Zotac ZBOX PI225 Review – SSD-Like Mini PC Tested with Windows 10 & Ubuntu

What makes the Zotac ZBOX PI225 so interesting is that this is the first true ‘card’ form-factor mini PC. It is a mini PC that looks like a SSD. Whilst Intel replaced the ‘stick’ form-factor with a similar ‘card’ form-factor for their next generation mini PCs they also required a ‘dock’ in order to use them. The difference with the PI225 however is that it actually is a standalone mini PC and includes all the necessary input/output ports.
Intrigued by this new form-factor I decided to purchase one and the following is my review of its performance and capabilities.
The Zotac ZBOX PI225 is a fanless device which features an Apollo Lake N3350 SoC with 32GB of storage pre-installed with Windows 10 Home, 4GB RAM, 802.11ac WiFi, Bluetooth 4.2, two USB Type-C ports, a micro SD card reader and a power connector.
Importantly it comes with all the accessories you need to get up and running:
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including a Windows OS recovery disk although perhaps this could have been better provided on an SD card for ease of access. The twin USB/HDMI adapter means the device’s built-in Type-C USBs make the PI225 future-proof whilst removing the need to purchase new cables from the outset. Adding a VESA mount is a nice touch and emphasizes the size or lack thereof given the device is marginally smaller than a regular SSD.
The device once booted starts Windows which becomes fully activated after connecting to the Internet:
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The basic hardware matches the specification:
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with just under half the storage used after Windows updates:
Running my standard set of benchmarking tools to look at performance under Windows:
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reveals the performance is much lower than expected for a N3350 SoC device. Checking the BIOS reveals that ‘Turbo Mode’ is disabled resulting in the clock speed being restricted to its based frequency of 1100 MHz and preventing it bursting to its top frequency of 2400 MHz.
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This was obviously set to limit the heat produced by the CPU and assist in the thermal design which makes use of the device’s outer metal case to dissipate heat in its role of passive cooling.
After enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’
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the benchmarks were repeated:

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Interestingly the results for CrystalDiskMark noticeably improved after enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’ as well:
Turbo Disabled
Turbo Enabled
which is reflected in all the benchmarks including on Linux (see later) and highlights the need to ‘interpret’ the results as indicative comparisons rather than definitive and accurate measurements.
So with this in mind the full results can be compared with other devices such as Beelink AP34 Ultimate or BBEN MN10.
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Next I installed Ubuntu to the eMMC as dual-boot. The BIOS includes the ‘Intel Linux’ as an ‘OS Selection’ under Chipset/South Bridge/OS Selection:
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However I found it wasn’t necessary to change it when using a standard Ubuntu ISO and it also wasn’t necessary to respin an ISO using my ‘isorespin.sh’ script.
Similar to Windows there is a significant performance gain when enabling ‘Turbo Mode’ and ‘Active Processor Cores’:
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Octane without ‘Turbo Mode’:
recorded a result of nearly half that of Octane with ‘Turbo Mode’:
With ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled the performance is as expected when compared to other devices with the N3350 SoC:
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and can be compared with other Intel Apollo Lake devices:
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Revisiting the hardware using Linux commands additionally shows that the memory is faster at 1866 MHz and configured as quad-channel and that the micro SD card is running the faster HS400 interface:
The device doesn’t have a headphone jack so audio is only available over HDMI:

Before looking at real-world usage examples it is worth discussing the thermal limitations of the device. From running the benchmarks alone it would seem obvious that keeping ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled would ensure maximum performance from the device. But as previously mentioned this setting is originally disabled and in part the reason for this can be demonstrated using the Octane benchmark. Without ‘Turbo Mode’ the benchmark runs without issue:

