Iwill ZPC Barebone System: Almost a Notebook

We have just reviewed one more barebone system, which major distinguishing feature is very small size: just a little bigger than a book! Well, let’s find out what this baby from Iwill is capable of. Can we install a powerful CPU and use it for really serious tasks? Read our review to find this out!

by Alexey Drozzin
10/15/2003 | 10:21 PM

Meet Iwill ZPC!

Portable PCs manufacture has been developing very fast recently. There are ever more manufacturers (Samsung has joined the gang, too), while the prices go ever down (Taiwanese plants and fabs are doing their best :). However, a notebook is still an expensive product, so the customers welcome every measure intended for further price reduction. For example, one manufacturer made the following marketing move – they sell notebooks without the batteries. Indeed, if you plan to use the notebook on your office desk only, you don’t really need an expensive battery! This way you can save quite a bit of money, which is always in shortage.

 

But why not go even further? We can strip the notebook of the battery, the LCD screen and the keyboard (which is not too convenient to use anyway). What is the next best thing about notebooks, besides the mobility? They are small and stylish-looking. Unlike the huge coffins of standard PCs.

At last, one manufacturer ventured into producing such a super-miniature desktop computer. The cutie is called Iwill ZPC.

The design is rather questionable, but the box is undoubtedly elegant. There are two possible colors: black and silver. According to the specs, the silver version should come with a slit for a “simple slim CD-ROM” and the black one with a CD-ROM without the tray. However, we managed to get a black ZPC with a “normal” CD-ROM drive, that is, with the loading tray. So, it looks as if the manufacturer has decided to offer both variants in both colors or not to offer “trayless” ZPCs at all. That’s how it actually looks:

The dimensions of the product are reduced to extremities. At least, I can’t remember a system case to be as small as this one. Even VIA’s Epia with its mini-ITX form-factor is much bulkier. I guess it would be appropriate to quote a couple of slogans accompanying the new computer in the market:

“So much technology. So little space” and “Size matters”

To make this small size possible, the engineering folk from Iwill had to use a number of non-standard solutions. Here they are:

  1. External power supply unit;


  2. Use of low-profile notebook HDDs and CD-ROM drives;
  3. No system case fan – its functions are handed over to the CPU cooler;
  4. No cables or wires inside the case;
  5. No PCI and AGP expansion slots;
  6. Only one memory slot;
  7. Both sides of the mainboard carry electronic components and chips.

The last four items helped to reduce the dimensions of the mainboard, while the first three – to free the inter-case space.

The specifications of the Iwill ZPC list the following:

I guess you appreciate the dimensions, weight and claimed power consumption.

It’s impossible to install any add-on device into the ZPC, but everything necessary seems to be already enclosed. The back panel carries the following connectors: 2 PS/2, COM, VGA, network, 2 USB, audio output ports and microphone input jack.

The front panel once again has both audio connectors, and also two USB and two IEEE 1394 ports, which is very convenient.

In fact, you have everything necessary for work, save for a modem and a TV-out. The first problem is solved by using an external modem. As for the TV-out, you cannot do anything about its absence, so be ready to put up with this…

That’s about all concerning the exterior; let’s get to the most exciting part now.

Iwill ZPC: Closer Look

I guess you are curious to find out more about the architecture of this cutie, too. So, we disassemble it and take a look inside. That’s what the ZPC looks like inside:

Not bad, yeah? We have only one big circuit board, and one small, which serves to connect the drives (we will talk about it, and about the disk subsystem in greater detail a bit later).

Note that there is only one wire in the entire case! It supplies power to the processor cooler. The rest of the components are all connected without any wires, loops, cables and so on. Actually, the only components, which participate actively in the assembly process on the mainboard are the CPU socket, the memory slot and four IDE-like connectors. Everything else is already soldered up, including the power and reset buttons and front panel connectors.

This is the way the mainboard is fastened inside the case:

The sides of the case are equipped with special rails, along which the mainboard moves inside. The cover is then screwed from behind, so that everything sits quite tightly.

The CPU cooler, as I have already said above, also serves as a system case cooler. The vent hole is placed right above it:

The only drawback of this solution is that the noise produced by the fan is not muffled by anything. As a result, the tiny Iwill ZPC is rather loud at work. On the other hand, the ventilation inside the case is good enough. The temperature remains normal even under high workloads.

A few comments concerning the assembly and software installation. Even an inexperienced user can put a ZPC together without much effort. You just cannot confuse anything, plug something the wrong way and the like. When installing the HDD, just be careful in order not to bend the pins on the drive as well as those on the daughter-board connector. The CPU and memory are installed the usual way.

As for drivers installation, this process is as simple as you might wish. Just throw the disk into the CD-ROM drive, wait for it to autorun, and select “Driver Installation” in the window that pops up on the monitor. Then you will see this window:

Click each item one by one (they didn’t include an “Install All!” item again!), and you are done. The program is unable to determine the components of your computer and the already installed drivers, so all the items in the menu will be always available, even on a quite different PC (by the way, I made this screen-shot on a different computer indeed).

