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Even the cat likes the iWill Pentium 4 shoebox

Review Small form factoids
Sun May 30 2004, 06:28
A LONG TIME ago in computer terms, about a month in human time, Iwill sent me a ZMAXap, their high end SFF Intel P4 based barebones system. It is a good looking shoebox sized computer in a titanium colored case. The front of the case is dominated by four lighted ports, two USB 2.0 and two firewire ports, all with a nice lighted blue surrounds. Below them, there is a power button, again highlighted in blue. Everything else is hidden under two movable panels.

There is a DIMM sitting on top of the box for size perspective, Those panels hide the 5¼ inch bay for an optical drive, and in a really nice touch, it also has a 7-in-1 card reader, but no floppy. It is about time this started happening. Before you wonder why I was going on about the faded blue color around the ports, check out a shot without the flash on. Please bear in mind that the lights are on in the room when I took this picture.

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The last thing you notice is the high speed aerodynamic stabilization device on the top. Since this box never did anything to annoy me in the slightest, I had no excuse to throw it out the window and test the purported stabilization capabilities. The manual also states that it functions as an 802.11a/g antenna for the mini-PCI 802.11 card in the bottom of the computer.

The wireless LAN is only one of the standout features of the ZMAX, but first, let's go over the basics. The ZMAX is a Intel i865G chipset based computer, and it has all the features that it brings, and a bunch more. The graphics are the integrated 'Extreme' Graphics 2, something that is fine for office work, but won't cut it for anything but the oldest of games.

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No worries here though, there is a full length AGP slot and a full PCI slot in the ZMAX. If something on the board is not to your liking, you can add a card. The only problem is the nearly universal one with SFF cases, if you put in a high end 2 slot video card, you cover the PCI slot. The ZMAX will allow you to use a 2 slot card, but nothing else.

The rest of the internals are pretty standard, two DIMM slots, two IDE, a floppy and two S-ATA ports. All are pretty easy to get to with the drive cage removed, and the locations were immediately obvious, no digging around. If you could not find something, the manual has a really good, well marked line drawing of the motherboard with everything clearly labelled.

The back of the computer is where the interesting stuff is. It takes the usual feature packed panel and adds a few things. First is the boring stuff, the usual ports, mouse, keyboard, serial, VGA, 4 USB and 3 sound jacks. Earlier, I mentioned the 802.11g functionality, and if you were expecting a 10/100 port also, it is there, but here is where the ZMAX starts to stand out from the crowd. There is a second LAN port in back, and it is a gigabit port.

Even the cat likes this computer. The other standout feature is the orange port just above the lan plugs. It is an external SATA port. I have not seen this on any other SFF case that I have put in, and it falls under the really good idea category. The ZMAX has a generous compliment of 2 internal drive bays, and the external connector is only an additional good thing. I hope everyone does this soon. The only problem here is that there are only 2 internal SATA ports, and if you use the external connector, it keeps you from having 2 internal SATA drives. Not a killer by any means, just pick your drive configuration carefully if you want to use an internal RAID setup.

So, that is what the ZMAX is, but one of the main points with SFF cases is what it takes to build the computer, and what works with it. The ZMAX is really good on the building part, and has no problems with the compatibility side. On the CPU front, it takes just about anything you want to throw at it. There is an absolutely huge radiator above the CPU, copper heat pipes routed around, and lots of fins. It also had a large copper base plate.

Backing this massive radiator was a pair of large, low speed fans. They are well placed to suck air through the box, and the size assures that it is a pretty quiet ride. Even with the fans on, under full load, the ZMAX was very quiet, not silent, but easily drowned out by the fan in the 24 port ethernet switch sitting behind it. They start out with noticeable noise, but quickly ratchet down to a level that is lost in the background. Either way, the sound quality in not bad, IE no pitches that dig into your brain even though they are low volume.

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This all adds up to a machine that will take anything Intel produces in a s478 form factor, from a Celeron to a 3.4EE to a Prescott, it all fits, and should all work. The only thing to take into account is wattage if you are planning to use a higher end chip and a high end GPU. A Prescott at 100 or so watts and an NVidia Geforce 6800 leave uncomfortably little headroom on the 250w power supply.

That brings us to building the computer. For this, I enlisted my friend, I'll call him John because that is in fact his name. John had never built a PC before, and I had to point out to him which parts were which. He could not pick out a CPU from a DIMM without my help, the computer equivalent of a trade school MCSE.... I mean, beginner.

How long did it take him to go from a pile of parts to a functional ZMAX? 32 minutes and two answers from me. If you have ever put together a computer, it will take you a lot less time. Most of this is due to the really good manual Iwill provides, and the one John used was a pre-production one that wasn't half as good as the one you will get. The manual is all pictures and clear line diagrams, a very good thing, and it worked more than well enough to get a fully functional computer out of a beginner.

