy to open the Zotac ZBox Sphere, you simply unscrew the top of it. On the motherboard, you’ll find two slots for DDR3L SO-DIMM memory, with one slot of the ZBox Sphere Plus already occupied by a 4GB 1,600MHz module. There’s also a SATA3 port that’s connected to a 2½in 500GB hard disk, and an mSATA port to which you can connect an SSD.
We found the Zotac ZBox Sphere OI520 Plus makes for a stylish media centre PC. The processor will handle most home PC tasks and it even outperformed more expensive compact PCs, such as the Best Buy-winning Scan 3XS NUC N16, which scored 48 overall in our benchmarks. It’s just a shame the ZBox Sphere only allows for basic gaming. The Scan system proved more capable in our Dirt Showdown tests and has a better balance between price, performance, features and size.
Otherwise, the ZBox Sphere OI520 is a good choice if you’re taken by the unique design and don’t want to spend a lot on a PC. It runs almost silently, generates very little heat and is impressively well put together. However, we’d probably go for the cheaper non-Plus model so that we can specify our own storage and memory capacity.
|Dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Core i5 4200U
|Ports and expansion
|Front USB ports
|Rear USB ports
|4x USB3, 2x USB2
|1x 10/100/1000, 802.11ac Wi-Fi
|Case size HxWxD
|PCIe x1 (free)
|PCIe x16 (free)
|Serial ATA (free)
|1x SATA3 (0), 1x mSATA (1)
|Memory slots (free)
|Drive bays 2 1/2″ (free)
|Drive bays 3 1/2″ (free)
|Drive bays 5 1/4″ (free)
|500GB Hard disk
|Memory card reader
|MMC, SD, SDHC, SDXC
|Optical drive type
|Integrated Intel HD 4400
|Sound card outputs
|Two-year RTB (3-year with registration)
|Price including delivery (inc VAT)
|Price excluding monitor (inc VAT and delivery)