The PC market has been subject to challenges over the last several years. However, gaming systems and small form-factor (SFF) PCs have weathered the storm particularly well. Many vendors have tried to combine the two, but space constraints and power concerns have ended up limiting the gaming performance of such systems. Zotac, in particular, has been very active in this space with their E-series SFF PCs. The Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 that we are reviewing today is the follow-up to last year’s MAGNUS EN970 that combined a Broadwell-U CPU with a GTX 970M (rebadged as a GTX 960).
The Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 is marketed by Zotac as a powerful VR-ready gaming mini-PC that is equipped with a powerful desktop GPU. It addresses many of the shortcomings of its predecessor. The EN970’s Broadwell-U CPU (with a 15W TDP) was a limiting factor in CPU-bound games. The EN980 uses a Core i5-6400 65W socketed desktop CPU to take care of this issue. The EN970’s GM204 Maxwell GPU packed quite a punch, but, in the year since its introduction, virtual reality has made great strides. At this point of time, a premium gaming PC that can’t be advertised as VR-ready can’t get good market reception. The EN980 also integrates a GM204 GPU. However, it is clocked and configured as a proper desktop GPU (GTX 980) that can meet Valve and Oculus’s VR system requirements.
The increased capabilities of the EN980 do not come for free. While the width and length are similar to that of the EN970, the height more than doubles. Volume-wise, the EN980 comes in at 5.85L ( 225 mm x 203 mm x 128 mm ) compared to the EN970’s 2.24L. The other major change is the move from a single 180W power brick in the EN970 to two 180W units in the EN980. A detailed comparison of the specifications of the EN970 and EN980 can be found here.
Unlike the rather plain industrial design of the ZBOX MAGNUS EN970, the EN980 moves things up several notches. While the sides and rear panels of the chassis are aluminium with a silver color, the front panel is black with a rather big power button. Other components of the front panel include a USB 3.1 Gen 2 Type-A and Type-C port, a SDXC card reader and audio jacks. The top and bottom are made of plastic. The honeycomb top with a mesh underneath helps in the ventilation process. On the whole, the EN980 impresses in the looks department much more compared to the EN970.
In addition to the main unit, the PC package also includes two 180W (19.5V @ 9.23A) power bricks along with US power cords and two WLAN antennae. A quick start guide with installation instructions for the memory and disk drives, a user manual and a read-only USB key with the drivers round up the rest of the package, as shown in the gallery below.
We received the barebones version of the ZBOX MAGNUS EN980. After having recently reviewed multiple Skylake mini-PCs with DDR4 SODIMM slots and M.2 PCIe SSD support, it was a bit surprising to encounter a PC that could take only DDR3L SODIMMs and supported only SATA SSDs in the M.2 slot. We chose to go with a Corsair Vengeance 2x 8GB kit and a Mushkin Atlas Vital 250GB M.2 SATA SSD. The RAM kit we used is rated for 2133 MHz, but it could operate only at 1866 MHz (with no special BIOS tweaks) in the unit. The rest of the specifications of our review unit are summarized in the table below.
|Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 Specifications|
|Processor||Intel Core i5-6400
Skylake-S, 4C/4T, 2.7 GHz (Turbo to 3.3 GHz), 14nm, 6MB L2, 65W TDP
|Memory||Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B2133C11 DDR3L
10-10-10-29 @ 1866 MHz
|Graphics||NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 (4GB GDDR5)|
|Disk Drive(s)||Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
|Networking||Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1×1 802.11ac – 433 Mbps)
2x Realtek RTL8168 Gigabit LAN
|Audio||3.5mm Headphone Jack + 3.5mm Microphone Jack
Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
|Miscellaneous I/O Ports||4x USB 3.0
2x USB 3.1 Gen 2 (1x Type-A + 1x Type-C)
1x SDXC Card Slot
|Operating System||Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 10 Pro x64|
|Pricing (As configured)||$1844 ($1599 barebones)|
|Full Specifications||Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 Specifications|
The gallery below shows some photographs of the unit and its internals. We purposefully didn’t disassemble it fully to ensure that its thermal design was not compromised.
