A few weeks ago, we reviewed the Zotac SN970 Steam Machine. It was our first review of a relatively new class of home entertainment device. While NUC and similar form factor mini-PC’s have been available in different guises for years, they were restricted with compromised integrated graphics, weak CPU performance or slow storage, making them a poor choice for gaming compared to a console or a desktop PC. Now we are seeing units with specifications matching desktop class gaming PC’s, all in a package the size of a decent book. We were very impressed with the hardware and capabilities of the Steam Machine, even if we felt the Steam OS component was still not quite at the level to receive our Editor’s Choice award. As we really liked the Steam Machine, it’s not going to be a stretch to say that we’re going to like this little Zotac Magnus EN970 too. Think RAID capable SSD’s, AC WiFi and dual Gigabit NIC, GTX 960 GPU, HDMI 2.0, 4K capability and up to 16Gb of RAM and it’s clear we aren’t looking at your typical mini PC.
Unboxing the Zotac Magnus EN970 Mini Gaming PC
The Magnus EN970 comes in a large yellow box. It is deceptively large.
Around the back is an overview of the platform. We have to say, there are some seriously tasty features on offer from the Zotac EN970.
The accessories are contained in their own inner box with a sleeve containing a heap of documentation. There’s warranty information, user manual and a small flash drive that contains software and Windows drivers. This make perfect sense given the lack of an optical drive and is something we wish other manufacturers would take note of.
The AC adapter is a 180w unit made by Delta Electronics. Delta are a manufacturer of some of the finest PC power supplies ever made and using them as the power adapter supplier is a quality choice. We’ve also got some region specific power cables and a WiFi antenna.
The front fascia looks a touch off here as we left the plastic overlay on the unit. It looks much better without it. The EN970 features a large power on/off button, multi card reader, headphone and microphone ports and a welcome pair of USB 3.0 ports. This is an improvement over the SN970 which featured just a single USB port on the front of the unit.
The top of the unit is quite simple, and a bit of a fingerprint magnet.
Now we get to the rear of the unit. As you can see, connectivity will be no problem with no less than four USB ports (2x USB2.0 and 2x USB3.0) and no less than four HDMI 2.0 ports! This is probably overkill, but it’s better to have too many connectors than not enough. Add to that a pair of Gigabit LAN ports and a connector for the WiFi antenna and it’s clear we’re dealing with a unit that capable of being the multimedia center of the household. In addition to offering competent 1080p gaming, you could effortlessly use this a NAS front end, connect to another PC via Steam Link, stream HD anywhere in the house and even use it as a surveillance device, control home automation or just about any other networked function you can think of.
Being a barebones unit, easy accessibility to the inside of the unit is a must. By removing 2 screws and sliding off the backplate, we see the internals of the unit below. Two critical things you will need to add are a HDD/SSD and a pair of SO-DIMMs. The unit can accept up to 2x8Gb of memory, two 2.5″ hard drives or SSDs and a M.2 drive in the lower center of the picture. The drives have their own trays to secure them. You can even set them to RAID 0 or 1 if you choose.
The Zotac EN970 is more like a barebone unit, you have to add your own memory, storage and operating system. Thanks to the connectivity options available on this unit, it’s possible to run an old laptop HDD or everything up to RAID SSD’s plus a M.2 drive. The same goes with memory. The EN970 can run a single 2Gb SO-DIMM stick for example, or up to 16Gb. This provides nice customization flexibility able suit those on budget as well as providing a solid upgrade path.
When comparing to a PS4 or Xbox One, its clear the EN970 is a much more powerful system. Faster CPU, more memory, faster and greater capacity storage, better graphics, better networking… what else is there to say really. A console can play games and do a few other things, but they cannot match the capabilities of a fully functioning desktop PC.
When we look at the core spec, we see a Broadwell i5 5200U CPU. This is a 15w TDP 2 core/4 thread CPU built on the latest 14nm process.
We must pay particular attention to the configuration of the GTX 960 GPU. As we see below, the one included in the Zotac Steam Machine is not a desktop GTX 960. That’s not a bad thing though, this one is better. The regular GTX 960 is based on the GM206 GPU, with 1024 shaders and a 128bit memory bus. The included 960 is actually based on the GM204 GPU as seen in the GTX 970 and 980. It features 1280 shaders and a 192bit bus. Even with the relatively low clocks, this GPU is strong enough to outperform the desktop GTX 960.
