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The device to your right is a desktop computer. No foolin…

Perhaps more to the point, it’s a very nice desktop computer, with some truly unexpected features. It’s also a very small desktop computer. While the photograph here doesn’t provide much of a sense of scale, the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U towers all of eight inches high, and it could easily be mistaken for a game console or an external hard drive.

We came upon the Zotac ZBOX while we were questing for the ideal platform to host web servers. Web servers, by their nature, run all the time. We reside in Ontario, where the government taxes all the time. One of our government’s favorite cash cows of late has been electricity bills, which have more than doubled over the past decade, and promise to do so at least twice more over the next one. Our government is unapologetic about sticking it to everyone with one or more electric outlets in their homes – high electricity prices, they maintain, promote conservation, and anyone who doesn’t want to pay for electricity has the perfectly viable option of freezing in the dark.

One of the first things on our shopping list for hardware to power a web server, then, was a box with an anorexically thin appetite.

The Zotac ZBOX shown here consumes fifteen watts when it’s running. A conventional desktop computer sucks back about two hundred watts. The almost non-existent power draw of the ZBOX is something of a clue as to its many other laudable attributes… such as its diminutive footprint and its all but silent operation.

Unlike traditional PCs, the ZBOX is based on an Intel Atom processor, a low-power chip intended to maximize the battery life of netbooks and other peripatetic devices. Because it consumes very little lightening, an Atom processor generates almost no heat. This has allowed the ZBOX to maintain its frosty disposition with a single relatively slow fan that makes almost no noise. A ZBOX doesn’t require much internal air space to dissipate heat, as it doesn’t generate any detectable heat to dissipate.

If you’re into the whole green experience, the minimal power consumption of a ZBOX will no doubt save the planet and return the Mauritian dodo from extinction.

It’s probably worth mentioning that an Atom processor is not the equivalent of the high-end nuclear-powered Intel processors found in more conventional desktop systems, but it’s not a programmable toaster, either. Unless you plan to immerse yourself in a lot of processor-intensive gaming or edit large amounts of digital video… or undertake comparable tasks that call for a honking big processor… a ZBOX is a decidedly capable computer. It’s more than sufficient for surfing the web, running a word processor and uploading pictures of your cat to Facebook – the sorts of tasks most computers are called upon to perform.

While our web servers were ultimately to be equipped with Linux as an operating system, we installed Windows on a ZBOX to see what it would make of a more conventional desktop. Shockingly, the ZBOX ran Windows somewhat more quickly than some of the full-size desktop systems about our digs.

As a final prefatory note, the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U arguably deserves some sort of award for being elegantly designed and nicely made. Its case is robust plastic… with no rattling pressed-steel bits… that opens with two easily-grasped thumb screws. Its internal layout is punctiliously neat. It has its various ports and connectors in intuitive places around its periphery. It has a very cool blue ring that lights up the left side of its case when it’s working.

Some Assembly Required

The aspect of the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U that might prove slightly daunting to traditional consumers of computer technology is that initially removed from its packaging and powered up, a ZBOX will do precisely nothing… save for lighting up the aforementioned cool blue ring on the side of its case

The ZBOXSD-ID12-U is sold as a “bare bones” computer. In its nascent manifestation, it lacks a hard drive, memory, an operating system, a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse, a CD-ROM drive and an instructional DVD to address you like a petulant five-year-old while it walks you through locating the Windows Start button.

None of this missing hardware should be regarded as a shortcoming of the device. A ZBOX will become whatever you need it to be. It’s a bit like a custom-made Dell system in this regard, save that you can decide exactly what you want in your computer. That, and you won’t need a vacuum lifter to shuffle it through the assembly process.

A few years ago, the thought of assembling a computer from a boxful of parts with instructions badly translated from Mandarin Chinese would have sent most sane people screaming from the room, begging for sedation. The technology… and the instructions… have evolved somewhat in the interval. The ZBOXSD-ID12-U has been expertly designed to make the whole works embarrassingly simple.

