So, was performance sacrificed to fit a unique, quiet and low-power design? The benchmarks seem to err towards this, but it isn’t that clear cut.
The ZOTAC ZBOX OI520 Plus may not have whitewashed last year’s i7 based ID90 but this year’s model costs less and is a far more balanced system with a better GPU. The GPU grunt in the Sphere is significant, I feel, because you’re more likely to use it when watching hardware decoded videos across YouTube, Netflix and even your own personal collection of files. Another boon that may not seem significant on a first look is the inclusion of Display Port. Even on recent gaming-laptops we’ve tested, they’re often hamstrung with HDMI connections only at thus limited to 1080p. The Sphere is covered for 4K and not just in terms of marketing – it was boon to use as my desktop PC powering a 1440p screen.
In addition to this, the GPU in the Sphere is better suited to gaming and game streaming (Via Steam’s experimental features) than a fast CPU, weak-GPU setup would be. There are no dedicated gaming benchmarks in the review due to the constraints of our previous comparison systems, but I managed to eke a solid 60FPS at 1080p out of the Sphere whilst playing League of Legends – something this households Ivy Bridge laptop (at a meagre 720p laptop resolution) was not capable of.
The Sphere is also extremely quiet, easily below my day-to-day system’s idle noise when I was playing League of Legends. I was initially wary of the small fan and rather passive cooling setup of the Sphere, but the fan is inaudible unless you pick the Sphere up and put it next to your ear. Given that it’s pointed down under the chassis, you’re unlikely to ever hear it whirr. Obviously the model of Sphere we reviewed today was powered by two extremely high-end SSDs, but even if you had a 5400RPM HDD in there I think you’d be hard pressed to hear it even when the drive is thrashing.
Moving onto the the other hardware inside the Sphere, the Wifi coverage (Intel chipset) was impressive with it only dropping to 3/5 bars when moved downstairs and it features support for both 2.4GHz and 5GHz frequency as well as 802.11ac radio. Bluetooth support should provide facility for those looking to use HTPC remotes or living room suitable keyboards with a view to using the Sphere as a fully functioning computer in a family area.
Of course, there is also the shape to take into account, which I think is gorgeous. In a market where everything seems to moving back towards angles and straight lines, some more rounded objects can be quite the remedy. The plastic casing doesn’t feel too cheap and the choice of a matte finish means you won’t want to return the Sphere a week later due to death by finger prints.
To finish up, I think ZOTAC have hit the nail on the head of what a small system should be, both in terms of price, performance and design. It will be down the end-user whether or not the Sphere fits in with their current setup, but the i5 based Sphere should have the legs to cover the bases its aimed at until the next significant unit of computing comes along and it feels an entire generation ahead of the ID90 rather than just a year.
If you’re in the market for a living room PC or funky desktop machine then the Sphere may be what you’re after. The RRP isn’t much more than some HTPC cases and you’re getting an i5 and 4K resolution support for your cash.
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