Dell's Inspiron Zino HD is a compact PC that's suited for desktop duties or as a colourful media-centre PC - UPDATED 21 APRIL 2010

Make a PC small enough and you can hide it in the lounge without getting in anyone's way. Or even simply site it on the desktop, rather than leave it lurking on the floor under your desk.

That's what Apple did with its diminutive stunted-cube Mac mini, and it seems to have inspired Dell with this more inflated replica, the Dell Inspiron Zino HD.

Another attempt at Apple's mini form factor can be found in the PC Specialist Aurelia media centre PC.

The Dell Inspiron Zino HD is a little bigger than the Apple Mac mini, measuring a shade under 8in along each side against Apple's 6.5in. And it stands just over 3in tall instead of 2in. It has the same optical drive facing forward at the top, albeit a wobbly pop-out tray here rather than a slick slot-load mechanism.

But that drive can be a regular DVD±RW drive - or a Blu-ray-reading DVD writer, for an extra £140 on the base price.

Also on the front are two USB 2.0 ports and an SD card reader. The top lid is readily detachable, and Dell will sell you a coloured top for £20, or one with swirly patterns for £30.

Dell Inspiron Zino HD

At the back of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD are two more USB 2.0 ports, two eSATA, gigabit ethernet, audio-in and -out mini jacks, as well as HDMI and VGA video connectors

You can find a basic version of the Dell Inspiron Zino with an Intel Atom processor for £249, but we looked at the spritelier Dell Inspiron Zino HD which takes an AMD dual-core chip. As of the middle of April 2010, prices start at £329 for this model.

We were sent a Dell Inspiron Zino HD with better specs, including a dedicated graphics card and a Blu-ray drive, priced at £630.29.

Backing up the processor on our sample was 4GB of RAM and a 1TB hard drive. The extra space in the case means that Dell can fit a cheaper - but higher performance - 3.5in desktop drive, spinning at 7200rpm. Faster than the 5400rpm notebook drives often seen in such compact PCs and nettops, these 3.5in disk drives are however noisier and consume more power.

NEXT PAGE: Measured performance >>

Despite its comparatively low-spec clock speed, we found this Dell Inspiron Zino HD configuration surprisingly fast in key areas. Subjectively speaking, the Dell Inspiron Zino HD was certainly a little noisier than a near-silent Mac mini; and its power draw can be seen to be heavier, at a steady 34W while sat booted and idle, rising to a peak of 54W when under load.

Apple's mini, meanwhile, idles at just 12W, rising to 40W when stressed.

In the WorldBench 6 real-world application test, the Dell Inspiron Zino HD scored 63 points, which would seem to peg this PC at the shallow end of the computing pool. Yet in its essential user interface - moving files around, and opening and resizing windows - the Zino felt unusually snappy while running Windows 7 Home Premium.

Note, though, that our testing is always done with the vendor's added bloatware and kickback anti-virus software removed. Laden thus with so many programs out of the box, most Windows PCs are perceptibly slowed down.

The modest 1.5GHz AMD processor in the Dell Inspiron Zino HD belies the available performance of this PC in more measurable ways too. We were able to play two 1080p HD video streams, without any stuttering or dropped frames, and all without offloading the video-decode duties to the graphics processor.

Complementing the AMD CPU here is a discrete graphics solution from the same stable, an ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330, with 512MB of dedicated RAM. We hit 27fps in our standard FEAR game at Maximum quality test, a good usable score for this modest card. The Mac mini, in comparison, scored only 14fps here.

Other notable inclusions on the Dell Inspiron Zino HD are gigabit ethernet for modern wired networks, and a choice between HDMI digital and VGA analogue video outputs.

There's no Bluetooth included (although a wireless keyboard and mouse are already included), and if you want WiFi wireless networking you'll have to pay an extra £20 for an 802.11n card.