Important aspects to note here include the rather anemic number of I/Os in the rear panel. There are four display outputs capable of 4Kp60 output, but, we only have four USB 3.0 ports and two GbE LAN ports. In order to understand this issue further, a bit of platform analysis is necessary.
Platform Analysis and BIOS Features
The ZOTAC ZBOX MAGNUX EN980 uses a Skylake-S CPU in conjunction with the H170 platform controller hub (PCH). The H170 PCH can support up to 22 high-speed I/O lanes (HSIO), and they can be distributed as shown below.
The GTX 980 GPU is connected directly to the CPU’s x16 PCIe lanes and doesn’t go through the PCH. The PCH itself is connected to the CPU using a DMI 3.0 link (which is effectively PCIe 3.0 x4 in terms of bandwith). The HSIO lanes on the PCH are utilized as below.
- PCI-E 3.0 x2 port #5 : In Use @ x2 (ASMedia ASM1142 USB 3.1 xHCI Controller)
- PCI-E 3.0 x1 port #7 : In Use @ x1 (Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165 AC HMC WiFi Adapter)
- PCI-E 3.0 x1 port #9 : In Use @ x1 (Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Adapter)
- PCI-E 3.0 x1 port #12 : In Use @ x1 (Realtek RTL8168/8111 PCI-E Gigabit Ethernet Adapter)
The Type-A and Type-C USB 3.1 Gen 2 ports in the front panel are from the ASMedia ASM1142 USB 3.1 xHCI Controller. The four USB 3.0 ports in the rear panel are likely from HSIO lanes 7 through 10, while the two SATA ports (one supporting 2.5″ drives and the other supporting M.2 SSDs) are likely from lanes 21 and 22. The SDXC slot in the front panel is actually a Realtek USB 2.0 Card Reader, and one shouldn’t expect high-speed data transfers from modern SD cards using it.
The BIOS features are rather basic for a premium PC. There is not much scope for memory overclocking or even the ability to update the BIOS from within the BIOS. That said, the available options are more than enough for the users who want a plug-and-play experience once the RAM and disk drive are installed.
In the table below, we have an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 when we come to those sections.
|Comparative PC Configurations|
|Aspect||Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980||Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980
Intel NUC6i7KYK (Skull Canyon)
ASRock VisionX 471D
Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN970
|CPU||Intel Core i5-6400||Intel Core i5-6400|
|GPU||NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 (4 GB)||NVIDIA GeForce GTX 980 (4 GB)|
|RAM||Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B2133C11 DDR3L
10-10-10-29 @ 1866 MHz
|Corsair Vengeance CMSX16GX3M2B2133C11 DDR3L
10-10-10-29 @ 1866 MHz
|Storage||Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
|Mushkin Atlas Vital MKNSSDAV250GB-D8
(250 GB; M.2 Type 2280 SATA III; MLC)
|Wi-Fi||Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1×1 802.11ac – 433 Mbps)
|Intel Dual Band Wireless-AC 3165
(1×1 802.11ac – 433 Mbps)
|Price (in USD, when built)||$1844||$1844|
Performance Metrics – I
The Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 was evaluated using our standard test suite for gaming mini-PCs. Not all benchmarks were processed on all the machines due to updates in our testing procedures. Therefore, the list of PCs in each graph might not be the same. In the first section, we will be looking at SYSmark 2014, as well as some of the Futuremark benchmarks.
BAPCo SYSmark 2014
BAPCo’s SYSmark 2014 is an application-based benchmark that uses real-world applications to replay usage patterns of business users in the areas of office productivity, media creation and data/financial analysis. Scores are meant to be compared against a reference desktop (HP ProDesk 600 G1 with a Core i3-4130, 4GB RAM and a 500GB hard drive) that scores 1000 in each of the scenarios. A score of, say, 2000, would imply that the system under test is twice as fast as the reference system.
