The ZBox Sphere isn't a supercomputer, games console or workstation, but it works well for all basic computer tasks and media playback. For £300, that's enough for us.
Smart looking device
Plenty of ports
Fragile build quality
Slight lid design issue
Not exactly a powerhouse
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Today, we live in a post-modern, multi-cultural world where traditional norms have been turned upside down. Half-Cantonese, with an Italian name and heavy Welsh accent? Unlikely to even turn heads. So what's the problem when something called a box is actually a sphere?
Nothing really. Despite the name of Zotac's seeming never-ending run of ZBox mini computers, they're probably better known for selling small PCs than for straight edges. The company has a fairly hefty line-up of different models, and while the earlier designs borrowed their looks from the tried-and-tested net-top form factor, Zotac has shown that it's not afraid to experiment.
We've had horizontal models, and the ZBox Nano as well, which shrinks its dimensions down to rival those of Intel's tiny NUC mini computer. So it's not too hard to see why they've come up with the ZBox Sphere mini PC, which is almost (but not quite) shaped like an orb. While the top is a perfect sphere, the base is flat, in order for it to sit flat on a desk or under the television, with the ports conveniently positioned on another flat section at the rear.
Powering the ZBox Sphere is a dual-core Intel Core i5-4200U processor, an Intel HD4400 integrated GPU, and 4GB of DDR3 memory, with another memory slot for expansion if you want. This specification roughly matches mid-range Ultrabooks. It's sold as a barebones unit, with no operating system, so before it's ready to use, you'll need to install your choice of Windows or Linux on the device.
Along with Bluetooth 4.0, 802.11ac wireless is built in, via an Intel Dual Band AC 3160 adapter. The faster standard is becoming commonplace on new PCs, and is particularly useful with a living room PC, as that's the one room in the house you'll want as few wires as possible, but still have network speeds that can keep up with streaming media.
From my own experience, 802.11n sometimes doesn't cut the mustard with streaming 1080p HD video (while older wireless standards are total rubbish these days). If the router is at the other end of the house, with particularly thick walls in between, you might notice choppy audio, or the occasional dropped frame.
Zotac has realised there's nothing more infuriating than a lack of ports, so they've gone to town with the ZBox Sphere. There's HDMI and DisplayPort video outputs, four USB 3.0 and two USB 2.0 ports at the back, along with Gigabit Ethernet and another USB 2.0 port at the side for convenient access. Finally, there are separate 3.5mm microphone and speaker outputs, along with an SD card slot and the power button. Four ventilation grilles complete the rear design. There's no optical audio connector, but HDMI carries Dolby Digital 5.1, so you should be okay if you stick with that.
Like most mini PCs, the ZBox Sphere works great as an HTPC, because it's small enough to fit under or to the side of most TVs and powerful enough for video playback, especially when running something like XBMC.
It costs £300 (or $404 in the US, AU$435), but can be found online for slightly less if you shop around. Price is a critical factor for small, secondary media PCs, since few people want to spend close to four figures on a computer only used for home entertainment, nor are such high-spec monsters necessary.
Another important consideration is heat and noise output. Thanks to Intel's performance gains in its Haswell processors, the Core i5 4200U is a great choice, since it only has a TDP of 15W, and even with its low 1.6GHz clock frequency, which climbs to 2.3GHz in Turbo Mode, it's more than capable of 1080p video decoding. There's a small fan at the base of the ZBox Sphere, and this is all that's needed.