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Zimaboard 832 Hackable Single Board Server Review

Small, Powerful and Versatile

Kris Brooks Posted:
Category:
Hardware Reviews 0

DIY project boards move over, enter the Zimaboard. This small sized powerhouse may just be the next big leap creators have been waiting for. With a wide range of compatibility and features the Zimaboard 832’s limitations may only be limited by your imagination. Join us as we find out in this review.

Specifications

  • Price: ($199.90) https://shop.zimaboard.com/
  • Mode: ZimaBoard 832
  • Processor: 
    • Intel Celeron N3450
    • 2m Cache
    • 4 Cores
    • Up to 2.20 GHz
  • Memory: 8GB Dual Channel LPDDR4
  • Onboard Storage: 32GB eMMC 
  • TDP: 6W
  • Connectivity
    • HDD/SDD: 2x SATA 6.0 Gb/s Ports
    • LAN: 2x Gbe LAN Ports (Realtek 8111H)
    • USB: 2x USB 3.0 Ports
    • PCIe: 1x PCIe 2.0 X4 
    • Display: 1x Mini-DisplayPort 1.2 [email protected]
    • Power: DC 12v 5.5x 2.5mm
  • Other Features:
    • Passive Cooling
    • Intel VT-d, VT-x, AES-Ni
    • Support 4K video transcoding
    • H.264 (AVC), H.265 (HEVC), MPEG0-2, VC-1
  • Pre-installed OS: CasaOS (Based on Debian)
  • Compatible OS: Linux / Windows /OpenWrt / pfSense / android / Libreelec

The Zimaboard 832 boasts an alluring aesthetic characterized by an aluminum chassis, crowned with heat fins, and a dark transparent "polycarbonate" bottom cover that allows for considerable visibility into the printed circuit board (PCB). It is akin to a Raspberry Pi, but unlike the latter, the Z832 integrates an Intel Celeron N3450 processor, which delivers performance and ensures compatibility with various operating systems. As a tinkerer and someone who has run a home server for a number of years, I was keen on exploring the capabilities of this project board and seeing exactly what it has to offer. 

The Zimaboard 832 is a project board that originated on Kickstarter with the mission of changing the creator space. It aims to provide a single board server solution that eliminates compromises and can seamlessly integrate into a vast range of projects. Similar to other popular project boards like the Raspberry Pi, the Zimaboard aims to offer creators a simple and elegant solution. However, unlike its counterparts, this board has several unique features up its sleeve.

Let’s start with two of the biggest high points for anyone considering this at the outset. The first is availability and reasonable pricing. Anyone that has been looking as of late knows of the troubles currently plaguing the creator world with limited stock and huge price hikes. Being available and at a good price is almost unheard of and yet that’s exactly the case with the Zimaboard and its active availability on the manufacturer’s website. The second high point is the PCIe expansion slot located externally on the unit. This allows for additional resources to be attached to expand its functionality with exceptional ease.

Software

Loading up the software for the first time, the absolute plethora of options was a little overwhelming. However, given the advanced nature of the project board, I recognized that it offered ample flexibility to explore its possibilities. I commenced my journey by using the preloaded operating system, CasaOS, which is based on Debian. Upon initial inspection, CasaOS appeared to provide a broad range of applications that could be installed through the built-in store. Regrettably, this led to a frustrating experience as each application installation failed due to compatibility issues related to the system's architecture. Despite numerous attempts to troubleshoot, I wasn’t able to get these downloads to consistently work.

While the default operating system provided with the Zimaboard would have been sufficient for a basic NAS setup, I opted to explore alternative options to add a touch of excitement to the project. Given the device's capability to run any system, I chose the latter and promptly downloaded TrueNAS, which installed in a brief 15-minute timeframe. 

TrueNAS proved to be the ideal solution for configuring a high-performance network-attached storage (NAS) device that could support backup operations and multiple functions concurrently. The true value of the Zimaboard became evident as I explored its full range of features. By connecting various solid-state drives via external connectors, I was able to create a network storage solution that rivals those offered by established brands such as Synology and Datto, in terms of speed and reliability. The simplicity of deploying additional plugins with a single mouse click was a remarkable feature that impressed me greatly. These plugins provided a wide range of options, including the likes of Plex Media Server and Open Speed Test, all of which could be run natively on this compact device. One of my favorites is Syncthing, an Open source, peer-to-peer file synchronization application available for many operating systems. This allows me to keep my files backed up in multiple locations further taking advantage of the platform. 

Another favorite was running the Minecraft Server Plugin. This allowed me to run a Minecraft server directly from Z832 and play with any of my network connected devices. The performance was that of a small server. I was able to push the device a bit hard due to the test world I have with huge redstone builds. Overall it performed better than I expected and was easy as a few clicks.

Now I did not stop at just a snazzy NAS for my home network; I wanted more. Luck would have it that IceWhale Technologies provided me with a second Z832. After a fair amount of thinking I found my answer: I decided to try something that I had never toyed around with before, this of course led to me replacing my Asus home router with a shiny new Zimaboard 832 running Pfsense, an open-source router and firewall software with enhanced capabilities. 

