Dell Studio Hybrid Desktop Review

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What do you think of when you think of Dell?  Inexpensive computers?  Long stretches of boring, grey boxes with unimpressive designs?  Until recently, Dell was known for its value-centric, unassuming desgins.  With the introduction of its higher-end laptops and desktops, however, that idea began to change.  The XPS M1330’s look was so liked that its style has been applied to notebooks at all price points.  Some of the XPS gaming desktops have also been critically well-received.  It’s no surprise, then, to see Dell take a shot at markets typically reserved for enthusiasts and the style conscious with the Studio Hybrid.  It’s got the looks.  It’s got the gadgets.  Is it a worthy product, though, or is this just another case of style over substance?

Specifications

Our review unit had the following technical specifications:

  • T8100 Intel Core 2 Duo running at 2.10GHz (800MHz FSB, 3MB cache)
  • Intel X3100 integrated graphics media accelerator
  • 2GB DDR2 RAM
  • 320GB 5400RPM SATA hard drive
  • Slot-loading SuperMulti DVD/CD recorder
  • 802.11b/g/n wireless LAN access
  • 10/100/1000 Gigabit wired LAN interface
  • Built-in memory card reader
  • Realtek HD Audio
  • Cable lock slot
  • Operating System: Windows Vista Home Premium, 32-bit
  • Dimensions(with sleeve): 7.74″(L)x8.33″(D)x2.81″(H)
  • Weight(with stand): 6.19 lbs
  • One year limited hardware warranty with in-home service after remote diagnosis

In this configuration, our Dell Studio Hybrid would cost around $924 (This price includes the plastic sleeve.  With the bamboo enclosure, the system would cost around $1054).

Build and Design:

Obviously, this is where Dell placed a significant amount of effort, and to be honest, it shows.  The Studio Hybrid is a computer that wouldn’t look out of place in a living room, media room, bedroom or even kitchen.  In fact, the only place it would seem out of place is an office, simply because it looks so great.  It comes with a buyer’s choice of slate, emerald, quartz, ruby, topaz or sapphire plastic sleeves at no additional cost.  For $130 more, you can also request a bamboo sleeve to give it a higher-end look.  While I think it’s obvious that Dell is charging too much for the bamboo sleeve, it looks fantastic.  It really adds a sense of elegance and refinement to the largely plastic construction. 

The Studio Hybrid is small.  It’s around the size of a hardcover novel, though a good bit thicker and heavier.  Dell managed to pack all of that technology into the petite enclosure by using mostly notebook components.  This certainly isn’t new (all in ones, such as the HP TouchSmart line, come to mind, or even Dell’s own all in one, the XPS One), but it means that the system is going to be less powerful than traditional desktops.  The Studio Hybrid isn’t a computer designed to play the newest PC games.  That’s all right, though, because it’s a computer that manages to be capable enough while maintaining an attractive footprint.  Our configuration was sufficiently powerful to handle decoding 1080p video content without any noticeable problems, like stuttering or frame dropping. 

Dell has put a lot of effort into the details of the Studio Hybrid.  The front panel, for example, has a light-up ‘hybrid’ logo.  When the machine is first turned on, two appear: one horizontally, and one vertically. 

Once the computer POSTs, however, a sensor inside the machine detects the Hybrid’s orientation and turns off the logo that isn’t application to its current situation.  At this point the power button also changes from an amber light to white.  Interestingly enough, the sensor is constantly active, so if you pick the Hybrid and switch its orientation while the machine is powered up, the lights will change to the correct positions.

In the second photo, you can also see a standard eject symbol lit up.  This icon only appears if there is a disc in the slot-loading drive.  It will also change to match the orientation of the system.  Beneath this sensor lies a touch sensor; when pressed, the logo will gently flash and the Studio Hybrid ejects the disc.  The front panel also has a recessed cutout of an ellipse.  In this cutout are the slots for the optical drive bay, memory card reader, USB ports and headphone jack.  It manages to give the computer a streamlined look without having anything stand out.


In this photo, you can see how the vertical stand transforms into the horizontal stand.

Dell even put some thought and a fair amount of clever engineering into the stand the Studio Hybrid uses for display.  Two raised metal prongs lock gently into spaces on the computer; this means that the shells can only be used in one direction.  To switch display styles, you only to pop the Hybrid off of the stand, pull the black plastic brace out, separate the stand pieces, and replace the plastic brace in the horizontal orientation.

This computer also manages to look good while being good — to the Earth, that is.  Dell calls it their greenest consumer desktop PC, and its got the numbers to back that claim up.  They maintain that it’s roughly eighty percent smaller than standard desktops, but don’t offer any ideas as to what size their “standard desktop” is.  It also packs in seventy-five percent less (by weight) printed materials, which is nice when you consider that most of those end up thrown out and in landfills anyway.  The packaging itself is composed of ninety-five percent recyclable materials.  It would have been nicer, however, if the packaging was composed of ninety-five percent recycled materials, since the former’s benefit depends entirely on the consumer to actually send the materials out for recycling.  In that vein, Dell did include a system-recycling kit, so you can send your old computer to Dell to recycle for you.  That’s a nice feature since it can often cost to have old technology recycled, even at local organizations.

As mentioned earlier, the Studio Hybrid uses a lot of notebook components in its effort to reduct its physical and electrical footprints.  Inside the computer is a metal tray held in with one screw.  It also has a handle for easy removal or replacement.  This is a nice feature for if you decide to upgrade to the optional Blu-Ray optical disc drive at a future date.


