ECS LIVA Z3 Plus Review: Compact Comet Lake NUC Clone Cuts Corners

ECS is a well-known OEM in computing circles, known for building motherboards, computers, and industrial / embedded systems for other vendors. Some of their motherboards and small form-factor PCs are marketed under their own brand name – for example, their LIVA series of ultra-compact form-factor (UCFF) machines serves markets that are not directly addressed by the Intel NUCs. At the 2020 CES, the company introduced the LIVA Z3 Plus and LIVA Z3E UCFF machines based on the Comet Lake-U processors from Intel. The Z3 Plus has four variants – two based on Core i7 processors and one each based on the i5 and i3 SKUs. ECS sampled the pre-built Core i5-based LIVA Z3 Plus offering available in the North American market to put through our evaluation process. This review takes a look at the performance and value proposition of the product against the other choices in the market.

A resurgence in the small form factor PC market has been seen in the last few years, thanks in no small part to ultra-compact form-factor (UCFF) and gaming systems. Intel’s NUC line-up has been ruling the roost, prompting ASUS, ASRock, ECS, GIGABYTE, and Zotac to introduce their own ‘NUC clones’. The LIVA series from ECS initially started off with the Atom-series CPUs in an attempt to create NUC net-tops. Over the years, the company has expanded to introduce models based on the Core series and also experimented with small form-factor variations to breathe fresh air into the line-up.

Towards the end of 2018, we had reviewed the LIVA Z2 and the Intel June Canyon NUC based on a Gemini Lake processor with the Goldmont (Atom) architecture. Fast forward a couple of years, we now have the LIVA Z3 Plus going head-to-head against the Intel Frost Canyon NUCs. In the LIVA Z2 review, we had noted the passively cooled nature of the ECS system as a big differentiation over the comparative Intel NUC. In the LIVA Z3 Plus, however, there is a lot less differentiation compared to the same generation of Intel Frost Canyon NUCs. We will have more discussion on the comparison points throughout this review.

ECS has four CPU variants of the LIVA Z3 Plus, but only the i5 version is available in the North American market. This SKU uses the Core i5-10210U processor and comes with 4GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD. Disregarding the RAM and SSD, the LIVA Z3 Plus goes directly against the NUC10i5FNK barebones in the UCFF market.

The LIVA Z3 Plus has dimensions of 117 x 128 X 35 mm compared to the NUC10i5FNK’s 117 x 112 x 38mm. The slightly larger footprint with a smaller Z-height allows the LIVA to sport a sleek look and also have well-spaced out I/O ports. As is typical in machines with this form-factor, the Core i5-10210U comes soldered in the main board. It is a quad-core octa-threaded (4C/8T) processor with a nominal TDP of 15W, but capable of operating in the 10 – 25W range.

The specifications of our ECS LIVA Z3 Plus review configuration are summarized in the table below.

ECS LIVA Z3 Plus Specifications
Processor Intel Core i5-10210U
Comet Lake-U, 4C/8T, 1.6 – 4.2GHz
14nm, 6MB L2+L3, 10-25W (15W)
Memory Team Group DDR4-2666 SODIMM
19-19-19-43 @ 2666 MHz
1×4 GB
Graphics Intel UHD Graphics
Disk Drive(s) kimtigo KT128GM28S3
(128 GB; M.2 SATA III 6Gbps)
(Silicon Motion SM2258XT Controller)
Networking Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200
(2×2 802.11ax – 2400 Mbps)
1x Intel I219-LM Gigabit Ethernet Controller
1x Realtek RTL8111 Gigabit Ethernet Controller
Audio 3.5mm Headphone Jack
Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (HDMI)
Miscellaneous I/O Ports 3x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Type-A
1x USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) Type-C
Operating System Retail unit is barebones, but we installed Windows 10 Enterprise x64
Pricing (As configured) $556
Full Specifications ECS LIVA Z3 Plus Specifications

The ECS LIVA Z3 Plus kit doesn’t come with any pre-installed OS, but the drivers can be downloaded from the ECS support site for the product. In addition to the main unit, the other components of the package include a 90 W (19V @ 4.74A) adapter, a US power cord, and a VESA mount (along with the necessary screws).