The SYSmark numbers are a bit of a problem for the MAGNUS EN980 due to the 4C/4T configuration of the Core i5-6400 CPU in it. Since this is a CPU-intensive benchmark, it loses out to better-clocked / higher-thread-count systems such as the Skull Canyon NUC and the mobile Haswell Core i7 in the ASRock VisionX 471D. That said, performance in office and creative applications is probably not of great concern to the target market for the MAGNUS EN980 – hardcore gamers.
Futuremark PCMark 8
PCMark 8 provides various usage scenarios (home, creative and work) and offers ways to benchmark both baseline (CPU-only) as well as OpenCL accelerated (CPU + GPU) performance. We benchmarked select PCs for the OpenCL accelerated performance in all three usage scenarios. These scores are heavily influenced by the CPU in the system. The presence of a discrete GPU and better power budget enables the ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 to make a clean sweep of all the Futuremark benchmark numbers.
Miscellaneous Futuremark Benchmarks
3D Rendering – CINEBENCH R15
We have moved on from R11.5 to R15 for 3D rendering evaluation. CINEBENCH R15 provides three benchmark modes – OpenGL, single threaded and multi-threaded. Evaluation of select PCs in all three modes provided us the following results. The OpenGL performance with the GTX 980 at the helm is a cakewalk for the EN980, but the unit comes in the middle of the pack when it comes to CPU rendering performance for the same reasons that we analyzed in the SYSmark scores section.
Performance Metrics – II
In this section, we mainly look at benchmark modes in programs used on a day-to-day basis, i.e, application performance and not synthetic workloads.
First off, we have some video encoding benchmarks courtesy of x264 HD Benchmark v5.0. This is simply a test of CPU performance. As expected, the results are similar to that of the SYSmark section, for the same reasons.
7-Zip is a very effective and efficient compression program, often beating out OpenCL accelerated commercial programs in benchmarks even while using just the CPU power. 7-Zip has a benchmarking program that provides tons of details regarding the underlying CPU’s efficiency. In this subsection, we are interested in the compression and decompression MIPS ratings when utilizing all the available threads.
As businesses (and even home consumers) become more security conscious, the importance of encryption can’t be overstated. CPUs supporting the AES-NI instruction can accelerate the encryption and decryption processes. The Core i5-6400 does have AES-NI support. TrueCrypt, a popular open-source disk encryption program can take advantage of the AES-NI capabilities. The TrueCrypt internal benchmark provides some interesting cryptography-related numbers. The AES speeds are graphed below. This is a purely CPU feature / clock speed based test.
Agisoft PhotoScan is a commercial program that converts 2D images into 3D point maps, meshes and textures. The program designers sent us a command line version in order to evaluate the efficiency of various systems that go under our review scanner. The command line version has two benchmark modes, one using the CPU and the other using both the CPU and GPU (via OpenCL). The benchmark takes around 50 photographs and does four stages of computation:
- Stage 1: Align Photographs
- Stage 2: Build Point Cloud (capable of OpenCL acceleration)
- Stage 3: Build Mesh
- Stage 4: Build Textures
We record the time taken for each stage. Since various elements of the software are single threaded, others multithreaded, and some use GPUs, it is interesting to record the effects of CPU generations, speeds, number of cores, DRAM parameters and the GPU using this software. OpenCL acceleration in Photoscan doesn’t seem to have any dramatic effect in the GTX 980-equipped MAGNUS EN980.
Wrapping up our application benchmark numbers is the Dolphin Emulator benchmark mode results. This is again a test of the CPU capabilities, and the ZBOX wins this one, thanks to its higher power budget compared to other systems.
The gaming credentials of the GTX 980 are quite impressive. It is a bonafide high-end desktop GPU in the NVIDIA Maxwell series (GM204). The version in the MAGNUS EN980 is not crippled in any way despite the size of the unit. The GPU should easily be able to support even 4K gaming.
For the purpose of our mini-PC benchmarking, we chose four different games (Sleeping Dogs, Tomb Raider, Bioshock Infinite and DiRT Showdown) at three different quality levels. Note that the main aim here is not to show that the GTX 980 can play the latest and greatest games (which it can do). Rather, it is to compare against other gaming-focused mini-PCs that we have evaluated before.
