What is a ZimaBoard
The Zimaboard was launched as a Kickstarter project in January 2021. I backed the project and took delivery of a couple of ZimaBoards in late April 2022, a bit later than the original target of July 2021.
The ZimaBoard is a palm-sized computer using an Intel x86 processor meaning it can run a variety of Linux, FreeBSD OS and of course Microsoft Windows too.
The dual gigabit network interfaces make it a candidate for a number of networking focused use cases.
The original pitch of the ZimaBoard was as a “single board server for creators” and as the “world’s first hackable single board server”, it could be argued that the systems like the Intel NUC got there first, but this passively cooled little system with an available PCIe 2.0 x4 connection could provide lead to some interesting projects.
You can see the full spec of the (currently 3 different) ZimaBoard variants here.
Is the ZimaBoard like a Raspberry Pi
Due to the size of the ZimaBoard, it would seem obvious to draw comparisons between it and the Raspberry Pi, however, they are very different and have been developed with very different use cases in mind.
The Raspberry Pi was created as a platform for teaching basic computer science and grew beyond that following mass adoption by enthusiasts that could see many more scenarios where this little SBC could be used. There any many other SBC similar to the Raspberry Pi, but where it succeeded was in ensuring there was a low bar to entry and ensuring the hardware was fully supported by mainstream Linux distributions. In addition, the standardisation of the 40 pin GPIO header introduced on the Raspberry Pi 1 Model B+ has enabled electronic engineers and companies to build upon the platform making it incredibly easy for someone to use existing Python libraries and addon modules to create complex systems without needing to understand the low-level electronics.
|Raspberry Pi 4||ZimaBoard 432/832|
|Processor||Broadcom BCM2711 (ARM Cortex-A72)|
4 cores @1.5GHz
|Intel Celeron N3450|
4 Cores @ 1.1GHz (2.2GHz Burst)
|Memory||2GB/4GB/8GB LPDDR4||4GB/8GB LPDDR4|
|Storage (onboard)||N/A||32GB eMMC|
|Storage interfaces||MicroSDHC||2 x SATA 6.0|
|Network||1 x Gigabit Ethernet|
|2 x Gigabit Ethernet (Realtek 8111H)|
|Video||2 x micro HDMI 6k@60Hz|
1 x Composite + audio
|Mini Display Port 1.2 4k@60Hz|
|USB||2 x USB 2.0|
2 x USB 3.0
|2 x USB 3.0|
|Power||5V USB-C||12V 5.5×2.5 DC barrel jack|
|I/O||40pin GPIO||1 x PCI 2.0 x 4|
6pin power I/O
14pin Panel I/O
|Price||2GB: 45 USD|
4GB: 55 USD
8GB: 75 USD
ex PSU, taxes and shipping
|432: 160 USD|
832: 200 USD
Inc PSU, ex taxes, duty and shipping from China
Where the 40Pin GPIO header provided the expansion capabilities for the Raspberry Pi, the USB, SATA and PCIe connections provide the extensibility for the ZimaBoard, but more for typical PC expansion scenarios than to support an ecosystem of bespoke add-ons. However, a poor design decision by the Zimaboard teams means that standard PCI cards often won’t fit directly into the slot on the ZimaBoard as the standard brackets will foul against the side of the case and the mini-DisplayPort. As a result, most cards being inserted will need to have their brackets removed, which isn’t ideal.
Real World Scenarios
Like many that have backed the Kickstarter for the Zimaboard or purchased it since, it appears to have been a speculative purchase for a low-cost PC, in the hope/expectation of finding a use for it. The ZimaBoard ships with CasaOS, which provides a web front end for setting up and accessing a number of common docker hosted products and for many scenarios this will be ideal. Following and replying to questions on the IceWhale ZimaBoard Discord community a number of common scenarios have come up which have highlighted some limitations of the ZimaBoard platform.