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After Octane 2.0 – Click to Enlarge
However with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled (note the CPU speed below the graph on the right):
Before Octane 2.0 – Click to Enlarge
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the power limit (see ‘Maximum’ column on left) is exceeded.
When the device with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled was put under continuous load, for example playing a 4K video, this causes the temperature to continually rise and then thermal protection cuts in and the device effectively crashes. The following screenshot was taken shortly before this occurred during testing and shows that the CPU speed had already been throttled although the core CPU temperatures are still rising:
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So the findings are that with both Windows and Ubuntu it is impossible to watch a 4K video of any length without the device crashing when ‘Turbo Mode’ was enabled.
The good news is that 4K videos play as good as any similar device without ‘Turbo Mode’. Starting with Windows the first test was watching a 4K video using Microsoft Edge which worked perfectly:
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The same video when watched using Google Chrome resulted in the very occasional dropped frame:
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and changing the video quality to high definition (1080p resolution) results in fewer dropped frames:
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Running on Ubuntu the same video at 4K in Google Chrome was unwatchable with excessive dropped frames and a stalled network connection after a short while:
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At 1080p the video is watchable but does suffer from dropped frames:
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Running Kodi on Windows with a VP9 codec encoded video used software for decoding resulting in high CPU usage:
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compared with a H.264 codec encoded video which uses hardware to decode:
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and similar for videos encoded with H.265 or HEVC:
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with no issues playing the videos.
On Ubuntu hardware is used to decode all three codecs:
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however some H.265 videos resulted in a blank (black) screen just with audio whereas others played without issue:
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During testing without ‘Turbo Mode’ the device heats up playing videos but reaches a point where the passive cooling prevents the device from overheating:
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But when the inside warms up so does the outside. Included within the packaging is a single slip of paper warning how the outside temperature can reach up to 57°C during continuous video playback:
Even allowing for a margin of error this temperature was reached during testing:
and with ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled the surface temperature can get very hot:
so that is a very good reason why this settings should not be enabled by default. For comparison a single walled paper cup of freshly poured coffee will be a similar temperature and for most people this is too hot to hold.
For WiFi connectivity, the 2.4 GHz throughput measured using ‘iperf’ shows 42.2 Mbits/sec for download but only 22.3 Mbits/sec for upload. However 5.0 GHz throughput is consistent with download measuring 152 Mbits/sec and upload of 142 Mbits/sec.
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I also purchased a small hub that connects through a Type-C connection and provides an HDMI port for video, a USB port for keyboard/mouse and a Gigabit Ethernet port for networking (‘iperf’ confirms 940 Mbits/sec for both upload and download). Using this hub means I still have the second Type-C port on the device for using a USB etc.
Power consumption for the device was measured as:
  • Power off – 1.0 Watts
  • Standby – 0.8 Watts
  • Boot menu – 5.0 Watts
  • Idle – 3.8 Watts (Ubuntu) and 4.3 Watts (Windows)
  • CPU stressed – 4.1 Watts (Ubuntu)
  • 4K video – 6.6 Watts (Ubuntu) and 6.4 Watts (Windows)

Finally the BIOS is very flexible with all the key settings available:

It may seem that this device is overly restricted by its thermal design. However, I’ve not found that to be the case once the limitations are known. The 4GB of memory is sufficient to run Windows or Linux OS and having a BIOS that supports Linux means that you are not restricted in what OS you can install. Storage can be expanded by using an SD card and the Type-C ports provide flexibility in how the device is connected. The ability to select ‘Turbo Mode’ means you can use this device as a mini PC although it should be disabled if using as an HTPC.  Zotac could have removed the setting from the BIOS, but kudos to them in leaving it and letting the user use the device and be responsible for how it is used. As shown the setting is not required for watching 4K videos, and this makes the device perfect for digital signage. Including the dual USB/HDMI adapter, VESA mount and the Windows recovery disk with detailed documentation is particularly noteworthy. Overall it is a very commendable effort given the new form-factor and challenges it presents.


Zotac ZBOX PI225 mini PC can be purchased for a little over $200 on websites such as Amazon or eBay.

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Paul M
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Paul M

It’s a nice idea. Shame the CPU is a bit anaemic, it seems to be one of the lowest spec Apollo Lakes:
https://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu.php?cpu=Intel+Celeron+N3350+%40+1.10GHz&id=2895

The N3450 has the same TDP (6W), and it has twice the cores, so maybe one day Zotac will produce a higher spec model?
https://ark.intel.com/compare/95596,95598

Bob
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Bob

Regarding..
“I also purchased a small hub that connects through a Type-C connection and provides an HDMI port for video, a USB port for keyboard/mouse and a Gigabit Ethernet port for networking (‘iperf’ confirms 940 Mbits/sec for both upload and download).”

Model # of the hub please and where did you purchase it from?

Cheers…

Admin

@Paul M
I’m not sure a more powerful processor would help that much in this case, as they already had to disable Turbo mode.

Paul M
Guest
Paul M

ah, they do have an n3450 mini PC, but it’s quite a bit bigger:
https://www.zotac.com/us/product/mini_pcs/ci327-nano

blu
Guest
blu

Holy pocket heater, batman! O_o

Eversor
Guest
Eversor

So looking at the Octane benchmarks, seems that dual A72s are substantially more power efficient than this and even dual A15/A17 are faster when Turbo is disabled.
Looking at many laptop benchmarks, throttling is very aggressive on Turbo enabled machines (goes sub-1GHz clocks), which means these chips are probably useless for anything but very light usage. Very disappointing and a shame people aren’t looking harder at throttling.