The process was fairly easy with only needing to download the image file from Pfsense’s downloads section, writing the bootable usb drive and using the step by step install. Once again, the PCIe expansion slot comes in. By utilizing the 4-Port 2.5 Gbe network adapter card, I was able to establish a reliable Ethernet connection between the Zimaboard and my other devices. As a wireless LAN card was not readily available, I repurposed an old router to serve as an access point for my wireless devices.

This setup worked great. That was until my children found that flaw I spoke about previously. Due to the lack of a PCIe mounting point. My Children managed to detach the network card from the PCIe slot causing a network outage. While this is an easy to reinsert, this begs if reliability in this configuration would stand the test of time and means that you should take extra care in positioning the unit away from anything that might bump or jostle it.

Ease of use

The Z832 is a simple and easy project board to use and is ready to use straight from the box. Connect power and ethernet and you are off on a new adventure… mostly. First, you will need to locate the device on your network in order to access it. This can be done by checking your router or using an IP scanning tool such as Advanced IP Scanner 2. Once you have identified the address, move over to your browser of choice and plug that address in. Now that the hard part is over, you are greeted with a pleasant looking operating system packed full of goodies and visuals.

Outside of the provided operating system is where things can get spicy. While there is a vast assortment of options to choose from and documentation is available on the vendor's website, just being available is not enough. It's a great start for a user that has previous knowledge of tinkering around with devices like a Pi, the less seasoned users may find it confusing and still looking for help. Don’t misunderstand, they are good docs but assume that the reader has background knowledge they may not have. 

Accessories

The team at IceWhale Technology has outdone themselves with an extensive range of accessories and add-ons that will excite any tech enthusiast. Although I have not yet had the chance to test every item, some notable highlights deserve mention. Firstly, the PCIe to NVMe SSD Adapter card is a standout accessory that allows for the integration of two additional M.2 drives. This expansion capability greatly enhanced my storage capacity, enabling me to maximize the TrueNAS software's benefits. While this was a great test of the expandability, I wanted to go with a different setup. My next configuration utilized two Sata SSDs attached via the provided sata connectors that connect in the front of the board. Freeing up the PCIe slot, I was able to install the 4 Port 2.5 Gbe card. This provided enough bandwidth and enabled me to download and run my entire Steam library seamlessly over the network. Finally, I can free up some space on my PC and back everything up external in case of a storage failure.

Additionally, you can find various PCIe adapters on the vendor's website. This ranges from WiFi cards to even more storage options. 

The PCIe slot on the Zimaboard is an exceptional feature for testing, but it falls short in one aspect - mounting. Unlike traditional PCIe slots found in regular PCs, the Zimaboard lacks a dedicated mounting surface for screwing in components. Instead, the connection relies solely on the board's snug fit into the slot. Although the accessories I tested were secure, this limitation could potentially lead to issues in the future. While one possible solution would be to 3D print a holder for added stability, I would like to see IceWhale Technology produce a first-party solution to address this issue in future iterations. 

Developer’s Kit

It goes without saying that the Zimaboard is a handy device. The expandability due to the included PCIe slot is absolutely wonderful, but for more advanced users, the company also offers a Developer’s Kit. This provides the two Z832’s used in this review, the power adapters, expansion cards, and an assortment  of cables. This was literally everything needed to prototype different configurations without having to rush and buy additional parts. Currently, you can find the dev kit on the vendor’s website for $459.90.

In total, the kit includes: 2x ZimaBoard 832, 2x 12V/3A Power Adapter, 1x PCIe to 2.5 Gbe Ethernet ,1x PCIe to 4 Channel USB Adapter, 1x PCIe to 5 Channel SATA, 1x PCIe to NVMe SSD Adapter, 1x Intel AX210 WiFi 6E PCIe Card and 2x SATA Y Cable, which supports Dual 2.5 inch HDD/SSD.

Final Thoughts

The Zimaboard 832 is an impressive kit that fulfilled almost all of my requirements for a development platform. Its single board server proved to be robust enough to handle nearly every task I threw at it. The possibilities really seem to expound with this kit, especially as I consider different projects I might like to take on in the future. It is a bit more expensive than some of the competition with its $199.99 entry point, and whether that’s worth it will depend on how much you value its unique features like that external PCIe port. For my money, though, I was very impressed and consider this to be a very solid buy for tinkerers.

The product described in this article was provided by the manufacturer for evaluation purposes.

8.0Great
Pros
  • Micro form factor
  • PCIe expansion slot
  • Versatile capabilities
  • Overall quite powerful
Cons
  • Limited PCIe mounting options
  • Documentation assumes background knowledge
  • Pre-loaded OS has limitations


Dragnous

Kris Brooks

Long time tech, gadget and all around geek. I love cars, computers and movies and most importantly my family.