Besides the drives, the CD contains a few utilities: Adobe Acrobat, Hardware Monitor and BIOS Update. It also has a digitized version of the user’s manual (an exact copy of the paper edition enclosed with the barebone system).

Now we will take a closer look at each subsystem of our ZPC one by one, and will also run some tests to get a idea of their performance.

Main System Features and Performance

Namely, the CPU, the chipset of the mainboard and the RAM. In this part of our review we are going to talk about these three main system components.

I guess there is no need to describe the Pentium 4 processor; you all know everything about it already. As it is mentioned in the specs, the ZPC supports Pentium 4 processors with an up to 2.5GHz core clock frequency. And it really does support them! I was first wary about the ability of the 90W PSU to feed such a gluttonous processor, but the system passed all tests without a single glitch or hang-up. So, the manufacturer stood true to its promises here.

The next snapshot shows the CPU cooler:

As you see, the heatsink is not too big, but has a copper plate in the CPU-contacting spot. The cooler does its job very well. Again, the ZPC went through all the tests, even the CPU-frying ScienceMark, without any problems.  

The ZPC features a mainboard based on Intel i845G chipset. Overall, the mainboard carries the following chips:

The flowchart of the chipset may already be familiar to you. Here it is:

The North Bridge offers:

And the South Bridge complements it with:

As for the rest of the chips, they are the well-known gang: 10/100Mbit/s network and stereo AC’97 audio from Realtek, IEEE 1394 from VIA and various monitoring options from Winbond.

So, we have a standard last-year’s chipset from Intel. Actually, it features everything necessary, but doesn’t boast anything very interesting. :)

Well, let me take you over to the benchmarks. The testbeds used for more illustrative results and analysis are actually of the same configuration as those, which we used in our MSI MEGA Review (of course, we also included the results for the MEGA itself). Namely we tested the following systems:

 

Iwill ZPC

MSI MEGA

Intel
Pentium 4

AMD Athlon XP

Processor

Intel Pentium 4 2.53 (533MHz QPB)

AMD Athlon XP 2600+ (2133MHz)

Mainboard

Iwill ZPC
(i845G)

MSI MEGA
(SiS 651)

MSI 845GMax
 (i845G)

EPoX EP-8K3A+
 (VIA KT333)

Memory

PC2100 CL2 DDR SDRAM, 512 MB

PC2700 CL2 DDR SDRAM, 512 MB

Video

Intel Extreme Graphics

VisionTek Xtasy GeForce4 Ti 4400

Hard Disk

Toshiba MK4019GAX

Fujitsu XXX

IBM DTLA 307015

Accordingly, the results for the MEGA system are given for both: the integrated graphics core of the SiS chipset and an add-on AGP graphics card.

So, here are the first results:

As you see, the systems perform very close to one another. Both barebone systems are a little slower than the “regular” PCs, but not too much. Well, this benchmark is known to pay most attention to the CPU, mostly ignoring the rest of the system.

As for the memory, the i845G chipset, as I have already mentioned, supports only single-channel DDR266 SDRAM. During that year, which has passed since the launch of this chipset, the industry has evolved a bit further. For today, dual-channel DDR400 is the standard memory subsystem.

The integrated graphics core bites off a significant part of the memory bandwidth, which is not too high anyway. Thus, the memory performance won’t be very good. You can see it in the synthetic PCMark 2002 test:

As well as in the practical WinRAR:

By the way, both the memory and the HDD are responsible for the not very high result in this test. We will talk about the disk subsystem later in this article, don’t worry. Now, let’s take a closer look at the first one responsible for poor memory subsystem performance: the graphics subsystem.

Graphics Subsystem Features and Performance

So, the computer uses Intel i845GV chipset, which implies that the graphics subsystem is integrated into the chipset North Bridge. Of course, integrated graphics is the only solution when it comes to such small dimensions. Anyway, let’s check it out: what is it that they integrated for us?

The name is boastful: Intel Extreme Graphics. I really wonder what the marketing men from Intel found so extreme about it. Extremely low speed in 3D? :)

Intel’s website is rather unwilling to offer any info about the IEG. Here are some facts I could garner:

According to the specs, the core looks advantageous against the background of integrated solutions from Intel’s competitors: VIA and SiS. As for practice, we will see it in action soon.

Here is the driver settings window:

It’s all too simple. Among 3D settings, we are only allowed to enable/disable anisotropic filtering and do some other not very helpful things.

It’s time see what kind of “extreme” performance this graphics core shows in modern games. We will compare it to MSI’s MEGA and other platforms listed above. First, we ran MadOnion 3DMark2001:

Then, Unreal Tournament 2003, to make the picture complete:

As you see, the Intel Extreme Graphics offers the same performance as SiS 315, even a bit lower. It means you may forget about playing modern games on the ZPC. Something old, like Quake 3 or Unreal Tournament, may run (with minimal settings and low frame rate).