I personally thought these were actually decent but the non-turbo benchmarks shine this in a whole different light. These are a very small progress (if any) vs Braswell, as the base clock takes such a massive hit. Quick math shows Octane benchs at base clocks is within 5% for Braswell vs Apollo Lake, which means the architecture is a massive fail on power efficiency. Only good thing one seems to get in an improved GPU (slightly) and better video codec acceleration.

CampGareth
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CampGareth

@Bob
Probably something from Dodocool (e.g. my DC35). Incidentally, can these things be powered via the USB-C ports? If so that’s super cool.

Linuxium
Guest

@Bob
TNP Products USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK from Amazon

Linuxium
Guest

@CampGareth
The USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK is indeed similar to the DC35 and there are other seemingly identical products as well. The PI225 needs to be powered from a 5V/3A adapter connected via a micro USB and not using the Type-C ports.

tkaiser
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tkaiser

Linuxium :
The PI225 needs to be powered from a 5V/3A adapter connected via a micro USB and not using the Type-C ports.

Well, 5V/3A is 15W while you measured 6.6W maximum consumption. Did you try to add some consumption eg. a host powered disk? The provided Micro USB cable looks thick but the whole idea is somewhat… strange given Micro USB being rated for 1.8A max.

Can you provide ‘lsusb’ or Device Manager output with the USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK connected? Or simply tell whether there’s RTL8153 or AX88179 inside?

Linuxium
Guest

@tkaiser
I’ll gather some further power consumption figures however ‘lsusb’ for the USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK confirms RTL8153:

Tomm
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Tomm

200 dollars? Yeah fanless, but better wait for Intel June Canyon NUCs, they are not fanless but obviously (optional case from Akasa maybe?) more powerful and 4K able hardware, better support (more often tested BIOS updates), and barebones (you can choose RAM and SSD)

Linuxium
Guest

@tkaiser
Drawing more power to the point of exceeding the power supply crashes the device. I took additional power consumption measurements after first replacing the supplied USB/HDMI adapter with my USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK and then after connecting an SSD (2.5″ SSD in external case connected via Type-C). I also looked at the effect on power usage when copying a 32GB file on the SSD and booting with the SSD connected. Because I had the power meter connected I could watch the power climb past 14 Watts prior to the device crashing at the points described below.

Power consumption for the device with supplied peripherals:

Power consumption after replacing the supplied USB/HDMI adapter with my USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK:

Power consumption using USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK and ‘Turbo Mode’ enabled:

Power consumption using USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK, ‘Turbo Mode’ and an SSD connected:

tkaiser
Guest
tkaiser

@Linuxium
Thank you for the additional info (and the great review of course). So everything as expected with Micro USB and I think crashing is the better alternative than the connector starting to melt 🙂

Your last ‘Power off’ numbers with SSD connected make me curious: can you please provide which USB-to-SATA bridge is used in the USB-C disk enclosure?

Linuxium
Guest

@tkaiser
Just to complete the results I measured the power consumption using my USB31_C_CUEFH01_BLK, an SSD connected but with ‘Turbo Mode’ disabled:

and for anyone interested the power supply is a ‘Ktec KSA29A0500300D5’ adapter.

The SSD disk enclosure is a ‘VOLANS VL-UE25-C 2.5″ Type-C HDD Enclosure’ which according to their product page uses the ASM1153 rather than the ASM1153E USB3.0 to SATA bridge chipset with ‘lsusb’ showing:

tkaiser
Guest
tkaiser

@Linuxium
Well, kinda off-topic but according to linux-usb.org/usb.ids the product IDs are as follows:

Just disassembled my ASMedia enclosure to confirm that 0x174c/0x55aa is an ASM1153E in my case. I would think in your enclosure there should be an ASM1351 (since supporting USB-C PHY) but a quick search showed that this chip re-uses product ID 5106 (i will never understand why ASMedia is doing this: re-using product IDs for totally different chipsets): http://www.upantool.com/uploads/allimg/170119/1_170119153832_1.jpg

superfat
Guest
superfat

Good demonstration of a nice idea with poor execution…

VirtualJMills
Guest
VirtualJMills

FYI, Zotac PI225 BIOS “2K171009” stripped-out all of the useful CPU tuning capabilities. 🙁

VirtualJMills
Guest
VirtualJMills

@ VirtualJMills

… the image that is “useful” is BIOS “2K170811″ (i.e. August 11 2017 build), which is of course not available for download anymore.

Retail units appear to now be shipping with BIOS “2K171009” (i.e. October 9 2017 build).

New one
Guest
New one

Where can i get the 2k170811 bios file?

Linuxium
Guest

@VirtualJMills
Interesting. What have they taken out?

beik72
Guest
beik72

@Linuxium:
Do you have the full-featured BIOS or a source to get it from?

@New one:
Anything found regarding 2k170811?

Best regards,
beik72