Zotac MAG £225
25th Nov 2009 | 12:10
An HD cinema nettop in a really tiny box
Zotac MAG: Overview
Big-screen fun in a preposterously puny package. That's the remit for the Mini All-in-one Giant, Zotac's new nettop PC. Otherwise known as the Zotac MAG, it's supposed to be ultra compact yet powerful enough for full-HD entertainment thanks to its Nvidia Ion chipset. Does it deliver?
On paper, things look pretty promising. Physically, it's absolutely tiny measuring just 186mm x 189mm x 38mm.
Strictly speaking, there are one or two slightly slimmer nettops out there such as Acer's Revo 3600. But we're talking millimeters here and there.
More to the point, there are none that look slicker thanks to the MAG's glossy black chassis and funky styling features such as a large orange ring that lights up out of nowhere when you power up.
It also comes with a number of mounting options. Firstly, you can simply lay it flat on its rubberised vibration-absorbing feet, a bit like an external optical drive. There's also a little stand allowing you to pop it in a space-saving upright position.
The other option is the most intriguing. A VESA mounting bracket enables the MAG to be placed on the back of many flat panel monitors and most HDTV sets. Thus mounted, it's completely out of sight.
In terms of hardware specifications, the Zotac MAG is essentially a feature-complete system and comes configured with a 160GB laptop-style hard disk and 2GB of memory, again in laptop SODIMM format.
There are also plenty of ports on the chassis, including five USB sockets, VGA and HDMI video interfaces and even eSATA support.
That said, it doesn't come with an operating system and it lacks an optical drive which can make installation a bit tricky. You'll need either a USB optical drive or a big USB memory key for that job.
As for networking, along with the gigabit ethernet port, there's built in b/g/n wireless, too.
Zotac MAG: Verdict
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.
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.
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.