Note that this GPU means you have HDMI 2.0 ports at your disposal. That means 60fps at 4K. While gaming even on a 980ti would be a stretch at that refresh rate and resolution, it is important to have the bandwidth available for 4K content and multi channel audio.
Being a PC at heart, the Zotac EN970 features a BIOS as you would expect. All the usual pages are found, though obviously there is no overclocking support or over the top functionality. Note the bios reports the core voltage as 1.76v, which we’re sure is wrong. The CPU temperature also seems to be too high at 57c idle. Our windows based testing indicated high load temperatures which suggests the diode is reporting or being read incorrectly.
Special thanks to G.Skill for helping us out with our test memory. G.Skill are producing some of the best overclocking memory in the world right now including modules capable of overclocks in the DDR4-4000+ range at cas 12 if you don’t mind! Our test kit is a much more down to earth 2x4Gb kit of DDR3-1600 and is a great choice for laptops and mini PC’s needing a quality, affordable kit.
For storage, we used a Samsung 850 Pro SATA III SSD. This is the fastest SATA SSD we’ve ever tested and makes a great OS drive. It gives us the fastest boot times of any SSD we’ve tested and helps the little Zotac EN970 reach its potential.
Windows 10 Testing and Performance
For our testing, we installed Windows 10 off a USB thumb drive onto a SATA SSD installed into the Zotac EN970. Now we have a fully functioning desktop PC capable of running any Windows programs.
The SN970 is the 6400T equipped Steam Machine. The EN970 is the unit we are reviewing today, it has a 5200U CPU.
We focused on Gaming performance, starting with 3DMark Firestrike which is easy to compare.
Shadow of Mordor is a role playing game developed by Monolith productions set in JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth universe. This game is know to be a bit of a VRAM hog, so to run at high settings with FXAA enabled and push above 60fps is excellent. Once again the weaker CPU means there’s a hit to minimum FPS. The average FPS is generally less affected by the CPU in graphically demanding games.
Given the compact size of the unit, cooling is always an important consideration. We used our standard methodology for testing temperatures. In the case of the GPU, we ran Unigine Valley on a loop until the GPU temperatures peaked at a quite high 84c. Even at this temp, there is only a slight flicker in the GPU boost clock as Nvidia’s GPU throttling mechanism kicks in. We noticed the GPU spent a lot of time under 80c. During testing the fan could hardly be heard indicating Zotac is opting for silence over absolute cooling performance. Do be aware that constant gaming will require adequate space and ventilation around the unit.
Moving over to testing the CPU, we ran prime 95 for about 10 minutes. The CPU hovered in the high 60’s, which is a touch higher than we’d like, but still well within the bounds of safety. Given the low TDP of the CPU, there is obviously a reason Zotac has ditched the more expensive copper cooling solution found in the SN970 for the cheaper aluminum cooling found in the EN970.
Zotac have impressed us again with their mini Gaming PC’s. Here we have a full powered PC that’s able to run games at 1080p in a form factor that’s right at home on an A/V rack, and about as intrusive as a large book which is a wonderful thing for the living room gamer. It competes well against a full desktop gaming PC yet remains quiet, keeps temperatures in check and brings a plethora of connectivity and expandiblity options.
The NUC form factor is something we see expanding in the future. It’s about time the old ATX tower got a kick in the pants. It is a relic of times past and relevant to technologies obsolete decades ago. When you can have a tiny PC that can do everything a Windows PC can do including gaming, productivity, media consumption etc etc then there’s no doubt this class of device offers a way forward for the beleaguered PC market. You can install Plex, or run as the front end of a NAS, stream 4k content, connect to Steam Big Picture and oh my god.. you can surf the net among a million other things. Have you ever done a living room to living room skype chat? That sort of thing is great. All these applications; in the living room, illustrate the true beauty of a powerful mini PC.
If we have a criticism, it’s the choice of CPU. The i5-5200U does a remarkable job given its 15w TDP limitation, but it cannot compete with the 6400T Skylake quad core and its 35w TDP as found in the Steam Machine SN970. The 6400T also offers full PCIe 3.0 support. Though we concede the 6400T is a later release and would likely have been considered by Zotac if it was available.
The Zotac Magnus EN970 is currently selling for $799.99 USD which is no doubt pricey but a quality option for those who want their PC to be enjoyed, not heard or seen.
Powerful and customizable
It’s a PC!
CPU lacks a bit of grunt
Cooling ability a step below the SN970
A bit pricey