Comparative PC Configurations
Aspect ECS LIVA Z3 Plus
CPU Intel Core i5-10210U Intel Core i5-10210U
GPU Intel UHD Graphics Intel UHD Graphics
RAM Team Group DDR4-2666 SODIMM
19-19-19-43 @ 2666 MHz
1×4 GB
Team Group DDR4-2666 SODIMM
19-19-19-43 @ 2666 MHz
1×4 GB
Storage kimtigo KT128GM28S3
(128 GB; M.2 SATA III 6Gbps)
(Silicon Motion SM2258XT Controller)
kimtigo KT128GM28S3
(128 GB; M.2 SATA III 6Gbps)
(Silicon Motion SM2258XT Controller)
Wi-Fi Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200
(2×2 802.11ax – 2400 Mbps)
Intel Wi-Fi 6 AX200
(2×2 802.11ax – 2400 Mbps)
Price (in USD, when built) $556 (as configured / No OS) $556 (as configured / No OS)

The table above has an overview of the various systems that we are comparing the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus against. Note that they may not belong to the same market segment. The relevant configuration details of the machines are provided so that readers have an understanding of why some benchmark numbers are skewed for or against the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus when we come to those sections.

Platform Quick Look

Intel’s Comet Lake-U processor has a wide variety of IO configurations, and we start withthe configuration used on the LIVA Z3 Plus board by ECS.

All the four USB ports in the front panel are behind a single root hub, and they all operate at USB 3.2 Gen 1 (5Gbps) speeds. One of the USB ports in this hub also connects to the WLAN card for Bluetooth functionality. The i219-LM network port is directly from the processor, while the Realtek RTL8111 solution interfaces using a single PCIe lane. Another PCIe x1 lane is used by AX200 WLAN solution. Since the M.2 slot is occupied by a SATA SSD, we do not have the details of the PCIe lanes routed to it in the above configuration diagram.

Benchmarks and Performance

In the remainder of this review, we will first look at BAPCo’s SYSmark 25, followed by various UL benchmarks and miscellaneous workloads. We also present some storage and networking performance numbers. A detailed look at the HTPC credentials of the system is followed by testing of the power consumption and thermal solution.

The ECS LIVA Z3 Plus was evaluated using our Fall 2018 test suite for small-form factor PCs. In the first section, we will be looking at SYSmark 25.

BAPCo’s SYSmark 25 is an application-based benchmark that uses real-world applications to replay usage patterns of business users in the areas of productivity, creativity, and responsiveness. The ‘Productivity Scenario’ covers office-centric activities including word processing, spreadsheet usage, financial analysis, software development, application installation, file compression, and e-mail management. The ‘Creativity Scenario’ represents media-centric activities such as digital photo processing, AI and ML for face recognition in photos and videos for the purpose of content creation, etc. The ‘Responsiveness Scenario’ evaluates the ability of the system to react in a quick manner to user inputs in areas such as application and file launches, web browsing, and multi-tasking.

Scores are meant to be compared against a reference desktop (the SYSmark 25 calibration system, a Lenovo Thinkcenter M720q with a Core i5-8500T and 8GB of DDR4 memory to go with a 256GB M.2 NVMe SSD). The calibration system scores 1000 in each of the scenarios. A score of, say, 2000, would imply that the system under test is twice as fast as the reference system.

SYSmark 25 - Productivity

SYSmark 25 - Creativity

SYSmark 25 - Responsiveness

SYSmark 25 - Overall

SYSmark 25 also adds energy measurement to the mix. A high score in the SYSmark benchmarks might be nice to have, but, potential customers also need to determine the balance between power consumption and the efficiency of the system. For example, in the average office scenario, it might not be worth purchasing a noisy and power-hungry PC just because it ends up with a 2000 score in the SYSmark 2014 SE benchmarks. In order to provide a balanced perspective, SYSmark 25 also allows vendors and decision makers to track the energy consumption during each workload. In the graphs below, we find the total energy consumed by the PC under test for a single iteration of each SYSmark 25 workload. For reference, the calibration system consumes 8.88 Wh for productivity, 10.81 Wh for creativity, and 19.69 Wh overall.

