Zotac has been a leading manufacturer of mini PCs for many years. They offer a wide range of small form factor computers as well as many components catering to SFF enthusiasts. Zotac now joins the growing Thunderbolt 3 PCIe expansion market. Introduced alongside the AMP BOX, the AMP BOX Mini [ZT-TBT3M-180-BB] is the more compact solution that houses a mini-ITX card. This enclosure also provides four standard USB 3.0 ports that most newer ultrabooks lack. The cost-benefit analysis of pairing an external graphics enclosure with a portable computer still gives many consumers pause. Zotac is tilting the scale by pricing this newly-released AMP BOX Mini at $219.99; it’s the most affordable Thunderbolt 3 PCIe expansion box yet.
|PSU max power||180W|
|GPU max power||150W|
|Power delivery (PD)||15W|
|TB3 USB-C ports||1|
|Ports max bandwidth||5Gbps|
|Size (in/mm, LxWxH)||9.06 x 3.90 x 7.20|
230 x 99 x 183
|Max GPU len (in/cm)||7.87/20.0|
|Updated firmware||26.1 ✔|
|TB3 cable length (cm)||50|
Zotac took the mini-ITX external GPU enclosure approach currently dominated by the AORUS Gaming Box and turned it on its side. Using a 90˚ angle PCIe raiser adapter commonly found in SFF desktops, the AMP BOX Mini takes a graphics card lying down. This arrangement makes its form factor similar to that of the Sonnet Breakaway Puck. While the Puck uses an MXM GPU, Zotac goes for mini-ITX PCIe fitment. The upsides are lower price and more choices for graphics cards than with MXM. The main downside is a less portable solution.
Another similarity with the Breakaway Puck is the three-piece construction and an external power adapter. There is a top cover, a bottom cover and a mid-section housing. The housing is the only part made of metal. The top and bottom covers are plastic. This results in a very light chassis, at less than 1 kg without a card installed. Combined with the external power brick, it’s a 2-kg package for those who plan to travel with an external GPU. The footprint is about that of a large hardcover book.
The external Delta 19V DC power adapter is rated for 180W. It’s not terribly big and can provide up to 150W to the graphics card via the PCIe slot (75W) combined with the 6-pin power cable (75W). This PCIe power cable is detachable and not needed with PCIe components such as NVMe SSD. There’s ample amount of room inside this box for passive cooling during non-eGPU use. The enclosure housing and top cover have plenty of cutouts for sufficient air circulation, so Zotac went without an enclosure cooling fan.
Internal access is quick and easy with the Zotac AMP BOX Mini. Top cover removal consists of undoing two rubber-top thumb screws then lifting the cover through the access cutout. Removing an installed card is a completely different story though. I found several usability concerns. First of all, the PCIe lock release tab faces inward and is hidden underneath the installed card. Another difficult to reach area is the PCIe power connector. The release tab for this connector faces the inside wall of the enclosure housing, making it impossible to reach with your fingers. The only way I was able to remove the connected power cable was by using a flat head screwdriver to apply pressure on the release tab all while pulling on the cable.
I found the most interesting component of the Zotac AMP BOX Mini to be its Thunderbolt 3 main board. This enclosure is priced reasonably enough that tinkerers may find its main board a suitable donor for a custom eGPU build. Even the power connector is the common-sized 5.5mm x 2.5mm barrel plug. For years our community has been modifying ATX PSUs to power AKiTiO Thunder2 & Thunder3 enclosures. Perhaps Zotac was aware of such possibility, so there’s a warranty sticker on one of the screws holding the TB3 main board in place. If you proudly wear an “I void warranties” t-shirt, the sticker won’t be a bother. I tried pairing this main board with the Dell DA-2 power adapter with some success. The difference in 19V vs 12V output can be remedied by using a step-up adapter.
