Dell's recent Adamo ultraportables have shown the company is more than capable of innovation, and it's long been offering custom lid designs on the Studio range of laptops too. Now Dell's extending that creativity to a new line of mini-PCs, starting with the undeniably cute Inspiron Zino HD.
Vital to the appeal of the Zino HD is the design of the chassis. It isn't unusual in shape, about the size of a lunch box, but the customisable finishes (the Red Swirl on our sample added an extra $35 to the price) give it a tailored feel that you won't get from a generic nettop.
The lid pops off at the touch of a button, although it's primarily there for switching designs - you'll have difficulty accessing the motherboard without a screwdriver and a lot of patience.
What you do get is a neat and tidy interior, with a 500GB desktop 3.5in hard disk pressed beneath a spring-loaded DVD writer. Dell offers an upgrade to a Blu-ray reader for $191, and other customisations can be easily specified when ordering online.
The ports and connections are sensibly distributed, with two USB ports on the front, alongside an SD card slot and a 3.5mm headphone output.
On the rear sit a further four USB ports, one of which doubles as an eSATA port, next to Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI and D-SUB outputs. Our review sample came with an 802.11n wireless LAN card inside - but again, that's customisable.
It's powered by an energy-efficient, low-power AMD Athlon X2 3250e. It's a dual-core part, sitting in a performance vacuum somewhere between the Intel Atom and proper desktop chips such as the Pentium Dual-Core. Dell pairs it with 4GB of DDR2 memory, which helped the Zino HD to a score of 0.62 in our benchmarks.
That's hardly a mainstream level of performance - you'll struggle to run intensive tasks such as video editing smoothly - but it's a good 50% more power than you'll squeeze from an Atom nettop. It also ensures the Zino HD runs quietly.
Dell has opted for a discrete graphics chip to make the Zino as versatile as possible. ATI's Mobility Radeon HD 4330 is at the low end of the range, but it handles video decoding smoothly right up to 1080p H.264, making this a potential media system.
We also tried our gaming tests with low expectations, but an average of 40fps in our 1024 x 768 Low quality Crysis benchmark was encouraging. Upping that to 1280 x 1024 and Medium settings dropped the frame rate to 13fps, but there's a decent amount of gaming leeway there if you stick to slightly less demanding titles.
A standard wireless Dell keyboard and mouse come in the box, too, along with their dongle, which will take up one of your USB ports. They're sleek and comfortable, and feature Dell's useful media controls as well as a rotary control for quick playback navigation.
The Zino HD is undoubtedly a sleek and desirable system, then, but note that price. You're understandably paying a premium for the compact design, but we're used to seeing nettops at $600 or lower. While it can be argued the Dell costs significantly more than a nettop, given its relatively weak benchmark performance it's difficult to argue that it's worth nearly twice as much.
We'd stick with the HD 4330 graphics if you intend to decode any HD video, but for a more affordable specification you could opt for 3GB of RAM, a 500GB hard disk, and do without the wireless card.
The Dell Zino HD certainly betters most nettops for design, so if that's important to you it will fit your desk nicely, but as an overall package the Zino simply doesn't offer enough to justify its price.