SYSmark 25 - Productivity Energy Consumption

SYSmark 25 - Creativity Energy Consumption

SYSmark 25 - Overall Energy Consumption

The relative ordering of the performance numbers is no surprise, given that we are comparing a quad-core system (ECS LIVA Z3 Plus) with a hexa core Frost Canyon NUC and an octa-core 4X4 BOX, and also considering the fact that the LIVA operates in single-channel mode. These aspects should lead to lower power consumption numbers – this is seen in the productivity workload. However, creativity – which is dependent on GPU and multi-core performance – sees the LIVA incur a penalty due to the longer time taken to complete the tasks. We also see that in the bigger gulf in the performance scores. The overall energy consumption of the LIVA Z3 Plus lies between the Frost Canyon NUC and the 4X4 BOX-4800U, but the single-channel memory and core count disadvantage keeps it in the lower half of the performance graphs.

This section deals with a selection of the UL Futuremark benchmarks – PCMark 10, PCMark 8, and 3DMark. While the first two evaluate the system as a whole, 3DMark focuses on the graphics capabilities.

PCMark 10

UL’s PCMark 10 evaluates computing systems for various usage scenarios (generic / essential tasks such as web browsing and starting up applications, productivity tasks such as editing spreadsheets and documents, gaming, and digital content creation). We benchmarked select PCs with the PCMark 10 Extended profile and recorded the scores for various scenarios. These scores are heavily influenced by the CPU and GPU in the system, though the RAM and storage device also play a part. The power plan was set to Balanced for all the PCs while processing the PCMark 10 benchmark.

The core clock speed advantage of the Core i5-10210U compared to the processor in the NUC8i5BEK gives the LIVA an advantage in the productivity workload. However, other scores are pulled down due to the single-channel memory. In fact, the only PC the LIVA Z3 Plus is consistently ahead of is the Gemini Lake-based LIVA Z2.

Futuremark PCMark 10 - Essentials

Futuremark PCMark 10 - Productivity

Futuremark PCMark 10 - Gaming

Futuremark PCMark 10 - Digital Content Creation

Futuremark PCMark 10 - Extended

PCMark 8

We continue to present PCMark 8 benchmark results (as those have more comparison points) while our PCMark 10 scores database for systems grows in size. PCMark 8 provides various usage scenarios (home, creative and work) and offers ways to benchmark both baseline (CPU-only) as well as OpenCL accelerated (CPU + GPU) performance. We benchmarked select PCs for the OpenCL accelerated performance in all three usage scenarios. These scores are heavily influenced by the CPU in the system. With GPU capabilities in the mix, the AMD-based mini-PCs manage a significant lead over the LIVA Z3 Plus. Other numbers follow the same comparative trend as seen in the previous benchmarks.

Futuremark PCMark 8 - Home OpenCL

Futuremark PCMark 8 - Creative OpenCL

Futuremark PCMark 8 - Work OpenCL

3DMark

UL’s 3DMark comes with a diverse set of graphics workloads that target different Direct3D feature levels. Correspondingly, the rendering resolutions are also different. We use 3DMark 2.4.4264 to get an idea of the graphics capabilities of the system. In this section, we take a look at the performance of the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus across the different 3DMark workloads. The scores indicate that the single-channel memory acts as a huge dampener for performance in graphics workloads due to GPU bandwidth limitations.

3DMark Ice Storm

This workload has three levels of varying complexity – the vanilla Ice Storm, Ice Storm Unlimited, and Ice Storm Extreme. It is a cross-platform benchmark (which means that the scores can be compared across different tablets and smartphones as well). All three use DirectX 11 (feature level 9) / OpenGL ES 2.0. While the Extreme renders at 1920 x 1080, the other two render at 1280 x 720. The graphs below present the various Ice Storm worloads’ numbers for different systems that we have evaluated.

