Zotac MAG review

An HD cinema nettop in a really tiny box

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Zotac mag with box

CPU-wise, we're talking dual-core Atom 330 CPU and therefore no less than four logical CPUs available for number crunching.

Impressive, eh? But as we shall see, even a dual-core Atom chip is a long way short of a proper desktop CPU. Still, the whole point of Nvidia's Ion chipset is to take the load off the CPU. So maybe that doesn't matter.

Sure enough, the MAG does a great job with a wide range of HD formats up to and including seriously high bit rate 1080p content.

There is, however, a catch. Enabling the hardware acceleration bits on the Ion chip is absolutely crucial for smooth playback. Without it, you're relying on the Atom CPU. Even in dual-core form, it's hopeless for HD video.

Baby Blu-ray box

In theory, hardware acceleration for Blu-ray disks is a simple checkbox affair with software players such as Cyberlink PowerDVD.

zotac mag

However, the MAG doesn't have an optical drive of any kind. In theory, you could hook up a USB Blu-ray drive. But that rather defeats the object of such a small system – ie its ability to be entirely out of sight and earshot.

Instead, it makes more sense to play homebrew video files, the most popular current format for which uses the MKV container and the x264 codec. That's where things get a little complicated.

To enable hardware acceleration for this kind of content, you need to use a software player and decoder that support DXVA playback. Obvious candidates for the former include Media Player Classic: Home Cinema, while PowerDVD's codecs get the job done nicely for the latter.

Assuming you have these software components, you then need to drill down into a few settings menus.

Depending on your skill levels, it can be a bit of a chore. But the idea we really want to get across is that you can't expect the MAG to cope with everything you throw at it out of the box. It will need some tweaking.

That said, you really only have to do it once and the result in our experience is a pretty flawless playback experience. In an ideal world, you'd have a powerful CPU as a fallback for those occasional files that simply won't behave with hardware acceleration, but it's the price you pay for such a compact PC.

Weak CPU

Try firing up an application like Cinebench and you'll discover the real truth about the Atom chip's performance. Pathetic. If the likes of Cinebench seems rather academic, the Atom's weediness makes itself felt just navigating the desktop.

That's true even with Microsoft's new and supposedly Atom-friendly Windows 7. As for games, forget it. Modern 3D will not run on this system, although flash games and older titles will work fine.

Oh, and for the record, the Ion chip does support general purpose processing via Nvidia's CUDA interface. Indeed we tried the CUDA-enabled Badaboom video encoding app. It works. But running at around three frames per second, you're looking at about eight hours to re-encode a typical movie.

All of which means the MAG rather paints itself into a corner. If what you want is the smallest, quietest and most living-room friendly box for playing back HD video, look no further. Ask much more of it, however, and you'll quickly become frustrated.