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We’ve come to realize that there is no single ideal build for a home-theater PC. Some folks want an HD tuner, while others want Blu-ray. Some even expect their HTPC to function as a full-tilt boogie gaming rig. Then there are the users who want nothing more than the ability to browse the web on their glorious 60-inch TV set and dive into the vast sea of streaming content.
For these latter folks, Dell’s Inspiron Zino HD seems like a perfect fit. Like a chubby Mac Mini, the Zino HD is quiet, small, and easy to tuck away in the AV rack. It’s outfitted with a dual-core 1.5GHz Athlon X2 3250e, 2GB of DDR2/667, and AMD’s 780G chipset with integrated Radeon HD 3200 graphics. Instead of relying on a diminutive (and performance-sapping) 2.5-inch drive, the Inspiron Zino HD can fit a full-size 3.5-inch desktop drive. Our review model featured a 250GB drive, but options up to 1TB are offered, and we see no reason why a 2TB drive could not be used.
The unit has Gigabit Ethernet, two eSATA ports, VGA, HDMI, analog audio–out, and mic in on its behind. In front, the Zino has two USB ports, a headphone jack, and a multiformat card reader. Unfortunately, there’s no Wi-Fi as standard but 802.11g can be added for $25, and 802.11n for $45.
Although the Zino HD can be used as a mini desktop PC anywhere, the inclusion of HDMI instead of DVI makes it pretty clear that the unit is meant to be connected to an HDTV. But why use a PC when so many excellent streamers like the Roku and WD Live! are already available for a lot less? The HTPC’s strength is that it has 100 percent fidelity with everything on the net. Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, and, umm, those unmentionable websites can all be viewed from an HTPC. You can’t do that with any streaming box today.
That’s how it should work—in theory, anyway. One problem we ran into with the sexy Polywell Giada Ion-100 (reviewed March 2010) involved its lackluster dual-core Atom 330. The Giada could barely play Blu-ray, and streaming of any high-def content was terribly choppy. We had high hopes that the dual-core Athlon X2 would do better, but it didn’t. While the Zino HD could play Blu-ray flawlessly, the unit annoyingly dropped frames when playing HD streamed from websites—even when fully buffered.
What’s the deal? Blame bad, unoptimized code in Adobe’s Flash. Even Adobe’s GPU-accelerated Flash beta didn’t help out the Zino HD (it didn’t help the Polywell Giada, either.) As part of our evaluation, we set up the Giada, the Zino HD, and a Gateway Core i3-based SX2840 PC with integrated graphics side by side. With all three playing the same content on the same network segment, only the Gateway’s Core i3 ran without a hitch. The Zino HD and Giada both choked on 1080p. Even playing a local QuickTime movie trailer in 1080p tripped up both the Zino HD and Giada. Here, the blame lies with the craptastic QuickTime player, which has no GPU acceleration and pegged both cores at 70 percent during playback. With the GPU-accelerated Windows Media Player 11, we were able to play the file just fine.
You could blame Adobe and Apple, but the harsh reality is that the Zino HD doesn’t have the CPU horsepower to get the job done with today’s apps. That may change in the next 12 months, but it’s a pretty big negative against what would otherwise be a pretty sweet HTPC.
For folks with 720p, the Zino HD would be fine, but how many people are sticking with that tired-old standard?
Small and quiet enough for easy living-room deployment; low price.
Low-clocked Athlon X2 doesn't have the juice to run unoptimized code well.
|Dell Inspiron Zino HD 400 |
|Processor||AMD 1.5GHz Athlon X2|
|Ports||Four USB 2.0, two eSATA, Gigabit, VGA, HDMI, mic in, stereo out, headphone out, card reader |
|RAM ||2GB DDR2/667 in two SO-DIMM slots |
|Graphics ||Integrated Radeon HD 3200 |
|Storage||250GB Western Digital 7,200rpm 3.5-inch hard drive |
|Case/PSU||Proprietary / external power brick |
|Dell Inspiron Zino ||Polywell Giada Ion-100 |
|Photoshop CS3 (sec) ||449 ||552 |
|Main Concept (sec)||7,080 ||8,858 |
|3DMark 2003 ||2,540||3,371 |
|Quake III (fps) ||192 ||118 |
|Quake 4 ||28.6 ||29 |