UL 3DMark – Ice Storm Workloads

3DMark Cloud Gate

The Cloud Gate workload is meant for notebooks and typical home PCs, and uses DirectX 11 (feature level 10) to render frames at 1280 x 720. The graph below presents the overall score for the workload across all the systems that are being compared.

UL 3DMark Cloud Gate Score

3DMark Sky Diver

The Sky Diver workload is meant for gaming notebooks and mid-range PCs, and uses DirectX 11 (feature level 11) to render frames at 1920 x 1080. The graph below presents the overall score for the workload across all the systems that are being compared.

UL 3DMark Sky Diver Score

3DMark Fire Strike Extreme

The Fire Strike benchmark has three workloads. The base version is meant for high-performance gaming PCs. Similar to Sky Diver, it uses DirectX 11 (feature level 11) to render frames at 1920 x 1080. The Ultra version targets 4K gaming system, and renders at 3840 x 2160. However, we only deal with the Extreme version in our benchmarking – It renders at 2560 x 1440, and targets multi-GPU systems and overclocked PCs. The graph below presents the overall score for the Fire Strike Extreme benchmark across all the systems that are being compared.

UL 3DMark Fire Strike Extreme Score

This section looks at some of the other commonly used benchmarks representative of the performance of specific real-world applications.

3D Rendering – CINEBENCH

We use CINEBENCH R15, R20, and R23 for 3D rendering evaluation. R15 provides three benchmark modes – OpenGL, single threaded and multi-threaded, while R20 and R23 provide only single and multi-threaded modes. Evaluation of different PC configurations in all supported modes provided us the following results.

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R15 - Single Thread

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R15 - Multiple Threads

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R15 - OpenGL

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R20 - Single Thread

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R20 - Multiple Threads

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R23 - Single Thread

3D Rendering - CINEBENCH R23 - Multiple Threads

Multi-threaded and GPU performance suffers when compared against the AMD offerings with better multi-core performance and a more capable GPU. The relative ordering across all CINEBENCH releases remains the same. Clock speeds and core counts essentially dictate the ordering seen above.

x265 Benchmark

Next up, we have some video encoding benchmarks using x265 v2.8. The appropriate encoder executable is chosen based on the supported CPU features. In the first case, we encode 600 1080p YUV 4:2:0 frames into a 1080p30 HEVC Main-profile compatible video stream at 1 Mbps and record the average number of frames encoded per second.

Video Encoding - x265 - 1080p

Our second test case is 1200 4K YUV 4:2:0 frames getting encoded into a 4Kp60 HEVC Main10-profile video stream at 35 Mbps. The encoding FPS is recorded.

Video Encoding - x265 - 4K 10-bit

The encoder is heavily multi-threaded and the effects are clearly visible in the numbers above.

7-Zip

7-Zip is a very effective and efficient compression program, often beating out OpenCL accelerated commercial programs in benchmarks even while using just the CPU power. 7-Zip has a benchmarking program that provides tons of details regarding the underlying CPU’s efficiency. In this subsection, we are interested in the compression and decompression rates when utilizing all the available threads for the LZMA algorithm.

7-Zip LZMA Compression Benchmark

7-Zip LZMA Decompression Benchmark

The relative ordering follows the core counts in different systems.

Cryptography Benchmarks

Cryptography has become an indispensable part of our interaction with computing systems. Almost all modern systems have some sort of hardware-acceleration for making cryptographic operations faster and more power efficient. In this sub-section, we look at two different real-world applications that may make use of this acceleration.

