We at VR-Zone have long been fans of the compact mini PC. The trend towards small footprint machines continues, but perhaps not as quickly as one might have expected in the age of smartphones, tablets and ultrabooks. The ECS Liva Z we’re reviewing today is a new generation ultra compact form factor PC, following in the footsteps of the original Liva and Liva X. Like its predecessors, Its design goals are size minimization and affordability whilst delivering the power needed to run common PC tasks.
Almost all of the major PC manufacturers have a line of ultra compact PC’s these days. In times past, even a basic PC for Grandma and Grandpa to send email and browse the net meant the purchase of the stereotypical beige box ATX sized PC and chunky CRT monitor. Computers have come a long way since then. There’s no need for a PC to take up the entire table. Today, you can get a powerful desktop PC the size of a paperback book. The potential uses for a PC such as this are vast. Whether you need power thrifty, silent and low powered office machines, embedded signage or kiosk use, a media server or NAS front end, a HTPC or just something to save space, then a tiny ultra compact PC could be the answer.
Below are the major specifications of the Liva Z. Our sample came equipped with the Celeron N3350 SoC which is a dual core with a base frequency of 1.1Ghz and a boost frequency of 2.4Ghz. the TDP is 6.0 w which means there is no need for any active cooling.
This CPU belongs to the Apollo Lake family with its CPU cores code named Goldmont. Intel claims the new SoC improves CPU performance by 30% and graphics performance by 45% over the previous generation Braswell family. This should go a long way to addressing the somewhat lackluster performance of prior Braswell equipped models. Our experience with Bay Trail and Braswell was they they lacked a bit of CPU grunt. This architectural improvement, plus the native support for HEVC and VP9 codecs means the Apollo Lake family is much more compelling.
The Intel 500 Graphics is clocked at 200Mhz with a boost clock of 650Mhz, though GPUz has not been updated with full recognition of the unit at this time.
The system can take up to 2x4Gb of DDR3L so-dimm memory. Our sample came equipped with a single Kingston 4Gb module and also a 32Gb eMMC embedded drive, upon which we installed the OS.
Other noteworthy specs include the ability to accept a M.2 drive (though only a 2242 sized drive which are far less common than 2280 sized drives), AC WiFi and dual Gigabit LAN.
A Closer Look
The Liva Z come boxed in an attractive package which is refreshingly free of snarling beasts, RGB everywhere and warriors with lasers that many gaming focused PC products and packages are adorned with these days. Sometimes we want our PC’s to be neither heard or seen 😉
The Liva Z comes with the following accessories: A power brick, a VESA mount with accompanying screws and a power lead. The power adapter is made by reputable manufacturer FSP and is rated for 19V and 3.42A (for a total of 65w) meaning it has more than enough power to drive the Liva Z and its peripherals without any problem.
The Liva Z itself comes with a stylish design that reminds us of a record. It is small enough to sit unobtrusively on a bookshelf or entertainment stack. The build quality is very good. The feel is solid and the internal construction leaves us with no concerns.
Here we get a true indication of the tiny size of the unit when using the USB ports as a reference. Obviously we have the power button on the left (with a subtle LED light when powered on), three USB 3.0 ports and a USB 3.0 Type-C port. This is quite a good configuration allowing for a KB/Mouse (or dongle) plus external storage and a port leftover for something like a camera. On the far right we see a combo headphone/speaker and mic jack.
Moving around to the rear of the unit, we have a Mini Display Port, HDMI 1.4, dual Gigabit LAN and the DC in port. These are the ports that will have cables attached to them, so having them at the rear is important.
The HDMI 1.4 port means that connected 4K displays will be limited to 30Hz. While this won’t be a problem for video playback, it does limit the HDMI to simple playback and not PC type tasks where 60Hz is the norm. Luckily, the DP port is suitable if 4K 60Hz is desired.
After we open up the unit, we can see the internal slots. On the left are the dual so-dimm ports that support up to 8Gb of DDR3L memory. On the right we see the slots with a Dual Band WiFi card with ac support and also an empty SATA III M.2 slot for connecting a SSD. Though this slot will only accept 2242 drives as opposed to the far more common 2280 drives.