The Talos Principle
The graphs speak for themselves. The MAGNUS EN980 blows every other gaming mini-PC to smithereens. Tt does have a slightly bigger footprint and much higher power budget compared to the rest of the systems in the above graphs. But, that shouldn’t take away any sheen from the immense gaming prowess that can now be obtained in a SFF machine.
Gaming Notebooks Compared
One of the most common comments posted in response to mini-PC reviews is that the value proposition of an equivalent notebook is much higher than that of the PC. While there are plenty of factors that might make this comparison invalid, we thought it would be interesting to see how the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 fares against premium gaming notebooks. Towards this, we borrowed a few benchmarks from our notebook reviews and processed them on the EN980. First, we will look at some artificial benchmarks before moving on to the games themselves.
Middle Earth: Shadow of Mordor
The takeaway from these results is that the performance of the mobile GPUs are approaching that of the desktop GPUs in many games. However, the EN980 is able to hold its own except in certain cases where there is a SLI of mobile GPUs, or where the benchmark is also reflective of the CPU capabilities and the competing system uses a 4C/8T processor
Networking and Storage Performance
Networking and storage are two major aspects which influence our experience with any computing system. This section presents results from our evaluation of these aspects in the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980. On the storage side, one option would be repetition of our strenuous SSD review tests on the drive(s) in the PC. Fortunately, to avoid that overkill, PCMark 8 has a storage bench where certain common workloads such as loading games and document processing are replayed on the target drive. Results are presented in two forms, one being a benchmark number and the other, a bandwidth figure. We ran the PCMark 8 storage bench on selected PCs and the results are presented below.
The Mushkin Atlas Vital is based on the tried-and-tested SandForce SF-2281 platform. Since it is more of an economical alternative, it doesn’t stand out in the benchmarks against other NVMe rivals. That said, the Atlas Vital M.2 2280 SSD is definitely a better alternative compared to a hard disk drive.
On the networking side, we restricted ourselves to the evaluation of the WLAN component. Our standard test router is the Netgear R7000 Nighthawk configured with both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. The router is placed approximately 20 ft. away, separated by a drywall (as in a typical US building). A wired client is connected to the R7000 and serves as one endpoint for iperf evaluation. The PC under test is made to connect to either the 5 GHz (preferred) or 2.4 GHz SSID and iperf tests are conducted for both TCP and UDP transfers. It is ensured that the PC under test is the only wireless client for the Netgear R7000. We evaluate total throughput for up to 32 simultaneous TCP connections using iperf and present the highest number in the graph below.
In the UDP case, we try to transfer data at the highest rate possible for which we get less than 1% packet loss.
The numbers are very respectable for a 1×1 802.11ac solution.
The ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 is remarkably silent consiering the size of the unit and its gaming capabilities. Watercooling enables the fans to operate at very low speeds compared to the regular heat sink and blower combinations used in other mini-PCs. Obviously, the unit is not for the discerning HTPC enthusiast who is better off with a passively cooled system. Its acoustic profile doesn’t do any disservice to the EN980’s chances of being used as a gaming HTPC.
Refresh Rate Accurancy
Starting with Haswell, Intel, AMD and NVIDIA have been on par with respect to display refresh rate accuracy. The most important refresh rate for videophiles is obviously 23.976 Hz (the 23 Hz setting). As we have come to expect from NVIDIA, the default refresh rate accuracy is not that great, though they do allow fine-tuning of the refresh rate unlike other GPU vendors.
The gallery below presents some of the other refresh rates that we tested out. The first statistic in madVR’s OSD indicates the display refresh rate.