BitLocker is a Windows features that encrypts entire disk volumes. While drives that offer encryption capabilities are dealt with using that feature, most legacy systems and external drives have to use the host system implementation. Windows has no direct benchmark for BitLocker. However, we cooked up a BitLocker operation sequence to determine the adeptness of the system at handling BitLocker operations. We start off with a 2.5GB RAM drive in which a 2GB VHD (virtual hard disk) is created. This VHD is then mounted, and BitLocker is enabled on the volume. Once the BitLocker encryption process gets done, BitLocker is disabled. This triggers a decryption process. The times taken to complete the encryption and decryption are recorded. This process is repeated 25 times, and the average of the last 20 iterations is graphed below.

BitLocker Encryption Benchmark

BitLocker Decryption Benchmark

In addition to AES-NI performance dictated by core counts and clock speed, DRAM bandwidth also plays a role, and this handicap is possibly the main reason why the LIVA Z3 Plus comes in the lower half of the above graphs.

Creation of secure archives is best done through the use of AES-256 as the encryption method while password protecting ZIP files. We re-use the benchmark mode of 7-Zip to determine the AES256-CBC encryption and decryption rates using pure software as well as AES-NI. Note that the 7-Zip benchmark uses a 48KB buffer for this purpose.

7-Zip AES256-CBC Encryption Benchmark

7-Zip AES256-CBC Decryption Benchmark

The ordering seen here is the same as what was obtained for BitLocker, though the gulf is not as wide (DRAM bandwidth probably has little to contribute here since the buffer size is small enough to fit in the cache of most processors).

Yet another cryptography application is secure network communication. OpenSSL can take advantage of the acceleration provided by the host system to make operations faster. It also has a benchmark mode that can use varying buffer sizes. We recorded the processing rate for a 8KB buffer using the hardware-accelerated AES256-CBC-HAC-SHA1 feature.

OpenSSL Encryption Benchmark

OpenSSL Decryption Benchmark

We have noted in earlier reviews that AMD’s acceleration for OpenSSL ciphers delivers better results than Intel’s as seen in the above graphs. The Intel systems are all around the same ballpark, with minor differences accounted for by clock speeds.

Agisoft Photoscan

Agisoft PhotoScan is a commercial program that converts 2D images into 3D point maps, meshes and textures. The program designers sent us a command line version in order to evaluate the efficiency of various systems that go under our review scanner. The command line version has two benchmark modes, one using the CPU and the other using both the CPU and GPU (via OpenCL). We present the results from our evaluation using the CPU mode only. The benchmark (v1.3) takes 84 photographs and does four stages of computation:

  • Stage 1: Align Photographs (capable of OpenCL acceleration)
  • Stage 2: Build Point Cloud (capable of OpenCL acceleration)
  • Stage 3: Build Mesh
  • Stage 4: Build Textures

We record the time taken for each stage. Since various elements of the software are single threaded, and others multithreaded, it is interesting to record the effects of CPU generations, speeds, number of cores, and DRAM parameters using this software.

Agisoft PhotoScan Benchmark - Stage 1

Agisoft PhotoScan Benchmark - Stage 2

Agisoft PhotoScan Benchmark - Stage 3

Agisoft PhotoScan Benchmark - Stage 4

The lack of DRAM bandwidth due to single-channel operation pretty much condemns the LIVA Z3 Plus to the bottom half of the graphs despite a capable processor in the Core i5-10210U.

Dolphin Emulator

Wrapping up our application benchmark numbers is the new Dolphin Emulator (v5) benchmark mode results.

Dolphin Emulator Benchmark

This is again a test of the CPU capabilities, and thankfully the DRAM bandwidth limitations don’t have too much of a detrimental effect. Despite being in the lower half of the graph, the numbers are closer to the systems on top than the bottom.

Networking and storage are two major aspects which influence our experience with any computing system. This section presents results from our evaluation of these aspects in the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus. On the storage side, one option would be repetition of our strenuous SSD review tests on the drive(s) in the PC. Fortunately, to avoid that overkill, PCMark 8 has a storage bench where certain common workloads such as loading games and document processing are replayed on the target drive. Results are presented in two forms, one being a benchmark number and the other, a bandwidth figure. We ran the PCMark 8 storage bench on selected PCs and the results are presented below.

