A Little Quality Time with the Inspiron Zino HD

Recently, I got to spend some time with the Inspiron Zino HD. If you missed my original post about it, you can check it out here. My goal with this post is to look at overall performance across several multimedia tasks.

Let's just say at this stage of the game, test hardware was pretty hard to come by. Luckily, my old friends in Dell's Performance Lab were nice enough to let me borrow one for a bit. Unfortunately, it didn't have a Blu-ray drive, so I couldn't test it.

Hardware Setup: Click on the image to the left to see a larger version that spells out the exact configuration I ran. Key components were the AMD Athlon 3250e processor, 4GB DDR2 800MHz RAM, the integrated ATI HD 3200 graphics card an integrated Dell1520 dual-band wireless card. I also recently installed a Netgear WNDR3700 dual-band Gigabit router to run my home network. The Zino was about 20 feet away from the router and the signal had to pass through a couple of walls. I used a single HDMI cable to handle audio and video directly from the Zino HD to a 720p Panasonic plasma TV.

The Athlon 3250e processor is the lower end dual-core processor option we offer. I have to say overall performance seemed solid. In my view, it definitely is worth the $60 premium over the entry-level processor option if you plan on using the Inspiron Zino HD as a Home Theater PC (HTPC). Since I didn't have a 6850e processor (that's the fastest dual core option) to test, I talked to AMD's Jay Taylor who told me Media Center performance felt that much snappier using the 6850e. Look for Jay to publish a more extensive performance review sometime next week over at the AMD at Home blog.

Driver versions:

Since this was a development machine that didn't belong to me, I stuck with the following driver versions that were already installed:

  • ATI Catalyst Driver: version 2.009.0714.2131
  • Silverlight (for Netflix streaming): version 2.0.310005.0
  • Adobe Flash (for YouTube and Hulu streaming): version
  • PowerDVD: version 8.3.5610

Here's the Windows Performance Index from the 64-bit version of Windows 7 Home Premium to put things in perspective:

Performance: I tested all kinds of basic Media Center stuff, music, photo sideshow and video playback all those worked without a hitch. Internet TV worked fine too. Beyond the basics, I tested Netflix streaming from within Media Center, YouTube HQ and HD video playback, streaming recorded HDTV from my XPS 720 desktop and playing back an MPEG2 file copy of a movie that was over 4.1GB.

Connecting to the 5GHz wireless band, I was able to sustain bandwidth of 216Mbps. I used this wireless connection for all network testing. All tests were run with the 64-bit version Windows 7 Home Premium as well. Here's a summary of the Inspiron Zino HD's performance:

  • MPEG2 movie streaming: On the initial load the CPU peaked at 84%, then leveled off in the low 20s. Network bandwidth peaked close to 20%, then quickly leveled off to under 10%.

  • Netflix streaming: I tried several movie options here, and everything from Dr. Strangelove to Braveheart played smoothly. CPU peaked at around 90% at the very beginning and leveled off at about the mid 40s range. Network bandwidth initially peaked at about 10%, and quickly leveled off to about 2%.
  • YouTube and Hulu streaming: YouTube streaming worked pretty well. All HQ clips played smoothly in full screen mode. It skipped a handful of  frames in 720p HD mode, but was definitely watchable. 1080p clips skipped more frames, but quality was still good. Hulu playback didn't fare as well. In full screen mode, several frames were dropped during 480p playback or higher. The reason for this is that unlike Silverlight, the current version of Adobe's Flash does not support GPU acceleration. That is being addressed in Flash version 10.1 which is now in beta. With updated ATI drivers and the Flash 10.1 beta, the performance story changes dramatically. See the second performance chart from this page of Anandtech's testing to see what I mean.
  • DVD playback: Both PowerDVD and Windows Media Player functioned smoothly, though I did notice that the CPU utilization using Windows Media Player was consistently much lower.

If you're looking for more performance details on the AMD 6850e processor, the discrete graphics option or Blu-ray performance check out Jay's post. I'll update this post with a link to it when it's live next week.

Room for Improvement: I would have liked to have an internal IR transmitter inside the system. If you want to use a remote control for Media Center, you'll need to use an external IR transmitter connected via one of the USB ports. Also, as far as all the HD stuff I tested only the Hulu playback left something to be desired. I could play back 360p content full screen with no frame drops, but anything 480p or higher skipped lots of frames in full screen mode. Still, like I mentioned earlier, Hulu playback will work much better once GPU acceleration comes to to Flash version 10.1.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations: I came away pretty impressed with the Inspiron Zino HD. If you're interested in using it as a Home Theater PC I would recommend going with one of the two dual core processor options. If you're going to stream wirelessly, definitely opt for the embedded Dell 1520N dual-band wireless card. Since I wasn't able to test the discrete graphics option, I can't say how much that will buy you. But, the integrated ATI HD 3200 did well on most of what I tested, and when the final version of Flash 10.1 is released, it will support GPU acceleration with both the integrated HD 3200 and the ATI Radeon 4330. That will just require the Adobe Flash 10.1 update and the latest ATI Catalyst drivers. Either way, YouTube and especially Hulu playback should improve dramatically. 

If you've been waiting to buy an Inspiron Zino HD, I hope this blog post helps to answer some questions. One last thing, you might do well to put off a purchase a couple of days later (as in Black Friday). I'm just sayin…

Update:  Just noticed that the Black Friday deal is posted on Dell.com. You can get it now until 11/26 12am Central Time at a starting price of $199. Click on this graphic to go to the page. 

About the Author: Lionel Menchaca