Dell Inspiron Zino HD

By now you know that Ara has built himself a nice HTPC out of a Mac Mini. We’ve received a bunch of email asking us to define a similar system using a PC. There far more options using a PC than a Mac and they come in all shapes and sizes. Ara touted size and quiet operation as a major factor in his love of the Mac Mini. So when we saw that Dell had a box that was roughly the same size as a Mac Mini we ordered one and put it through its paces. The Dell Inspiron Zino HD we bought cost $747, about $150 more than the Mac Mini. The Dell comes with something you can’t get on a Mac, a Blu-ray drive.

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Dell Inspiron Zino HD

The Dell Inspiron Zino HD we bought cost $747, about $150 more than the Mac Mini. The Dell comes with something you can’t get on a Mac, a Blu-ray drive. Our Zino was configured with the following:

  • AMD Athlon 3250e (1.GHz, 1MB)
  • 3GB DDR2 SDRAM AT 800MHZ
  • ATI Radeon HD 4330 512MB Graphics Card
  • 320GB Serial ATA Hard Drive (7200RPM)
  • Blu-ray Disc (BD) Combo Drive (BD-ROM, DVD/CD Burner) and DVD+/-RW
  • Mouse and Keyboard
  • Genuine Windows 7 Home Premium, 64bit, English

Setup

Setup was fairly straight forward. We are all HDMI so it was as simple as connecting power, keyboard, mouse, Ethernet and HDMI to the Pioneer receiver and turning the thing on. Once you get through the initial boot-up you are greeted to a Windows 7 desktop. Since the Zino does not come with a tuner you’ll have to provide your own. Since its the same story with the Mac Mini, Ara has an HD Homerun already installed on his network. We downloaded the drivers for Windows 7, scanned for digital channels and were up and running in about 15 minutes. Since we already had the receiver setup up for a Blu-ray player the entire setup process took about 45 minutes. We literally removed the Blu-ray player and placed the Zino in its place.

Use

We have already reviewed media center so we won’t be deep diving into its use. Instead we’ll focus on what was not available when we did our original review. The biggest new feature is that this device support Blu-ray. That’s the good. The bad is that its not well integrated into Media Center. When you play a Blu-ray disc PowerDVD is launched and unlike playing a regular DVD its obvious that it is not Media Center. The other issue we had was that we repeatedly tried to upgrade Power DVD from within Media Center to no avail. It wasn’t until we launched PowerDVD from the desktop that we could do the upgrade. It seemed like some of the free software included on the Zino was preventing the installation from within Media Center.

As far as playback of Blu-ray movies go, it was OK. We would get stuttering frames every so often. In general we felt that the hardware was underpowered to support Blu-ray. DVDs and Backed up DVDs played fine. The latest version of Media Center does a great job of finding meta data and cover art for ripped discs that have VIDEO_TS folders in them. It makes the Windows plug-in “MyMovies” unneeded. But for completeness we did download and install MyMovies. While it include more features than Windows it did not rock our world. Prior to this version of Windows 7 MyMovies would have been a requirement. With this version not so much.

TV played nicely even being upconverted to 1080p. Windows Media Center has a nice built in tuner/DVR package. There is also a Netflix watch it now feature that is easy to navigate and use. We were able to add our account and select movies in a matter of minutes. The picture looked good but Ara still feels that the best video quality of “Watch it Now” is on the Xbox 360 (of course, Braden would argue that it’s the PS3).

Audio

Since we used HDMI we were able to get 5.1 audio out of DVDs, OTA HD and Blu-ray movies. One thing that dissapointed us was that we could not get Dolby True HD or DTS Master Audio out of the Blu-ray discs. We can’t tell if this is an issue with PowerDVD or the Zino. We’ve read on some forums that PowerDVD does not support Dolby True HD. You can get 5.1 out of the Zino without HDMI but you need make sure you upgrade to the ATI Radeon HD 4330. The audio sounded great but we’d expect nothing less with the receiver we were using.

Picture Quality

DVD looked nice, ATSC looked even better and as you would imagine Blu-ray looked the best. But when compared side by side with the Oppo dedicated Blu-ray player we prefered the image quality of the Oppo. However, since we were going through our receiver we had and issue with underscan. We could not figure out a way to get the image to stretch from side to side and top to botton. There was about an inch of space all around the picture. There is probably a setting to fix this but we could not find it. If you have a solution please post it to the comments section.

Odds and Ends

Hard to believe that this computer that has so many features designed to be used as a HTPC (Dell does not call it a HTPC however) does not come with a remote control. In fact we couldn’t find any reference to an IR Port on the Zino. That means if you really want to use this as a HTPC you’ll need to buy a USB remote control. They go for about $15 to $30. The Zino is pretty quiet and it definitely won’t be heard while watching TV. However, when everything is off it does make sound. Enough that it could keep lighter sleepers awake at night. The Zino comes with plenty of ports for expansion including an eSATA port so that you can add hard drives to store all your movies.

Our Recommendation

The Dell Zino is a good device for basic HTPC use, watching TV (with and external tuner), ripped movies, music, and photos. But when it comes to Blu-ray you’d be better served with a stand alone Blu-ray player or a more powerful HTPC. Save your money and go for a Zino without Blu-ray player.


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