Dell Inspiron Zino HD

While our review sample doesn't quite have the power to be a usable HTPC, if you're willing to spend a little more Dell offers the upgrades to get there.

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We've been excited to review the Dell Inspiron Zino HD ever since we first saw it at a preview event last August. An affordable, flexible, small-scale desktop, the Inspiron Zino HD seemed like a more accessible version of Dell's older Mac Mini-competitor, the Studio Hybrid. Unfortunately, due to stuttery 1080p high-definition video playback from the integrated graphics chip, you'll need to upgrade this configuration or look elsewhere for a fully capable, worry-free home entertainment computer.

The Inspiron Zino HD clearly gets its inspiration from Apple's Mac Mini. Dell's squat, square design and reliance on an all-plastic exterior doesn't quite have the industrial polish of Apple's tiny desktop, but we can also see an argument that the Zino looks a bit friendlier than the Mac Mini. The Zino's default colour scheme is all-black, but you can opt for a top plate in various colours and designs for an additional AU$8.80 when you place your order. Our review unit came with the True Blue option.

The Inspiron Zino HD is also larger than the Mac Mini, as well as Dell's other small scale system, the Studio Hybrid. Although the 82.5mm high, 196.8mm wide and tall Zino is slightly larger than the Mac Mini, Dell's design isn't inappropriate for a system aimed at your living room.

If its physical design is well-suited to the living room, we were disappointed to find our Zino's specs weren't quite up to the task. Its HDMI video output made connecting an HDTV a breeze, and we were happy to find that the desktop resolution scaled properly and the audio signal travelled from the PC to our Samsung test TV with no trouble. Traditional DVD playback was fine, but we ran into some difficulty when we tried playing video content from various sources around the web.

We had success with standard-definition video content from YouTube and Apple's movie trailer repository. Streaming movies via Netflix also worked well enough, and we were able to watch windowed content from Hulu with no noticeable degradation. When we bumped the Hulu content to full screen, even in Hulu's medium-quality setting, the Zino lagged badly. High-definition 1080p resolution trailers from were also completely unwatchable.

The lack of Blu-ray drive at this level and inadequate 1080p playback makes the "HD" in Inspiron Zino HD ring untrue, at least for this configuration. We're also troubled that the Zino couldn't keep up with full-screen standard-definition content from Hulu. For an extra AU$100.10 you can upgrade the Zino's integrated ATI Radeon 3200 graphics chip to a discrete Radeon HD 4330 GPU (and at this point, the optional Blu-ray extra will appear in Dell's order form). If you're interested in the Zino as a living room-based video source, upgrading the video chip should be the first move you make when you place your order.

Rather than using a hybrid design which could serve as a PC for both productivity and home entertainment, Dell has cast the Zino firmly as a home entertainment PC. We're actually big fans of the Athlon X2 3250e, as it strikes a reasonable balance between cost and performance that makes sense for a desktop. With the right video chip, the Zino would make a respectable home entertainment PC that, unlike Atom-based PCs, won't choke when you try to perform the occasional basic PC task like browsing the web or viewing photos. The Dell's 802.11n wireless card is also a living-room-friendly networking option, and in general, the Dell's features seem fair for its price. We just wish you didn't have to spend extra cash on an upgraded graphics chip for it to meet its full potential as a living-room PC.

Adobe Photoshop CS3 image-processing test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion Slimline s5220y
Apple Mac Mini (2.26GHz)
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Acer Aspire Revo

Apple iTunes encoding test (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion Slimline s5220y
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Acer Aspire Revo

Multimedia multitasking (in seconds)
(Shorter bars indicate better performance)
HP Pavilion Slimline s5220y
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Acer Aspire Revo

(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Rendering multiple CPUs
Rendering single CPU

HP Pavilion Slimline s5220y
Apple Mac Mini (2.26GHz)
Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Acer Aspire Revo

The charts above provide a great example of the benefits of the Dell's Athlon X2 3250e CPU next to Intel's Atom. On every test, the Zino comes squarely in the middle, with the Atom-powered Aspire Revo taking twice as long to perform basic tasks. We're not surprised to see the Dell fall behind the Mac Mini or the HP, both of which boast full-fledged Intel Pentium or Core 2 CPUs.

We're glad to see Dell is keeping its newer PCs more current. In addition to the HDMI output, the Inspiron Zino HD also features a pair of eSATA ports. That means you can add fast external storage devices, which would be perfect for expanding this systems' video storage. You also get a pair of USB ports on the back, as well as a VGA video port and a pair of analog audio outputs. On the front, the Zino has an additional pair of USB ports, as well as an SD card input and a single headphone jack. The only other feature we might ask for is a digital audio output independent from the HDMI port.

As this is a customisable system, Dell offers a variety of upgrades and options at the time of purchase, from a larger hard drive, to more RAM, or the aforementioned Blu-ray drive. The system itself offers no obvious means to access the internal hardware, however. We hate to tell a determined enthusiast never, but most mainstream users will consider the Zino a closed case with an upgrade path similar to that of the Mac Mini.

System configurations:

Acer Aspire Revo AR1600-U910H
Windows XP Home Edition SP3; 1.6GHz Intel Atom N270; 1GB 533MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Intel GMA 950 integrated graphics chip; 160GB, 5400rpm Western Digital hard drive

Apple Mac Mini (2.26GHz, Fall 2009)
Mac OS X 10.6.2; 2.26GHz Intel Core 2 Duo; 2GB 1066MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 9400M; 160GB, 7200 rpm Fujitsu hard drive

Dell Inspiron Zino HD
Windows 7 Home Premium (64-bit); 1.5GHz AMD Athlon X2 3250e; 3GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics chip; 320GB, 7200rpm Western Digital hard drive

HP Pavilion Slimline s5220y
Windows 7 Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 2.6GHz Pentium Dual-Core E5300; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB Intel GMA 3100 integrated graphics chip; 640GB, 7200rpm hard drive


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