Example: Attaching > 1 HDD
As a Home Server, many users want to use large capacity HDD (the spinning hard disc type). The ZimaBoard has 2 x SATA ports and with the right cable can connect 2 x SATA drives, but it can’t deliver sufficient power to power the ZimaBoard and the two HDDs. It’s really only designed for powering 2 x SSD, though you’d also need to have ordered the SATA Y-Cable when buying your ZimaBoard, as it only ships with an adapter to power a single drive. ZimaBoard sell a 5 Port PCIe expansion card which would allow a total of 7 SATA drives to be connected in terms of data connections, but doesn’t provide a way to power all this equipment.
Whilst it’s possible to use a higher power capacity 12V power supply to power ZimaBoard directly, it would mean drawing more current through the power traces of the ZimaBoard PCB and given that higher capacity wasn’t part of the design, the traces aren’t likely to be suitable and could result in damage to the ZimaBoard. In order to power the drives you could:
- Use separate power supplies (like this one) and if necessary a Molex to SATA power adapter.
- Use a PC power supply to power the hard drives. This also needs an adapter to turn on the PSU (since normally this is done by the PC motherboard), they come as either a simple jumper type or with a switch. One user also used the power from the ZimaBoard to trigger a relay to turn on the Power Supply. Powering the ZimaBoard from the PC PSU needs an adapter to present 12V on a 5.5×2.5mm DC barrel jack, my searching has only found SATA power to 5.5×2.1 jacks, which aren’t likely to fit, so would need yet another adapter to convert from 5.5×2.1mm to 5.5×2.5mm.
Assuming you’re willing to go through all the steps above, you’re still left with a collection of bits and a whole mess of wires and adapters to manage and try and organise into something which doesn’t look like a rat’s nest. Good Luck!
Alternative NAS/Media Server
In attaching multiple HDDs, it seems most people are trying to turn their ZimaBoard into some sort of NAS. So it may be more suitable and more elegant to buy a NAS instead of trying to create one.
The MetaBox Pro comes in 2-bay (HS200) and 5-bay (HS500) versions, for ~£300 and ~£400 respectively. It’s engineered to be a NAS with design consideration for suppressing disc vibrations. Tech specs wise it’s also better than the ZimaBoard in many ways:
- Intel N4020 dual-core (HS200) Intel N4120 quad-core (HS500) which are a generation newer than the N3450 in the ZimaBoard
- 1 x 2.5GbE (HS200) 2 x 2.5GbE with link aggregation (HS500)
- 1 x internal NVMe 2280 interface in addition to SATA capacity and onboard 8GB eMMC
I’ve no experience with this NAS, it just turned up when looking for something neater than the DIY options at low price point.
Example: Firewall Appliance
One of there first things I did with my ZimaBoard when it arrived was to set it up as a firewall to replace a large power hungry 1U rack server I’d been using. I covered this in a previous post Installing pfSense 2.6 on ZimaBoard, I’m still using that setup today, though I now question if this is the right long-term solution. Like the NAS options, the stock hardware may be insufficient for your firewall, for example, if you have multiple broadband connections or want to dedicate interfaces to specific VLANs, or want to add 2.5GbE Ethernet. This results in the need to add an additional PCI network card, which then leads to the need to create your own mounting solutions.
Alternative Firewall Appliance
If you’re after a small passively cooled firewall then there are a large number of more suitable devices intended for that purpose. ServeTheHome.com has reviewed many different units, including 4 and 6-port 2.5GbE routers, and a mix of Intel N5105 vs N6005, which are both generations newer and more capable than the ZimaBoards N3450 CPU. You do need to add memory and storage, so keep that in mind when looking at the price. But unlike the ZimaBoard the memory is upgradable to 32GB, which can make the platform suitable for running a range of other workloads.
This TopTon Firewall/Router/Server was recently reviewed on ServerTheHome and they recommend the “Model-B” version which has greater thermal mass for cooling. It also features the latest Intel I226-V network interfaces. Though a word of caution the I226 isn’t currently supported in the pfSense 2.6 but will be supported in the next release and is supported by OpnSense and other FreeBSD and Linux distributions, including Proxmox (should you wish to run Virtual Machines on this platform). The barebones Model-B N5105 version is currently just £167, putting it around the same price as the ZimaBoard 832.