You won’t even need a screwdriver, unless you over-tighten the aforementioned thumbscrews that hold its case together.

The ZBOXSD-ID12-U requires a 2.5-inch SATA hard drive – you can choose pretty much any compatible drive you like the look of. It can be equipped with a conventional mechanical hard drive, although in keeping with the minimal power consumption we wanted in our servers, we chose an Intel 60-gigabyte solid state drive. Solid state drives, which use non-volatile flash memory to simulate the storage of a “real” hard drive, generate way less heat, use almost no power, are blindingly quick and utterly silent. They’re also a lot more reliable than their mechanical ancestors, as they have no moving parts.

The motherboard of the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U is designed to allow a 2.5-inch hard drive or SSD to snap right onto the board. No screws or cables are required, and even liberal politicians will find it impossible to install the drive any way but correctly.

The ZBOXSD-ID12-U can host up to four gigabytes of 204-pin DDR3 SO-DIMM memory. It’s not necessary to know what any of the foregoing frightening letters actually mean – just order as much memory as you’d like to have in your computer and snap it into the appropriate slots inside the machine’s case.

The ZBOX comes with a lucid manual sporting actual photographs… rather than inscrutable drawings… that will walk you through installing its required components.

With its memory and hard drive in situ, the ZBOX is ready to be closed up, powered up and outfitted with an operating system.

Because the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U doesn’t include a built-in CD-ROM drive… which would have been almost as large as the computer itself… you’ll need a USB CD-ROM drive to install an operating system on your new hard drive, and to do anything else that involves CDs or DVDs once your system is up and running.

Installing Windows or Linux on a Zotac ZBOX works pretty much like getting a more conventional desktop system on line. Especially if you chose to spring for a solid state drive rather than a mechanical hard drive, the whole adventure is pretty quick.

As an aside, one minor omission in the ZBOX’s otherwise laudable instructions involves choosing which device to have the system boot from. It will attempt to boot from its hard drive first, followed by a USB CD-ROM drive or other external storage device if it lucks out with the hard drive. This means that if you install an operating system on it and subsequently change your mind, there would appear to be no way to have it boot up from a CD-ROM and install something different.

The secret resolution to this problem is to hold down the F3 or F11 key when the ZBOX boots up. Doing so will cause a menu to appear, allowing you to manually select the device to boot from.

Alternately, you can repeatedly hit the Del key when the machine first boots to access its BIOS setup screen, which will allow various low-level settings, such as the drive boot order and the initial Num Lock key state, to be configured.

Perhaps because it includes no internal peripherals, the Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U fairly seethes with USB ports. There are six in all, including one in the top of the case, and one up front. It also includes an RJ45 Ethernet port… without which it wouldn’t be much of a web server… a VGA monitor port, audio jacks, an HDMI television connector and a connector for its external power brick.

It has built-in 802.11n/g/b WiFi, which we didn’t get involved with.

Catching Zs

By the time we got the ZBOXSD-ID12-U configured and running, we were unsurprised to find it possessed of Precambrian stability and a flawless disposition. These things never crash, never misbehave and never fail to do what it says on the box.

The price of a complete Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U will vary considerably with what you snap into it and attach to its many ports and connectors. Our web servers cost well south of three hundred dollars – using SSD storage, which is somewhat pricier than comparable mechanical hard drives. It’s worth mentioning that this credit card damage didn’t include a monitor, a keyboard, a mouse or a dedicated external CD-ROM drive, none of which are really called for in a computer that just serves files over the ‘net.

There seems to be a considerable variation in the prices of these machines, and of the various components required to get them ready for polite company. Be sure to shop around.

The Zotac ZBOXSD-ID12-U is well worth considering the next time you find yourself shopping for a new computer. It’s only minutely more challenging to set up than a “store bought” system. Its remarkably compact personality more than makes up for the requirement to get up close and personal with silicon for a few minutes.

The ZBOX comes with a desktop stand – it also comes with a mounting kit to bolt it to the back of a suitable flat-screen monitor. So ensconced, its desktop footprint will diminish to pretty much nothing.