Futuremark PCMark 8 Storage Bench - Score

Futuremark PCMark 8 Storage Bench - Bandwidth

A four-channel SATA SSD controller with just 128GB of flash in 2020 is not going to set any records. This SSD can claim to be marginally better than spinning rust, but one should not expect storage intensive tasks to fly through (if you are planning to copy a 15GB file to the SSD, expect speeds to go down to the 50 MBps range within 10 – 15 seconds).

On the networking side, we restricted ourselves to the evaluation of the WLAN component. Our standard test router is the Netgear Nighthawk AX12 RAX120 configured with both 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz networks. The router is placed approximately 11 ft. away with a direct line-of-sight to the PC under test. A wired client (Zotac MI553, with an Akitio T3-10G NBASE-T Thunderbolt 3 adapter) is connected to the 5GbE port of the RAX120 and serves as one endpoint for iperf evaluation.

The RAX120 can be explicitly configured to connect over a DFS channel. This works in the absence of any radar presence in the vicinity. We configured the router to operate in Channel 64 (DFS) after ensuring that no nearby wireless networks were operating in that channel (in order to avoid benchmarking interference as much as possible). In such a scenario, the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus connected with the following parameters.

A script to run iPerf3 with 1, 2, 4, 8, and 16 parallel streams between the ECS LIVA Z3 Plys and the Zotac ZBOX MI553 was processed – the first set for TX alone, followed by another set for RX, and finally a third set with bidirectional traffic.

With DFS support, we can expect around 1.21 Gbps of best-case throughput via the AX200 in the LIVA Z3 Plus. The table below presents the iPerf3 benchmark results obtained in the above testing scenario.

Wireless Bandwidth – TCP Traffic – ECS LIVA Z3 Plus
(iPerf3 Throughput in Gbps)
Stream
Count
160 MHz Wi-Fi 6 (DFS)
TX RX
1 1.145
2 1.151
4 1.137
8 1.143
16 1.167
1 0.824
2 1.023
4 1.082
8 1.109
16 1.213
1 1.099 0.060
2 1.007 0.144
4 1.033 0.124
8 0.941 0.218
16 0.883 0.309

The numbers presented above are slightly lesser than the average segment bandwidths noted, as the data in the graph is computed from the network interface’s counters, while iPerf reports results based only on the traffic sent by it alone.

The ECS LIVA Z3 Plus comes with two display outputs – a mini-DP one and a HDMI 2.0 port. Both support 4Kp60 output. We evaluated the HTPC aspects with the unit connected to a LG 34WK95U-W monitor over HDMI. The monitor supports HDR, though we were unable to activate it from the LIVA Z3 Plus.

Usually, the HTPC evaluation is done with HDR turned on, but the above issue prevented us from adopting the usual flow.

Display Refresh Rate Testing

We tested out various display refresh rates ranging from 23.976 Hz to 59.94 Hz. Of particular interest is the 23.976 Hz (23p) setting, which Intel used to have trouble with in the pre-Broadwell days.

The gallery below presents screenshots from the other refresh rates that were tested. The system has no trouble maintaining a fairly accurate refresh rate throughout the duration of the video playback.

Gallery: ECS LIVA Z3 Plus – Display Refresh Rate Support

YouTube Streaming

The move to 4K, and the need to evaluate HDR support have made us choose Mystery Box’s Peru 8K HDR 60FPS video as our test sample moving forward. On PCs running Windows, it is recommended that HDR streaming videos be viewed using the Microsoft Edge browser after putting the desktop in HDR mode. We played back the video in non-HDR mode due to the issue mentioned at the beginning of this section.

For non-HDR playback, MS Edge gets the 4Kp60 VP9 encode from the YouTube servers. However, the playback was punctuated by a large number of dropped frames as shown in the statistics segment of the above screenshot. These frame drops actually made the video noticeably stutter particularly when any overlay was active. Eliminating the overlays reduced the issue somewhat. Various metrics of interest such as GPU usage and at-wall power consumption were recorded for the first four minutes of the playback of the above video (overlays active during the beginning and end of the graphing duration). The numbers are graphed below.