The four USB-A ports are located at the front of the main board. They go through an ASM3074 USB 3.0 hub controller. As with other single Thunderbolt 3 controller enclosures, the keyboard and mouse connected through the AMP BOX Mini’s USB ports may exhibit lagging behavior during heavy external graphics workload. Near the rear I/O on this Thunderbolt main board are the three crucial ICs. Here are close-up photos of the TI83 USB-C controller, DSL6540 Thunderbolt 3 controller, and Winbond EEPROM.
Testings & Benchmarks
With up to 150W out of 180W assigned to the PCIe card, the AMP BOX Mini is limited at 15W for Power Delivery. This is not enough to charge any Thunderbolt 3 laptop. It may slow battery drainage during use, but you definitely need to plug in another power source during heavy graphics use. Unfortunately this means this enclosure shouldn’t be paired with single-port TB3 ultrabooks that use the TB3 port for charging. The Razer Blade Stealth is such a machine. The Zotac AMP BOX Mini comes with Thunderbolt firmware version 26.1, similar to the rest of the enclosures released this year.
Officially the AMP BOX Mini is certified for PCIe expansion. Zotac is in the process of certifying the enclosure for eGFX. Another primary use for this box is high-speed external storage with an NVMe SSD. The installation process is identical to that of a graphics card except there’s no need for the PCIe power cable. I tried pairing a Samsung EVO 960 M.2 SSD via a PCIe adapter. Here are the read and write speed tests in both Windows 10 and macOS High Sierra.
Due to its form factor, there are only a handful of graphics cards that both fit this enclosure and work natively with macOS High Sierra. I sourced an HP OEM mini-ITX Radeon RX 580 4GB from an OMEN X Desktop computer. The space inside of the AMP BOX Mini allows a graphics card that’s up to 200mm in length. This is the current list of retail GPUs that may work.
|Nvidia GeForce||AMD Radeon|
|Zotac GTX 1060||Pro WX 5100|
|EVGA GTX 1050 Ti||Sapphire RX 570|
|MSI GTX 1050||Gigabyte RX 560|
Windows allows for more flexibility with graphics cards. Keep in mind the 180W power brick can only provide up to 150W to the external graphics card. Therefore power-hungry GPUs such as the R9 Fury Nano or the yet-to-be-released RX Vega Nano may not work due to higher TDP. I tried using a different PCIe power cable to run a Sapphire R9 285 Compact that’s rated for 190W TDP and did not experience crashes. Your mileage may vary depending on which applications you use.
To run a set of synthetic benchmarks, I paired this AMP Box Mini + RX 580 4GB external GPU with a late 2016 15″ MacBook Pro. The tests were run in both macOS 10.13.4 Beta 5 and Windows 10 1709. During testing the spacious enclosure helped cool the GPU effectively. The only noise emission was from the RX 580 graphics card. Keep in mind the external graphics drivers in High Sierra are currently not well-optimized. For example, the Shadow of Mordor results are significantly below expectation.
|2016 15" MacBook Pro||10.13.4 External Display||W10 Internal Display||W10 External Display|
|Unigine Valley||36.2 FPS||48.1 FPS||47.5 FPS|
|Unigine Heaven||29.5 FPS||46.5 FPS||46.0 FPS|
|Tomb Raider 2013||48.7 FPS||79.3 FPS||83.0 FPS|
|Shadow of Mordor||12.2 FPS||64.7 FPS||70.9 FPS|
|Dirt Rally||28.6 FPS||49.4 FPS||51.6 FPS|
|Hitman||27.4 FPS||65.0 FPS||67.8 FPS|
It’s very encouraging to see more Thunderbolt 3 PCIe expansion enclosures available closer to $200. The build quality of the AMP BOX Mini falls far short of premium, but that can be easily ignored at this price point. While not an eGFX certified enclosure at this time, the Zotac AMP BOX mini is no doubt an affordable and promising option for mini-eGPU enthusiasts. Its main components provide a solid platform for those looking to build a custom external GPU enclosure.
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