Network Streaming Efficiency
Evaluation of OTT playback efficiency was done by playing back our standard YouTube test stream and five minutes from our standard Netflix test title. Using HTML5, the YouTube stream plays back a 1080p H.264 encoding. Since YouTube now defaults to HTML5 for video playback, we have stopped evaluating Adobe Flash acceleration. Note that only NVIDIA exposes GPU and VPU loads separately. Both Intel and AMD bundle the decoder load along with the GPU load. The following two graphs show the power consumption at the wall for playback of the HTML5 stream in Mozilla Firefox (v 47.0.1). The power numbers are nothing spectacular, and come well behind other mini-PCs which have U-series CPUs or don’t carry the burden of a discrete GPU.
GPU load and VPU load were around 14% and 13% for the YouTube HTML5 stream.GPU load in the steady state for the Netflix streaming case was 5% and the VPU load was 16.5%.
Netflix streaming evaluation was done using the Windows 10 Netflix app. Manual stream selection is available (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S) and debug information / statistics can also be viewed (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-D). Statistics collected for the YouTube streaming experiment were also collected here.
Decoding and Rendering Benchmarks
In order to evaluate local file playback, we concentrate on Kodi (for the casual user) and madVR (for the HTPC enthusiast). Under madVR, we decided to test out a ‘stress’ configuration with the following settings changed compared to the default configuration:
- Fullscreen rendering configured in window mode
- Deinterlacing activated when in doubt
- Banding artifacts reduced with high debanding strength and high strength during fade in/out
- Ringing artifacts reduced
- Chroma upscale : NNEDI3 with 16 neurons
- Image downscale: Jinc, with anti-ringing filter activated in relaxed mode, and scaling in linear light
- Image upscale : Jinc, with anti-ringing filter activated, and scaling in sigmoidal light
In the madVR case, the LAV Filters (configured to decode with dxva2n codec) bundled with MPC-HC v1.7.7 was used.
In our earlier reviews, we focused on presenting the GPU loading and power consumption at the wall in a table (with problematic streams in bold). Starting with the Broadwell NUC review, we decided to represent the GPU load and power consumption in a graph with dual Y-axes. Nine different test streams of 90 seconds each were played back with a gap of 30 seconds between each of them. The characteristics of each stream are annotated at the bottom of the graph. Note that the GPU usage is graphed in red and needs to be considered against the left axis, while the at-wall power consumption is graphed in green and needs to be considered against the right axis.
Frame drops are evident whenever the GPU load consistently stays above the 85 – 90% mark. The only issue is the 4Kp30 stream with madVR stress configuration enabled. It appears that even the GTX 980 can be made to struggle with complicated madVR settings.
Moving on to the codec support, the GTX 980 is a known quantity with respect to the scope of supported hardware accelerated codecs. There is no VP9 or HEVC Main10 hardware-accelerated decode support. DXVA Checker serves as a confirmation.
Power Consumption and Thermal Performance
The power consumption at the wall was measured with a 1080p display being driven through the HDMI port. In the graphs below, we compare the idle and load power of the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 with other low power PCs evaluated before. For load power consumption, we ran the AIDA64 System Stability Test with various stress components, as well as our custom Prime95 + Furmark script, and noted the maximum sustained power consumption at the wall.
The presence of a 65W TDP CPU and a high-end discrete GPU with a TDP of around 180W, as well as the default BIOS configuration of ‘Performance Boost’ make the above idle and load power numbers plausible. The MAGNUS EN980 simply leaves other mini-PCs behing when it comes to gaming benchmarks. In terms of power consumption, it is the same scenario, but, it is to the detriment of the end user.
Our thermal stress routine starts with the system at idle, followed by four stages of different system loading profiles using the AIDA64 System Stability Test (each of 30 minutes duration). In the first stage, we stress the CPU, caches and RAM. In the second stage, we add the GPU to the above list. In the third stage, we stress the GPU standalone. In the final stage, we stress all the system components (including the disks). Beyond this, we leave the unit idle in order to determine how quickly the various temperatures in the system can come back to normal idling range. The various clocks, temperatures and power consumption numbers for the system during the above routine are presented in the graphs below.
We repeated the same observations with our legacy stress test using Prime95 and Furmark.