NEXT PAGE: The PC World US review >>

The ideal media-centre PC is capable of dishing out HD media, while remaining unobtrusive - qualities the Dell Inspiron Zino HD excels at. The minuscule 8x8in shell will fit about anywhere you can think of, is whisper-quiet and can hook up to your HDTV or computer monitor using its HDMI or VGA connections. It also has two eSATA ports and four USB slots (perfect for connecting external hard drives full of media), and a multiformat media card reader makes it convenient to view photos on the big screen.

The Dell Inspiron Zino HD includes a 500GB hard drive, Windows 7 Home Premium 64bit, 802.11n Wi-Fi (important for streaming HD video), 500GB of storage and 3GB of DDR2 memory.

While most of the mini-desktop PCs we see use a variant of Intel's Atom processor, Dell has gone with a dual-core, 1.5-GHz AMD Athlon 3250e CPU for the Inspiron Zino HD. And what a difference this makes. The Inspiron Zino HD scored 59 points in our WorldBench 6 test suite, placing it among the best-performing mini-PCs we've tested.

The Dell Inspiron Zino HD's ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3200 graphics make it far from a gaming machine, but most compact PCs aren't designed to tackle anything more complicated than flash in a browser, anyway. You'll be using it to consume content, and the Zino HD will handle HD media just fine.

The rear of the system delivers a good amount of connectivity for its size - easily greater in its variety than what you'd typically find on a traditional value desktop - and includes two USB slots, one gigabit ethernet port, an HDMI output, two eSATA ports and a VGA connection. We see the point Dell makes by supporting legacy VGA on the Inspiron Zino HD, given the raw compatibility between DVI and HDMI. Still, isn't it time we leave this connector in the dust for conventional displays?

The front of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD is a tad anemic, supporting only two USB ports and a single multiformat card reader. Luckily, Dell supplies a wireless keyboard and mouse.

As expected, you can't upgrade a single part of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD, save for its colourful top. If you can get your hands on another Zino HD cover, you can swap among 10 colourful designs. Given this system's sheer portability, you'll likely want to have a few on hand to match the colour scheme of whatever room you move this system to (or bookshelf you stick it on).

Ultimately, the compact, portable size of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD is its most compelling feature - even beyond its fast speeds and strong variety of ports for its size. The budget PC category is littered with desktops that destroy the Zino HD in power and functionality, but Dell's mini taps their best features and compresses them into a frame the size of a power supply.

David Murphy and Nate Ralph

PC World US

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Dell Inspiron Zino HD: Specs

  • 1.5GHz AMD X2 3250E
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 RAM
  • Blu-ray ROM/DVD±RW
  • 1TB 7200rpm 3.5in SATA HDD
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics with 512MB RAM
  • HDMI, VGA
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 4 x USB 2.0
  • 2 x eSATA
  • audio in/out jacks
  • keyboard and mouse
  • 196 x 196 x 80mm
  • 1.5GHz AMD X2 3250E
  • Microsoft Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit
  • 4GB (2 x 2GB) DDR2-800 RAM
  • Blu-ray ROM/DVD±RW
  • 1TB 7200rpm 3.5in SATA HDD
  • ATI Mobility Radeon HD 4330 graphics with 512MB RAM
  • HDMI, VGA
  • gigabit ethernet
  • 4 x USB 2.0
  • 2 x eSATA
  • audio in/out jacks
  • keyboard and mouse
  • 196 x 196 x 80mm

OUR VERDICT

While the headline price of £329 looks very attractive for a compact computer that can be pressed into service as a cheap office or home PC, the price starts to ratchet up as you add the useful extras. The high-defintion-disc playing machine we tested is expensive at over £630; lose the Blu-ray option on the version we tried, add wireless-n, and you can have a sub-£500 media centre PC that approaches the hardware performance of the entry-level Apple Mac mini, at exactly the same £510 price. The Mac is one-third again faster in benchmark tests, quieter, more compact and arguably more elegant, safer to use and less expensive to run. In the Dell’s favour is its better gaming potential and more bountiful storage.

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