Dell Inspiron Zino HD Review

Sep 5, 2010 by

[singlepic id=17 w=320 h=240 float=left]It’s not very often that you see a mainstream computer manufacturer make a PC that seems almost perfectly intended to function as a home theater PC, but that is exactly what Dell did with the Dell Inspiron Zino HD. When you think of a desktop computer that you would get from a company like Dell, the last thing that you envision is the style and functionality of a machine that is designed to fit in with the rest of your A/V equipment in the living room. Dell really nailed the styling on the Zino HD though, and it looks right at home next to an HDTV, A/V receiver, and video game consoles. The real question then is how well does it function as a home theater PC?

Specifications

Size (H x W x D) : 89mm x 197mm x 197mm (3.4″ x 7.8″ x 7.8″)
Processor : AMD Athlon X2 3250e Dual Core (1MB L2, 1.5GHz)
RAM : 2GB 800mhz DDR2 – Add $39 for 3GB, or $79 for 4GB
Video : ATI Radeon 3200 HD
Hard Drive : 250GB SATA 7200 RPM
Network : 10/100/1000
Optical : 8x DVR-RW
OS : Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit

Let’s start with the specifications. As with most Dell computers the Zino HD offers a plethora of options, allowing you to configure it to fit most of your needs. The particular box that we received for review was equipped with an AMD Athlon 3200e dual core processor, 2GB of 800Mhz RAM, an ATI Radeon HD 3200 video processor, 250GB hard drive, DVD drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit. As configured you could pick this Zino up for $324.99. There are numerous options that you could choose instead, such as: Dual Core Athlon Neo X2 6850e, up to 8GB of RAM, 1TB hard drive, 802.11 b/g/n wireless, and a BluRay drive.

Video Playback

[singlepic id=15 w=320 h=240 float=left]Definitely one of the most important aspects of a home theater PC is how well it handles displaying video. I started off by copying a couple of HD recordings (recorded on a separate HTPC using an HDHomeRun) directly to the Zino HD. As expected, they played great with no stuttering. Next I setup the Zino HD to use the HDHomeRun. You can’t put an internal TV tuner inside of the Zino, so if you need a tuner your only options currently are USB or networked tuners like the HDHomeRun. The Zino, again, did a great job handling the recording of two simultaneous HD recordings. I was able to watch one while recording another without any noticeable drop in video or audio quality. Next I ran the Digital Cable Advisor within Windows 7 Media Center (7MC) to see if the Zino would meet the minimum requirements necessary to use a CableCARD tuner. The test passed, clearing the way for future external or networked CableCARD tuners. When Ceton releases their firmware upgrade that will allow tuner sharing you should be able to access those CableCARD tuners, located in another box obviously, from within the Zino HD. Of course television isn’t the only place people get their content, so next up was Netflix streaming. I tested Netflix using the built-in plugin within 7MC. The Zino HD handled HD content with no stuttering at the maximum available bitrate of 3800Kbps.

Looks and Noise

The Zino HD absolutely looks great! The shiny piano black plastic gives it the look of most of the other equipment that you probably already have next to your television. For it to work well in the living room though it also has to be quiet. The Zino is not fanless unfortunately. It does have a fan on the back panel. It also has many cooling vents located on the bottom curved ridge to aid in keeping the box from getting too hot. At idle the fan doesn’t spin very fast, and the Zino HD is almost completely silent in a room with a moderate noise floor. When the fan spins up under load you may notice the noise more, but because you would probably be watching something in this situation, you may still not notice the sound. So while it’s not a completely silent device, it is still considerably quieter than an original XBOX 360.

Upgrade and Expandability

[singlepic id=16 w=320 h=240 float=right]The Zino HD I received for review was equipped with a 250GB hard drive. If you were to use it as the primary recording HTPC then this hard drive would not be nearly big enough. You can of course upgrade all the way to a 1TB drive though. On the back panel there are also two eSATA ports for attaching external hard drives. There are only two usb ports on the back though, so you wouldn’t want to consume them with hard drives. You will most likely want to attach an IR receiver so that the computer can be controlled via remote, so that will take one of the precious slots immediately. Because the included wired keyboard and mouse don’t really fit in the living room you’ll probably want to use a wireless keyboard/mouse combo which typically only uses one USB port. But if that is the case, then you’ve already used all of the USB ports on the back of the computer. There are two more USB slots on the front of the device, but using them could be less than ideal in terms of aesthetics. If USB TV tuners are going to be used then you will definitely run out of USB ports very quickly. You may want to invest in a powered USB hub if you need the extra connectivity. Another downside is that while the Zino does of course have an HDMI port, it is lacking S/PDIF entirely. This may not be an issue for you though, especially if you plan to use this in a room that doesn’t have an audio/video receiver.

Conclusion

Pros:
Smooth HD video playback
Relatively quiet
Gorgeous design for the living room
Small
2 eSATA ports
Cons:
Higher cost than equally equipped desktop pc
Only 2 USB ports on the back
No S/PDIF

As mentioned earlier, our review unit would run about $325. While it would definitely be hard to build something as beautiful as the Zino HD, you could probably build something more powerful. While the Zino is not the most powerful computer available it does still handle HD video playback quite well. If you’re looking for a slightly higher than average performing HTPC, in a package that looks beautiful, consumes very little power, and is relatively quiet, you’d be hard pressed to find a better solution for the money.

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