We can see from the frequency and temperature graphs that there is no thermal throttling at play. The fan speed also maxes out around 1800 RPM. The large fan diameter ensures that the noise profile remains acceptable.
Another interesting aspect to keep note of while evaluating mini-PCs is the chassis temperature. Using the Android version of the FLIR One thermal imager, we observed the chassis temperature after the CPU package temperature reached the steady state value in the above graph.
The chassis and internal temperatures do not show any reason for alarm.
Miscellaneous Aspects and Concluding Remarks
Over the course of the review, I have mentioned at multiple places that the MAGNUS EN980 has a surprisingly great noise profile. In order to get a rough quantitative feel of this aspect, a Sound Meter app on the OnePlus 3 was used to graph the loudness rating. The phone was kept right on top of the chassis – equivalent to putting one’s ears right on top of the unit while in operation.
At idle, the operation of the water pump and the 620 RPM fan result in loudness ratings between 28 dB and 35 dB. On the other hand, when subject to maximum stress, the rating climbs up to around 70 dB.
Coming to the business end of the review, Zotac must first be congratulated for maintaining an excellent noise profile for the PC. The compact watercooling setup has proved to be very effective. The thermal design is able to keep component temperatures low under both idle and loading conditions, preventing excessive thermal stress from shortening lifespan of components.
The EN980 and the NUC6i5KYK can make it together in a single frame, but the performance packed into the former is way out of the NUC’s league – particularly from a gaming viewpoint
The EN980 is not without its faults or scope for improvement: For example, the front USB ports can’t be used for booting / installing an OS (and the information is buried deep in the manual). The DDR3L memory can’t be ‘overclocked’ by much and the BIOS options could do with some overhaul. The M.2 SATA SSD reached more than 70C for long durations with the AIDA64 System Stability test. A thermal solution for the M.2 slot is definitely needed. Most SATA drives should be fine, but, if the same chassis / cooling design is used for a NVMe drive in the future, there is some scope for overheating. We could also use some improvements in the chassis design – in particular, a carry handle of some sort for better portability – would be nice to have. It would also be useful to route one of the four display outputs to the front panel. The two power bricks solution is a bit clunky. We might get better efficiency with a slightly larger footprint and an internal slim PSU. Dated internals (no support for DDR4 SODIMMs or M.2 PCIe SSDs) are a bit disappointing for a premium machine, but those point to how long Zotac has actually been working on perfecting this product.
Make no mistake – despite the list of feedback points being longer than the list of positives, the Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980 is hands-down the most innovative small form-factor machine to have come to the market in the last several years. We haven’t seen something this different and impressive (in terms of CPU and GPU performance for a given size) since Intel introduced the Sandy Bridge NUCs. Credit must be given where it is due, and no praise is too less for the R&D team at Zotac for pulling this off.
Creating a technically impressive product is only one side of the equation. The product must also be priced right to have the right impact in the market. Our personal opinion is that the $1600 barebones price is a bit on the higher side. However, Zotac indicated that their market research pointed to the price being reasonable for the specifications. We have also seen that the gaming market is not as price-sensitive as the other consumer market segments, and this might lend credence to Zotac’s observations.
The Zotac ZBOX MAGNUS EN980’s system performance and VR-ready GPU configuration should satisfy the vast majority of gaming enthusiasts. We have a compact unit that is able to properly support a high-end desktop GPU while maintaining excellent thermal and acoustic parameters. Pretty much the only people who might find it unattractive are those who tend to upgrade components selectively over the lifespan of their gaming system, or DIY enthusiasts who want the latest and greatest in choice of components for their PC build.
We hope Zotac is committed to this chassis design and thermal solution for future products in the premium gaming mini-PC space. In the short term, the ZBOX MAGNUS EN980’s internals should be updated with a Pascal GPU. When Kaby Lake comes around, we hope Zotac integrates a motherboard with more modern features. Given the cost of the unit, we are sure prospective consumers wouldn’t mind a few hundred dollars more for a Z-series chipset with, say, Thunderbolt 3 and a few more USB 3.0 ports spread around the chassis.