New machine: Scooter

I recently added a new computer my family — a home theater PC named Scooter. I’ve been planning on getting a home theater PC for over a year now, but it was a long process of finding just the right device that met my needs. I had two main use cases for this PC: 1) To be a computer that is permanently attached to my TV so that it’s more convenient to watch Netflix streaming moves and other video content on my TV, rather than manually hooking up a laptop on-demand, and 2) To also be attached to my wireless speakers that I have sprinkled throughout the house and provide a music-control interface on the first floor, rather than running upstairs to the office whenever I want to change playlists. Although these are my current primary use cases, I really wanted a computer that, as much as possible, would not restrict me down the road, as I have no idea what services I will want to use in the future. So I wanted it to support these use cases well, but not be too specialized.

Due to being permanently attached to the TV and thus becoming part of my home theater, aesthetics were important to me. I didn’t want to just set up a regular desktop next to my TV. And input matters too — my couch is about 10 feet back from the TV, so wireless is a must, and I don’t want to just have a full keyboard and mouse sitting on my coffee table. Aesthetics were important to this project.

My original plan was to built an HTPC myself. I looked into Micro-ATX motherboards, and was able to piece together a decent system at a reasonable price. The sticking point, though, was case design. I really wanted something compact and discrete, but micro-ATX cases are still, on the whole, much larger than what I had in mind. The best ones were roughly the width of a cable set top box (foot and half, perhaps), but were suprisingly tall — on the order of 7 inches. That’s quite an imposing box, and none that I saw really looked attractive in terms of home theater equipment.

So I scrapped that idea and began to consider pre-built systems. There is a new desktop form factor recently called “Nettop”, which is inspired by Netbooks — very small cases with reasonable, but lower-powered hardware. For the most part, nettops are designed for exactly my scenario of a home theater PC.

The problem was, when I started looking into nettops from manufacturers like Asus and Acer, they were either too low powered (I want to make sure the machine can grow somewhat with my needs) or, again, too ugly.

Until I discovered the Dell Zino HD. This computer is exactly what I was looking for — small and compact (8 inches by 8 inches, about 3 inches tall), attractive (you can pick colors, but mine is glossy black with a minimal number of ports on the front), and reasonably powerful (mine has a 1.5GHz dual-core AMD CPU, and runs Windows 7 just fine).

On the input side, I looked at tons of small keyboards and remotes, and decided on the Logitech diNovo Mini, which is a really compact wireless keyboard/touchpad combination. It’s about the size of a Blackberry, and is great if you’re OK with thumb-typing. you certainly wouldn’t want to type a thesis on this keyboard, but it’s perfectly fine for typing in URLs, movie names into Netflix, and that sort of thing. And the touchpad works well too. This way, I have full control over the computer, but in a nice little input device that doesn’t look out of place in the family room.

On the software side, I was open to the idea of all-in-one media center packages, like Windows Media Center, that provide a 10-foot interface and provide easy access to all your media, but I couldn’t find one that really did a good job of integrating with both Netflix and iTunes. So for now, I am just running iTunes and accessing Netflix through a web browser. Since I have my full input device and this is a decently-spec’ed computer, this works just fine, although I am still passively on the lookout for a great media center software package.

In the end, I love this setup, and have no real criticisms for either the Zino HD nor the diNovo Mini. For my purposes (wanting a relatively general-purpose computer), I think they are a great combination and are easy to use. For people who had already bought into a particular media center software package, there may be other better options of lower-powered computers and specialized remotes. But even in that case, I would argue that, based on what I’ve seen, no nettop computer looks as good in a home theater as the Zino HD.

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