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Dell Inspiron Zino HD Review

by The Review CrewMay 30, 2010

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. Shipping delays and the disappearance of a promised Blu-ray option have plagued the Zino since its November launch. Dell assures us it’s working on both issues, but at the time of this review, order fulfillment times hover around three weeks, and the Blu-ray option remains absent (Dell says it will be back the first week in February). If you’re feeling patient, our $468 Inspiron Zino HD review configuration will provide you with a cheap, reasonably effective standard definition home media PC. With no Blu-ray drive, and stuttery 1080p high-definition resolution and streaming 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 color scheme is all-black, but you can opt for a top plate in various colors and designs for an additional $15 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 3.25-inch-high, 7.75-inch-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 traveled 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 Apple.com were also completely unwatchable.

With no Blu-ray drive, and inadequate 1080p playback, the “HD” in Inspiron Zino HD doesn’t ring true, 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 $75 you can upgrade the Zino’s integrated ATI Radeon 3200 graphics chip to a discrete Radeon HD 4330 GPU. 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.

The Gateway SX2800-01 we’ve raved about for the past six months has since been updated to include Windows 7, but otherwise the specs of the new baseline SX2800-01r remain the same as when we reviewed the Vista-based model back in June of 2009. We did not test that Gateway as extensively as a video device when we reviewed it (although we certainly wish we had), but we can still use it to help position the Dell Inspiron Zino HD in the larger scheme of budget PCs.

Rather than using a hybrid design, like the Gateway and Dell’s own aptly named Studio Hybrid, which could serve as a PC for both productivity and home entertainment, Dell has cast the Zino firmly as a home entertainment PC. Its AMD Athlon X2 3250e CPU is faster than the Intel Atom CPUs we’re used to seeing in less expensive Nettops, like the Acer Revo, but the Athlon X2 3250e chip is designed for efficiency first, as opposed to the Gateway’s performance-oriented Intel Core 2 Quad Q8200.

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. Plugging the Gateway into your TV would actually see much of its quad-core processing power go to waste. The Dell’s 802.11n wireless card is also a more living-room-friendly networking option than the Gateway’s wired-only connection. You can also add a 500GB hard drive to the Dell for an extra $40. In general, the Dell’s features seem fair for its price. We just wish you didn’t have to spend an extra $75 on an upgraded graphics chip for it to meet its full potential as a living-room PC.

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 Gateway, the Mac Mini, or the HP, all of which boast full-fledged Intel Pentium or Core 2 CPUs. We wouldn’t use the Dell as even a light-duty productivity desktop with the Gateway offering so much more speed. Just note that you do actually get more performance from the $468 Zino than from the $199 Acer Aspire Revo and its Nettop chip.

We’ve slammed Dell’s retail desktops recently for their lack of up-to-date inputs. 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 addition 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 customizable system, Dell offers a variety of upgrades and options at the time of purchase. You can chose from an external USB TV tuner, a wireless audio-streaming accessory, a larger hard drive, more RAM, and more. 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.

The Zino’s power efficiency lands right where we expect it to, given its components and performance. Adding a discrete graphics chip will likely see the annual cost increase, but not too dramatically. Apple’s remarkable power efficiency has ruined the party for every one else, but at least among Windows desktops, the Zino performs as expected.

Lastly, Dell’s service and support policies also fit in where we expect them to for a large, mainstream PC vendor. You get a year of parts and labor coverage, 24-7 phone support, and a variety of support resources available on Dell’s Web site and through various tools included with your PC. Dell is more than willing to sell you expanded service of different kinds. For a system this inexpensive, we generally don’t find paying for additional service worth the cost.

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The Review Crew
The Review Crew is a group of beat editors, writers, and consultants that have been working together for years. They know just about everything about everything collectively and have published their collective work under the Review Crew brand moniker for almost 20 years.