Dell Inspiron Zino HD (410) HTPC Review 
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Mike Flacy   
Tuesday, 15 February 2011

With the set-top box and Internet-connected televisions dominating the home theater space as of late, dedicated home theater PCs have become less useful from the standpoint of the mainstream user.  However, there's still a niche space for those looking for high-end performance and small form factor in the home theater, something that a simple set-top box struggles with.  The custom HTPC market has been dwindling due to the rise of small computers like the Mac Mini or, in this case, the Dell Zino.  The first iteration of the Zino (released in early 2010) was woefully underpowered for playing high-definition media and was panned by critics due to stuttering 1080p playback as well as a lack of a Blu-ray option.  Dall must have taken that criticism to heart with the revision of the hardware (the 410), the model that's the focal point of this review.  

Design:

The form factor of the Dell Zino HD is mostly unchanged from the first model.  The small size of the HTPC is about 8 by 8 inches and just under 4 inches in height.  You can get interchangeable colors for the top of the unit, but our review unit came in piano black.  The finish of the Zino HD is very sleek and attracts a variety of fingerprints.  On the front of the unit, you will find the physical media drive (Blu-ray in our unit), a 3.5mm headphones jack, 2 USB 2.0 ports, the infra-red receiver for your remote and a 4 in 1 card reader for media from a digital camera or similar device.  The concept of the Zino is to appear as minimalist as possible and this unit blends in fairly seamlessly with a typical home theater setup.

Dell zino back

On the back of the unit, you will find the main panel for connections, similar to any typical PC.  There is a HDMI 1.3 and VGA port for your choices on video, S/PDIF optical out and 3.5mm audio out for your choice on audio as well as Gigabit LAN, 2 more USB ports, the main exhaust fan, the power connection, the release for the top panel (in case of changing colors and 2 e-SATA ports.  For those that like to tinker with their PC, the top panel opens up the PC and you can fiddle with the electronics inside.  It's a fairly straightforward connection panel and more people will likely rely on HDMI to output their Audio / Video into their main receiver, assuming this is going into their main home theater.  

Hardware:

As mentioned earlier, our review unit came with a Blu-ray drive.  It also came stocked with a 320GB 7200RPM drive for storing media, AMD II Phenom II X4 P940 Quad Core Processor (1.7Ghz), 6GB of DDR3 SDRAM (1333MHz), ATI Mobility HD 5450 dedicated video card, a Dell 1520 wireless b/g/n card and Windows 7 Premium.  The inclusion of the quad core processor bode well for the performance of HD content.  My only quibble is that the unit could have shipped with a TV tuner easily, thus adding a DVR possibility.

The Zino HD was also shipped with Dell's wireless keyboard and mouse combo, both of which communicate through the USB dongle included in the package.  Both worked just fine on my couch about 15 feet away from the theater setup.  The keyboard is of excellent quality, but the mouse felt a bit on the cheap side in terms of build quality and the left clicker often got stuck while in use.  I replaced it pretty quickly with a wireless Logitech mouse that I had instead.  The Zino HD also comes with a Media Center optimized remote for playing media.

Software:

Our Zino HD came with Windows 7 Premium edition, ideal if you want to jump right into Media Center upon each startup.  However, it also comes with McAfee SecurityCenter (a 30 day subscription only) and Roxio's CD/DVD burning software, both of which aren't the best programs and could potentially be viewed as bloatware.  For those using the Zino in an office setting, it does come with Office 2010 Starter ready to go; just fine for basic document creation. 


 

Testing:

I installed PowerDVD 10 Ultra on the system to optimize HD processing, both for Blu-ray discs and my collection of mkv files.  In PowerDVD10, you have the ability to use the graphics card to process the video rather than the CPU.  It's pretty handy if you are multitasking with the system while watching video.  However, the CPU load never strayed above 35% when watching 1080p HD content on standard settings, so it's not that much of a worry if you max out the specs on your custom build.  Regarding Blu-ray, everything from Avatar to The Dark Knight played flawlessly and usually popped up automatically once the disc tray slid back into the Zino HD.  I also didn't have any problems with file compatibility on the HD movie side and rarely had to wait more than a couple seconds to get something to launch.

If you are also a gamer, you can use the Zino HD for light gaming, even some of the latest FPS games.  I briefly tested Fallout: New Vegas on the unit and it played at a fairly high detail level if I reduced the resolution.  World of Warcraft fanatics could also crank out 720p graphics from the comfort of their couch with little stress on the system.  However, don't expect it to look or play as well as Playstation 3 or Xbox 360 gaming system.  Without a disc in the tray, the system is relatively quiet.  Those who use it in an office setting will hear a slight hum from the unit and it may seem overly loud on a desk.  In a home theater, you wouldn't notice it at all when a movie or music is playing.  

Dell zino front

Pros:
  • Plays HD content extremely quickly and without the stuttering problems of the previous generation.
  • Design and form factor makes it ideal for a typical home theater setup.  
  • Dell offers a variety of customizable options during the purchase process, but even the core system is HD ready.

Cons:

  • There's no TV tuner included in the package
  • There's no USB 3.0 connectivity for faster transfer speeds.

Conclusion:

The Dell Inspiron Zino HD 410 is really an exceptional improvement over the previous model and is finally a viable HTPC option.  It's also a great idea for videophiles seeking more specific video controls, especially with Blu-ray discs.  I can easily recommend the quad core processor for those looking to do multitasking.  When testing the unit in my office, I was working in Photoshop, Word, Illustrator and watching The Social Network on Blu-ray at the same time; nary a hitch in the process.  However, the quad core processor is going to add another $130 to your base price on the Wireless entertainment model.  Those who are in the market for a full-fledged HTPC would be wise to consider the Dell Zino HD as it definitely offers similar performance to the Mac Mini.  (The Dell Zino ranges in price from $299 to $699 depending on base model build.)






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