Low performance and memory slowdown are not the only drawbacks of the integrated graphics in the Iwill ZPC. You have no TV-out and no DVI output, the ZPC lacks them badly, I assume.

Hard Disk Subsystem

This part of the ZPC is another bottleneck. The computer uses a hard disk drive and an optical drive designed for notebooks. That is, a 2.5” HDD and a “slim” CD-ROM drive. First, let’s see how they are attached to the system and then I will explain why I consider them a not very successful solution.

There is a special daughter-board, which is attached to the mainboard (see the photo above). It is plugged into the IDE-like connectors I have mentioned and occupies three out of four connectors available. The HDD is attached to this daughter-board from below, while the CD-ROM drive – from above:

Watch the attachment sequence! The screws that fasten the HDD are then covered by the optical drive. The process of installation is quite easy. You only have to use non-standard screws, and there are a couple of spare screws coming with the computer, just in case, so you should be OK for a while.

Now, let’s get back to the topic why notebook drives are not a good solution here.

Firstly, such drives are expensive, costing much more than their desktop counterparts. For example, a 2.5” HDD of 40GB storage capacity costs now over $100, while desktop HDDs of the same capacity are almost twice as cheap. Slim CD-ROM drives are even more expensive.

However, the high price is not the only negative factor. “Notebook” drives are also slower. For example, we now have two spindle rotation speeds in the desktop HDD field: 5,400rpm and 7,200rpm. And 5,400rpm drives are slowly dying out. For “notebook” drives, 4,200rpm spindle rotation speed is standard, while 5,400rpm products are considered a kind of hi-end. The following table lists technical characteristics of some 2.5” and 3.5” hard disk drives. Go ahead and compare them, to see what I am driving at:

We will now see what those characteristics mean in practice. We will carry out a brief test session of the hard disk drive subsystem. The Iwill ZPC is the first participant, and the second one was configured as follows:

The dual-processor nature of the second system is not important at all in this case. But the mainboard is made by the same manufacturer :). So, I ran Ziff Davis WinBench99 and got the following Disk Transfer Rate result for the ZPC with the Toshiba 2.5” HDD:

Now, you will see the graph of the ordinary “desktop” Barracuda. By the way, this graph describes the transfer rate for the middle 30GB of the disk, not for the entire disk surface. That is, 5GB are cut off in the beginning and in the end. Thus, the Transfer Rate should be higher in the beginning, and lower in the end of the disk. Moreover, the drive was used to about 80% of its capacity. The results are obvious enough, though:

The same data is now presented as diagrams for better comparison and easier analysis:

Now, the Disk Access Time test:

And two more tests from the same benchmarking package. Business WinMarks and Hi-End WinMarks simulate work in real applications:

Now we understand the low results of the WinRAR test. The hard disk drive is too slow! Note that we use one of the fastest 2.5” drives in our tests, the one with 5,400rpm spindle rotation speed and a 16MB (!) cache-buffer.

Here we are. The price is much higher, while the performance is noticeably lower. In portable PCs, this performance misbalance is compensated by the miniature size of the 2.5 form-factor, but also by their extra-low power consumption. For example, the drive we used in the ZPC consumes about 2.5W, while the “regular” HDDs seep in about 10-15W. But this power-saving qualities are not very crucial in case of the “desktop notebook” such as Iwill ZPC. Anyway, if you are wondering about the 2.5” hard disk drive choices available in the today’s market, go and check our 2.5” Hard Disk Drives Roundup. It should be very helpful in this respect.

During work, we also discovered one not very pleasant peculiarity of the ZPC system. When it is set vertically, the optical drive is wailing loudly while working at high speeds. No wonder it does as it is intended for horizontal installation only.

Conclusion

Notwithstanding the numerous drawbacks listed above, the overall impression from the ZPC is highly positive rather than otherwise. You should just view it as a simple and elegant home-office machine, not as a high-performance computer. This product is for people who don’t care much about fps and other measurement units, but value design and miniature dimensions. It can be viewed as a competitor to VIA Epia even.

I wouldn’t recommend installing a 2.5GHz processor into this computer. There are no tasks, in which the CPU wouldn’t be limited by the numerous bottlenecks (memory, graphics, HDD). It is more reasonable and logical to power the ZPC with a low-end Pentium 4, like 1.8GHz (or slower, if you can find one) or some Celeron processors.

I would also wish Iwill produced a similar system on the “alternative platform”. Something like Athlon XP 1700+ on NVIDIA’s chipset with an integrated GeForce4 MX. Such a computer would run more or less modern games with an acceptable image quality and at an acceptable speed. This model would be a great choice in terms of size, power consumption, thermal conditions and noise characteristics, and, most important, in terms of price-to-performance ratio.

Anyway, Iwill ZPC as we have it today is good enough. You can use it to perform any office work, watch movies (although on the display only), listen to music (stereo only) and play simple games (that don’t require a powerful 3D accelerator). And all this comes at a price lower than the price of a notebook. Of course, the limitations may not be acceptable for some people, but others may consider it an adequate tradeoff for the miniature size.