Given that the Frost Canyon NUC had no trouble playing back 4Kp60 videos, we were puzzled by this issue. After completing our review process, we swapped out the 1x 4GB DDR4-2666 SO-DIMM for 2x 8GB DDR4-2133 SO-DIMM that we had in our parts drawer from the early days of DDR4. The move to dual-channel RAM (even one with a lower operating frequency) completely eliminated the playback issues even with overlays active.

The power consumption numbers are also shown in the graph above. Even in the initial segment where the process of triggering the full-screen playback occurs, the usage numbers are well under 100% (unlike the single channel DRAM case). Power consumption averages around 20W in both cases.

Evaluation of local media playback and video processing is done by playing back files encompassing a range of relevant codecs, containers, resolutions, and frame rates. A note of the efficiency is also made by tracking GPU usage and power consumption of the system at the wall. Users have their own preference for the playback software / decoder / renderer, and our aim is to have numbers representative of commonly encountered scenarios. Towards this, we played back the test streams using the following combinations:

  • MPC-HC x64 1.8.5 + LAV Video Decoder (DXVA2 Native) + Enhanced Video Renderer – Custom Presenter (EVR-CP)
  • VLC 3.0.8
  • Kodi 18.9

Fourteen test streams (each of 90s duration) were played back from the local disk with an interval of 30 seconds in-between. Various metrics including GPU usage and at-wall power consumption were recorded during the course of this playback. Prior to looking at the metrics, a quick summary of the decoding capabilities of the integrated Intel UHD Graphics is useful to have for context.

On paper, the GPU should be able to play back all codecs with hardware acceleration (except for AV1).

We opted to not test madVR as the single-channel memory and weak integrated GPU suggest suitability of the PC only for mainstream HTPC usage – not geared towards users desiring top-notch video post-processing.

VLC and Kodi

VLC is the playback software of choice for the average PC user who doesn’t need a ten-foot UI. Its install-and-play simplicity has made it extremely popular. Over the years, the software has gained the ability to take advantage of various hardware acceleration options. Kodi, on the other hand, has a ten-foot UI making it the perfect open-source software for dedicated HTPCs. Support for add-ons make it very extensible and capable of customization. We played back our test files using the default VLC and Kodi configurations, and recorded the following metrics.

Video Playback Efficiency – VLC and Kodi

Both players were able to play back our streams (except for the AV1 clip) successfully despite the single channel DRAM.

MPC-HC

MPC-HC offers an easy way to test out different combinations of decoders and renderers. The configuration we evaluated is the default post-install scenario, with only the in-built LAV Video Decoder forced to DXVA2 Native mode. The metrics collected during the playback of the test files using the above configuration are presented below.

Unlike VLC and Kodi, MPC-HC seemed to suffer greatly from the usage of a single SODIMM module. There were frequent stutters during the playback session – something we hadn’t observed with the Frost Canyon NUC. We did not take the trouble to evaluate with dual-channel RAM for this workload, but it is likely that would solve the problem similar to what we saw in the case of 4Kp60 playback with overlays in YouTube.

Small form-factor machines are an attractive proposition due to their ability to be installed in space-constrained locations. The design of such machines is made possible due to lower platform power consumption numbers compared to traditional desktops in the tower form-factor. It is also important to evaluate the thermal performance of the system under sustained load. Prior to providing our concluding thoughts on the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus, we take a look at these aspects.

Power Consumption

The power consumption at the wall was measured with a 4K display being driven through the HDMI port. In the graphs below, we compare the idle and load power of the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus with other low power PCs evaluated before. For load power consumption, we ran the AIDA64 System Stability Test with various stress components, and noted the maximum sustained power consumption at the wall.