There are further variations of this design that support up to 6 2.5GbE interfaces and different processors, up to 12th Gen Intel i7 and i5 (see STH Review).
Example: Virtualisation Platform for Containers or Virtual Machines
A number of people have found that Proxmox (and some other OS) won’t install to the onboard eMMC storage, care should be taken using the eMMC storage since it’s soldered to the ZimaBoard PCB isn’t (easily) replaceable, so OS should ideally be optimised to limit the amount of data they attempt to write. The ZimaBoard is offered with 2GB/4GB/8GB, if considering this is a visualisation platform this memory constraint might prove an issue, especially if you wanted to attempt to host more complex environments, it’s more suited to hosting containers. Something the default CasaOS appears to be fairly good and helping people get started with.
If a compact lab environment was the goal, then could pick up used Intel NUCs (or similar) or again there are a range of Mini PCs available, typically as barebones configurations. The sellers often offer some limited configurations of memory and storage, but you may what to have more control over the quality and brand of components used.
Check out the Topton store on AliExpress for examples of systems in a variety of configurations and formats.
Note when considering any server, keep in mind that these cheap systems are unlikely to provide any out-of-band management (e.g. IPMI) or remote KVM capability, should that be a requirement you may need to look at more mainstream vendors like Dell and HP, though systems using some SuperMicro motherboards may also have this capability.
Good Use Cases for ZimaBoard
The focus so far has been where the ZimaBoard being shoe horned into a use case that was already well served by systems that are designed specifically for those roles. The ZimaBoard is more suited to areas where there isn’t a good range of options to choose from, or where a specific capability of the ZimaBoard makes it the perfect fit. So a simple dual SSD NAS would be okay, though you’d still need to 3D print an enclosure which isn’t an option for everyone.
Wardriving appears to be a scenario where ZimaBoard has found a bit of a niche. The PCIe Slot allows an expansion card to be added which can host multiple mini PCIe WiFi Cards. Some examples can be seen from the #zimaboard-makes channel in the IceWhale Discord Community.
The compact nature of the ZimaBoard is appealing, especially if you can use the eMMC storage, or keep to a single SSD which can be fairly cleanly mounted under the ZimaBoard. There I guess is also the scenario I implemented which was to try and get some x86 systems mixed in with some Raspberry Pi nodes, coming up with a flexible rack for hanging ZimaBoards, Raspberry Pi’s and different storage. Here are some more examples from the IceWhale Discord Community.
Buying a ZimaBoard for an unknown use case is probably more limiting than picking many other devices, including several mentioned in this post. The Zimaboard is a niche device that is most suited to niche scenarios. The size similarity of the ZimaBoard to the Raspberry Pi shouldn’t cause people to believe the devices are similar. The Raspberry Pi benefits from a huge community and a flexible versatile GPIO, the ZimaBoard is a low power PC with an interesting design aesthetic.
If you understand what the ZimaBoard is and what it isn’t, and you have a specific scenario in mind that the ZimaBoard ideally fits, over and above other x86 computers, then great go ahead and buy one, otherwise think carefully and review what might be a potentially better fit.
Links to products above and here may be to affiliate links which help support the site.
- ZimaBoard 432/832 (ZimaBoard)
- Raspberry Pi 4 (Amazon) (ThePiHut)
- ZimaBoard SATA Y-Cable (ZimaBoard)
- PCIe 5 SATA Port card (ZimaBoard)
- 12V/5V HDD Power Supply (AlExpress)
- Molex to SATA power cable adapter (Amazon)
- Corsair modular ATX Power supply (Amazon)
- ATX PSU jumper (Amazon)
- ATX PSU Switch (Amazon)
- SATA Male to 12V DC 5.5×2.1mm plug (Amazon)
- 5.5×2.1mm to 5.5×2.5mm DC power plug (Amazon)
- MetaBox Pro NAS (AliExpress)
- Topton Firewall/Router – Intel i226 2.5GbE quad port (AliExpress)