If you haven't previously heard of Dino PC, don't worry -- you're not alone. It's a perky little upstart of a company that, although not in the same league as the Dells and Acers of this world, aims to offer low prices, quality and reliability, as well as a fast service.
The first of the company's products we've had in for review is the Mini Carnivore HTPC, a relatively small desktop computer designed for those who want to bring their PC kicking, but not screaming, into the living room. Our review sample shipped with an Intel Core i3-530 CPU, 4GB of DDR3 RAM, a 320GB hard drive and ATI Radeon HD 5570 graphics. It's available for around £540.
Mighty multimedia dwarf
The Mini Carnivore is small, but don't let its name fool you too much. It uses an Antec ISK 310-150 mini-ITX chassis, which is approximately the size of two Yellow Pages directories stacked on top of each other. That's not exactly tiny in comparison to other small-form-factor machines, such as the Apple Mac mini, but it's certainly less beastly than traditional ATX computers. The chassis can also be mounted on its side to minimise its footprint, should you need more space.
The Mini Carnivore has something of an appetite for the latest components. In its belly, you'll find Gigabyte's GA-H55N-USB3 mini-ITX motherboard, which has USB 3 connectivity, as the name suggests. To this motherboard, Dino PC has fitted some other relatively modern components, including a dual-core Intel Core i3-530 CPU, which runs at 2.9GHz, plus 4GB of DDR3, 1,333MHz RAM, giving the Mini Carnivore a very solid foundation.
Home-theatre PCs are supposed to excel where disk storage is concerned, but manufacturers often cut corners in this area due to the size restrictions of small-form-factor PCs. Sadly, Dino PC appears to have fallen into this trap. The Mini Carnivore ships with a 2.5-inch, 320GB hard drive. While not exactly modest, that falls short of the 1TB that torrent junkies consider a minimum requirement.
Dino PC's chosen to pair the hard drive with a slimline, 8x DVD±RW drive, which is fine for watching or burning DVD movies. The company also gives users the option to upgrade to a Blu-ray alternative for £131 -- not a bad investment if high-definition movies are your bag.
Seen, but not heard
The Mini Carnivore has the prerequisite visual computing power to handle Blu-ray movies, but its graphics system is something of a mess. Anyone who wants to connect this machine to their television will instantly gravitate towards the HDMI video output at the rear, but there's very little point in doing so, since the integrated Intel graphics chip to which this HDMI output is connected is pretty pants for demanding graphics applications.
Dino PC's obviously spotted this failing, as it's fitted the Mini Carnivore with a separate ATI Radeon HD 5570 graphics card. The card's only outputs, however, are DVI and DisplayPort, neither of which are as useful as HDMI in the living room. DVI is great in most cases, but doesn't output audio and video over the same cable, meaning you'll have to attach separate wires for sound. DisplayPort does output audio and video simultaneously, but we can count the number of TVs with this connection on one hand that's missing three fingers and a thumb.
Anyone prepared to connect a few wires will find the Mini Carnivore's audio capabilities relatively good. Users can either hook the machine up to an ordinary external speaker system via a single line-out port, or to a surround-sound system via the six discrete audio ports at the rear of the machine. The PC also includes a S/PDIF optical audio output, which can be used to connect the machine to a home-theatre receiver that supports digital audio.
Living room on the edge
Despite its size, the Mini Carnivore is one of the fastest home-theatre PCs we've come across. Its Core i3-530 CPU failed to run our synthetic benchmark tests, but the PC felt slick and responsive in use, even while multitasking.
Its ATI Radeon HD 5570 graphics chip put in a good showing too, handling both 720p and 1080p video with aplomb. The machine will even turn its hand to a spot of gaming, provided you don't crank all the detail settings up to maximum, and you're content with running more demanding titles at modest resolutions.
Usually, home-theatre PCs with this sort of slick performance generate plenty of noise, but the Mini Carnivore isn't bad in this regard. It's not totally silent, but its noise will certainly be tolerable in the living room. It might prove too noisy in the bedroom, but, if it does, there's always the off button.
The Dino PC Mini Carnivore HTPC is a solid all-round computer that excels when used in the living room because of its size. It's not perfect but, on the whole, it's a machine that's definitely worth looking into.
Edited by Charles Kloet