Idle Power Consumption

Despite the use of a SATA SSD and only one memory channel, the idle power consumption is still a tad too high – It may be possible to tweak BIOS settings to minimize the idle power further. In any case, it is still better than that of the AMD-based systems. The load power consumption of around 63W is reached only for very short durations, as we shall see further down. The at-wall power is around 27W under sustained loading, as we shall see in the next sub-section.

Thermal Performance

Our thermal stress routine starts with the system at idle, followed by four stages of different system loading profiles using the AIDA64 System Stability Test (each of 30 minutes duration). In the first stage, we stress the CPU, caches and RAM. In the second stage, we add the GPU to the above list. In the third stage, we stress the GPU standalone. In the final stage, we stress all the system components (including the disks). Beyond this, we leave the unit idle in order to determine how quickly the various temperatures in the system can come back to normal idling range. The various clocks, temperatures and power consumption numbers for the system during the above routine are presented in the graphs below.

ECS LIVA Z3 Plus System Loading with the AIDA64 System Stability Test

A look at the power consumption graph shows that the system is designed to support the Core i5-10210U running with a TDP of 15W. Throughout the stress duration, the power number is sustained – and under those conditions, the temperature of the package never goes above 85C. But, this does come at the cost of fan noise.

ECS LIVA Z3 Plus System Loading with Prime95 and Furmark

The observations in the custom stress test involving Prime95 and Furmark are the same – the package dissipates around 15W with the number split between the GPU and CPU appropriately based on the load on either. The thermal solution for the system has no issues in handling it.

Final Words

Companies like ECS have been in the PC space for a long while, and can be trusted upon to provide reliable systems. One of the key things we have observed in the industry while evaluating products from such companies is that the offerings are never bad products, but the pricing can make it appear so. The ECS LIVA Z3 Plus falls under this category. In order to evaluate the value proposition, we consider the lowest price online for the LIVA Z3 Plus – $556. A consumer with limited technical knowledge can instead make three purchases – a $370 NUC10i5FNK, a $51 WD Blue NVMe SSD for 500GB, and a 16GB DDR4-2666 SODIMM kit for $60 working out to a total cost of $481. For $75 less, the Frost Canyon configuration provides a Thunderbolt 3 port, better balance with 10Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 2 ports (compared to 5 Gbps USB 3.2 Gen 1 in the Z3 Plus), and better memory hierarchy components (16GB dual-channel DRAM vs. 4GB single-channel, and a 500GB NVMe SSD vs. a 128GB SATA SSD). The LIVA Z3 Plus does cater to some niche use-cases needing two wired LAN ports and/or a mini-DP port for installation in a space-limited location – however, it is unclear whether such requirements would justify a $75 premium over a platform with arguably better all-round credentials.

The practice of vendors delivering systems with only one memory channel utilized simply needs to stop. The intent may be to keep the cost down, but the experience of the non-technical user (one likely to buy an off-the-shelf mini-PC with pre-installed RAM and SSD) suffers greatly. These are typically the folks who do not realize the reason for the less-than-ideal performance. The ECS LIVA Z3 Plus would have earned our unqualified recommendation were it to be sold barebones at a price south of $375 (given the direct competition from Intel’s NUC10i5FNK at around $380). As it stands, we believe the unit is priced much higher than expected for its feature set.

On the positive side, the new chassis design – flatter and a bit wider compared to the standard NUC chassis – is subjectively more pleasing to the eye. The USB ports are also not stacked, and all of them are in the front panel – enabling easier access if the use-case demands frequent swapping of USB peripherals. Having only the connect-and-forget ports like the display outputs and NICs on the rear panel lends itself to good user-experience. Unlike some of the other Comet Lake SFF PCs in the market, the LIVA Z3 Plus comes with Wi-Fi 6 support. Consumers contemplating a Comet Lake-U mini-PC for use-cases that involve the need for native dual LAN capabilities or a mini-DP output in a compact footprint (without external adapters) should definitely look at the ECS LIVA Z3 Plus. Post-purchase, they would do well to ensure that both memory slots are occupied.