Just to the right of the memory stick is a Sandisk eMMC embedded chip, This gives the Liva Z its 32Gb of internal storage. Adding a SSD will really add to the usability of the unit as 32Gb is eaten up far too quickly once you add the OS plus updates and a few common programs.
Here is the other side of the PCB with the N3350 SoC sitting in the center.
The ECS Liva Z BIOS is very basic compared to even a entry level motherboard.
The advanced tab is where the onboard devices can be configured. Many of these are simple on or off choices. though the CPU tab is where you’ll find some more advanced options like the power management options, C-States etc.
The MIB tab shows simple CPU and memory information. There’s no overclocking as you’d expect.
The boot menu is where you’ll select.. gasp… the boot options, but also the OS choice and UEFI/Legacy mode.
There’s really not much else to talk about, but generally simplicity means less bugs, and everything is working as it should.
Firstly, we wanted to look at temperatures of the unit when under full load. a peak of 74 after 20 minutes of full load is a touch higher than we’d like, but remember it is a passive system. The maximum temperature for this CPU is listed as 105c by Intel.
Measuring power consumption at the same time, we saw the following: 4.98W at idle, and only 9.27w under load. With thrifty power use like this, you’ll hardly see an effect on your power bill.
We could run a heap of benchmarks, but we know its not going to be a world beater. It’s not for gaming beyond something like your Facebook games, you won’t encode video with it or do anything productivity wise. It will run office applications perfectly well and surf the internet with media rich applications, but it is no match for a proper desktop PC. On the flipside, a desktop is no match for the Liva Z’s minuscule power consumption and foot print. They are just not comparable.
A quick test of the built in eMMC card doesn’t reveal many surprises. It wold be advisable to add a M.2 drive to the Liva Z as 32Gb is just enough to put the OS on, and not much more.
Given the Liva Z’s likely usage scenario will be as a media consumption machine, we ran a couple of demanding files to see how the unit would handle them. The results were excellent. The first file is a copy of The Martian, streamed over Wifi and played back via MPC-HC. It is a x264 encoded file with DTS MA audio. The average bit rate is 57Mbps and the total file size is over 60Gb, making this a tough one to play. The Liva Z played it back with no stuttering at all. The CPU usage is quite high at around 50-60% but this is fine given the low power nature of the CPU. We don’t have a high quality HEVC encode of this nature, but given the fixed function ability of Apollo Lake SoC’s to playback HEVC content, we’re quite sure this won’t present any problem.
The second file is a high bit rate encode of Inception weighing in at around 12Gb. CPU usage is lower at around 30-40%.
Finally we ran a test of the WiFi speed. Our router is located through a wall in the next room, so your speeds may vary. 26 megabytes per second is not too bad for an average WiFi card.
Tiny PC’s like the Liva Z will never win the performance war. It cannot run Crysis and you won’t be able to render a Pixar movie with it. What it will do is perform admirably in day to day PC tasks. Simplicity is the name of the game here. Its purpose is to do the basics with no fuss with the tasks most people use a PC for. Internet surfing, email, office apps, media consumption and app style gaming. With a price in the range of $180 USD for the tested version, considering this low price along with low power use, compact size, zero noise and we think the ECS Liva Z is superb value for money. Also bear in mind that many barebones units don’t come with internal storage or memory, whereas the Liva Z comes with both installed.
If you have a specific task such as digital signage, media playback, an office machine, as a NAS front end, a digital kiosk, video surveillance, or as a basic Internet machine for grandma and grandpa, then the ECS Liva Z can serve these purposes and serve them very well.
We tested the Liva Z as the front end of a NAS, and in this capacity it performed basically flawlessly. High bitrate 4k video over WiFi was no problem. You’ll be able to put it in a bedroom, on a shelf in the living room, or a man cave and enjoy an unobtrusive PC that does its job.
Stutter free high bit rate 4K HEVC playback over WiFi
Low power usage and silence
Expandability and connectivity options
Solid build quality
HDMI 1.4 only
32Gb eMMC is limiting