Once that was done, I took it apart and rebuilt it to see how the process went first hand. It was a lot quicker when I did it, and there were only minor, detail issues. The first one centered around the case. It has the big thumb screws that stay in place once unscrewed. Once these are loosened, you encounter one of the two minor problems, the case just did not want to come off easily. It required a little jostling, to get on, and a hard shove to get back on. Nothing broke, nothing bent, but it was inelegant, and a little tougher than most. John was hesitant to thump the computer, but if he did, there would have been no problem.

Once open, the interior was dominated by a large drive cage and the power supply. The drive bay has two of the large screws to undo, and it pivots out of the way cleanly, but it is also removable if you so choose. Once in the pivoted position, it exposes the HD bays for easy insertion. The only time I needed tools for this whole assembley was screwing the HD and the CD into the cage, the rest was doable with fingers only.

Two more thumbscrews allowed you to slide the power supply out of the way for more clearance to the heatsink and CPU. There were two clips holding the heatsink down, and once you figure out the trick, press the tab and pivot. One of them comes out with ease. I say one mainly because the second is blocked by the heatsink of the northbridge. If that heatsink was not there, it would be a great system all around, but the height of the heatsink made it annoying.

Putting them back on was much easier than taking them off, and both went on without a hitch. Overall, it is the hardest part of the assembly process, but it was not bad. I have put together several machines with capacitors in more intrusive positions than this. Again, I would only dock minor points here, it all worked out, and passed the n00b test with flying colours.

There was one other thing that you might want to be aware of, and it is definitely not a fault of the case. I put four kinds of ram into the case, OCZ EL with the copper heatsink, Kingston HyperX, Corsair XMS Pro Series, and the standard generic memory. The XMS pro memory you may recall has the LED activity lights on top, and is rather pointless in a case like the ZMAX, mainly because you can't see it without a side window.

Those LEDs also add a little height to the DIMM. and with a drive in the lower bay, the XMS memory would not fit. The others, even the ones with the massive metal heat spreaders, fit. Any ram that conforms to standard size restrictions fits just fine, and this is by no means an Iwill issue. Just be aware that tolerances in these cases are tight, and if you get something non-standard, you could have some problems.

Other than that, the assembly was a no-brainer. It went together well, and the manual had everything right there in large pictures. Not much more to ask for, and little complaints. All the cables were routed right and tied down, no hassles, no major pain, no skinned knuckles.

Getting back to the manual, it has one nice feature that you don't see to often, a walk through of the BIOS for beginners. There are screen captures of many of the menus, and while most of the descriptions are 'don't touch this if you don't know what you are doing', many of the features a beginner would want are there. I have not put this to the 'John' test, but I may in the future. Either way, it is a welcome addition.

The last thing was the OS install. It went better than I had hoped. I put in a S-ATA HD, mainly because it is kind of silly to be building a modern system using PATA anymore. I was expecting more pain than usual due to the lack of a floppy. Windows XP does not recognize SATA when booting from CD, and if you don't have a SATA driver on a floppy, you run into the proverbial 'issues'. If you do have the floppy, press F6 at the right time, put in the floppy, load the drivers, and you are off and running.

Now, the real problem is if you don't have a floppy on the system. XP needs one to load the drivers, none of this CD junk. If you don't have a USB floppy handy, or the BIOS does not allow you to do any tricks with mounting a flash drive as A:, you are in deep deep trouble. Happily, and I am not sure how, the ZMAX SATA ports were recognized without any additional drivers, and it just installed. The one thing that I dreaded when opening the box and seeing the card reader did not come to pass. Whether it was a clever BIOS hack, carefully picked drivers, or just sunspots and CIA microwave laser satellites, I don't really care, it worked out right. For that, Iwill deserves a big pat on the head, it did well here.

The rest of the Windows install went fine. The driver disk I got was, like the manual, in beta form. Happily, it all worked out fine, no problems. The only thing was a lack of polish, but I am sure this will be fixed in the release versions. Even if they are not, I would rather have a bit ugly and functional over beautiful and broken. No problems to report here, it just worked.

Overall, the Iwill ZMAXap is a good choice if you are looking to get a SFF machine. It has all the expected features, and several others. Networking is a standout feature, and with a person adept at BSD, you could make one heck of a firewall and router with this system. The construction went very well, aided in part by a really good manual. Looks are good, although a way to turn off the bright blue lights might be nice for watching movies, or putting it in an AV rack.

The problems encountered were minor at best, nothing you can't handle if you have ever put a computer together. I would give this a solid 8/10, with 9 being a tempting second choice. If I were buying a SFF case, I would put this on my short list. If they fixed the two minor ergonomic issues, I would have a hard time not giving this a 9, and with something really standout, like a dual CPU SFF case, I could see it ranking a 10. That will have to wait a couple of months though.

 

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