Zotac has been teasing the Zbox Sphere since the turn of the year, but only now, almost six months after the initial unveiling, is the product ready to make its way to retail shelves.
Shaped to look a lot like Google's Nexus Q and outfitted with hardware not too dissimilar to Intel's NUC, the Sphere takes low-power PC hardware and packages it in an attractive, orb-shaped case.
This is an obvious departure from the Zbox we're accustomed to seeing, yet it's a welcome change in a burgeoning mini-PC market that's full of familiar-looking boxes. The Sphere - officially dubbed the Zbox Sphere OI520 - will turn heads and is a more attractive addition to a home or office. I've regularly been thwarted at my attempts at putting a PC in the living room, yet the Sphere may succeed where others have failed as the only comment from the wife thus far has been "oooh, that's pretty."
And yes, it is, actually. Measuring 154mm x 154mm x 161mm in size, Zotac's Sphere is nice and compact and comes finished in a matte-black colour that helps give it a very stylish look and feel. There are no forward-facing buttons or ports to detract from the smooth surface and even the Zotac logo has been tucked neatly around back.
Build quality is good throughout, and though plastic is the primary construction material, the Sphere feels well put together and exhibits no squeaks or rattles. Finishing it off rather nicely is a ring circling the device that lights up in a subtle-yet-attractive blue that can be customised through the system BIOS. By default it's set to turn on and off in unison with the machine, but users can set it to pulse, follow, or completely off, which is handy for those not wanting to be distracted.
A design that's as easy on the eye as this would typically demand a price premium, however Zotac is choosing to remain reasonably competitive from the get-go. As is the case with most Zbox solutions, the Sphere OI520 will be offered in two models; a barebone unit priced at £275; and a 'Plus' variant that adds 4GB of RAM and a basic 500GB hard disk for a grand total of £345. Do be aware that an operating system isn't included with either SKU - the addition of Windows 8 would take the overall cost of the 'Plus' model up to around the £420 mark.
Straightforward pricing and sleek aesthetics are all part of the attraction, yet Zotac's streamlined approach does introduce a couple of pros and cons. Having a clutter-free front certainly adds to the Sphere's sex appeal, however as a consequence the power button is tucked around back where it's a little more awkward to reach, and the customary reset button has fallen by the wayside. Zotac has included a USB 2.0 port on the right side for added convenience, as well as a Kensington lock on the left, but the rest of the I/O ports are all housed on the straightened rear face.
Covering just about all common usage scenarios, the Sphere's chassis incorporates a multi-card reader, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and DisplayPort outputs, audio and microphone jacks, four USB 3.0 ports, a further two USB 2.0 ports and a connector for the bundled 65W external power supply. Wireless AC and Bluetooth connectivity are also onboard courtesy of an Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3160 adapter.
Five good-sized rubber feet help keep the Sphere propped up and cooling is aided by vents on the bottom and rear of the device. A brief twist of the cap unlocks the dome to reveal access to the innards, which include a 4in x 4in motherboard armed with a latest-generation Intel Core i5-4200U processor and integrated HD 4400 graphics.
It's the 'Plus' model that's under the spotlight today, and we can see that the dual-core, hyper-threaded Intel chip is joined by a single 4GB stick of Crucial DDR3 memory and a 500GB Samsung hard disk that operates at a basic 5,400RPM. Both are easily upgradeable, and seeing as two DIMM slots are available, it's a shame Zotac hasn't included dual-channel memory as standard. Our advice to potential buyers would be to opt for the barebones package and add, say, 8GB of memory in a 2x4GB configuration and a faster storage device.
The Sphere OI520 is SATA 6Gbps compatible and also features an mSATA slot on the bottom edge of the board, making it easy for users to install a choice of high-speed SSDs. What's interesting is that the board and components have more room to breathe than in a traditional Zbox chassis. This time around, Zotac has the CPU attached to a heatpipe that runs to a small bottom-mounted fan, and the cooling solution works very well. We'll examine temperatures a little later in the review, but we can start by confirming that the Sphere runs quiet. Idle noise level was recorded as a barely-audible 32.5db, and that figure rose to only 33.4db under load, making this one of the quietest Zbox PCs we've ever used.