You can see the hard drive in this picture as well as the circuit board where the hard and optical drives attach to the motherboard.

Inside the tray are the slot-loading optical drive bay and hard drive.  On the right is a picture of the top of the tray; the translucent plastic disc is a white LED that lights up when the system is powered on.  When using any sleeve besides the bamboo (which is solid), this light makes the Dell logo on the case glow:

Underneath this tray is the rest of the system.  You can see the notebook RAM modules on the left, next to the 802.11n card.  Even in this constrained environment, there remains limited room for upgrades/expansion.

 

Inputs and Expansion:

The Studio Hybrid has a surprising number of ports for a compact system.  On the front, across from the optical disc slot is the SD card reader.  Under that there are two USB2.0 ports and a headphone jack.

On the back there are three more USB2.0 ports a FireWire port, and a jack for the gigabit network card.  In addition, there are audio line in and line out ports, digital S/P DIF out, DVI-I out and HDMI out.  The last three are unsurprising additions, given Dell’s marketing efforts for people to view this as a potential media center/HTPC.  In that vein, the FireWire and USB ports could be useful for attaching additional storage space, since there isn’t enough room in the case for a second drive (at least, not without a fair amount of modding).  There isn’t any place to attach an external atenna for better wireless reception, but I found that the connection was strong enough that it wouldn’t be necessary. 

There aren’t a lot of supported upgrades you could make to the Studio Hybrid; RAM and hard drive are easy ones, and you could likely upgrade the CPU with another notebook processor if you had a steady hand.  In addition, the Studio Hybrid comes with the option to add a Blu-Ray drive; an obvious addition if it’s going to have a place in your entertainment center.  As was stated earlier, you can also buy different colored shells for your Hybrid, so if you get tired of one look or change your decor, it’s also easy to change the color of the computer.  Additional plastic system sleeves can be ordered for $17.00 a piece; the bamboo is $127.50.

The Dell Dock

Recently, Dell has started to include the Dell Dock software on its new computers.  It’s a customized, skinned version of Stardock’s well-known ObjectDock software.  It’s essentially a launcher with pretty icons on which you can put the application you use most often.  Each icon offers a drop-down menu, with related groups of software like email and chat, music, videos, security, etc.  Dell has also put the recycle bin on the Dell Dock, which is both handy and annoying.  On one hand, when set to auto-hide, the Dell Dock can be a useful piece of software that helps to keep your desktop clean.  On the other, novice computer users who decide they don’t like the Dell Dock and get rid of it may then be perplexed that their Recycle Bin has disappeared, leaving them unable to find recently deleted files without aid.

Keyboard and Mouse

Our model of the Dell Studio Hybrid came with the standard low-end wired keyboard and mouse.  Dell did design a new wireless keyboard and mouse set for the new line.  From all appearances, it seems like your standard wireless desktop set, albeit a little bit sleeker in an attempt to match the design of the Studio Hybrid.  Unfortunately, however, we didn’t get this set in, and can’t make any further assessments.

Performance and Benchmarks

The Studio Hybrids, as has been noted a couple of times, are essentially comprised of notebook components.  The benchmarking scores will reflect this, especially since we’re comparing desktops to desktops, even if this desktop is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

wPrime is a PC performance benchmarking program that forces the computer to perform recursive mathematical calculations.  This program is multithreaded, meaning we can take advantage of more than one core of a processor at a time, resulting in a more realistic estimate of a computer’s performance.

wPrime benchmark comparison results (lower numbers mean better performance):

Desktop wPrime 32 time
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 13.869s
Lenovo ThinkCentre M57 Eco (Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3GHz) 25.879s
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 27.65s
HP Pavilion Slimeline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 29.733s
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 35.582s

PCMark05 overall system performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop PCMark05 Score
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850 @ 3GHz) 9,999 PCMarks
Lenovo ThinkCentre M57 Eco (Core 2 Duo E8400 @ 3GHz) 5,275 PCMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400 @ 2.1GHz) 4,981 PCMarks
HP Pavilion Slimeline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400 @ 2.8GHz) 4,593 PCMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100 @ 2.10GHz) 4,305 PCMarks

3DMark06 overall gaming performance comparison results (higher scores mean better performance):

Desktop 3DMark06 Score
Lenovo ThinkStation S10 (Core 2 Extreme QX6850, NVIDIA FX4600) 10,327 3DMarks
Dell Studio Hybrid (Core 2 Duo T8100, Intel X3100) 528 3DMarks
Gateway GT5670 (AMD Phenom 8400, NVIDIA 6150SE) 403 3DMarks
HP Pavilion Slimeline s3500f (Athlon X2 5400, NVIDIA 6150SE) 350 3DMarks
Lenovo ThinkCentre M57 Eco (Core 2 Duo E8400, Intel X3100) 240 3DMarks

HDTune results:

The benchmarking looks a little underwhelming, with the Studio Hybrid performing similarly to a lower-end standard desktop.  The system only scored a 3.5 on Vista’s Windows Experience Index, and this is entirely the fault of the integrated graphics.  This could be much improved with the addition of a discrete notebook graphics card.  With that being said, the Hybrid is a lot smaller, and a lot more energy efficient than the majority of desktops and despite its shortcomings, felt snappy and responsive.  Windows Media Center didn’t lag, and the system succeeded at decoding 1080p video without any noticeably skipping or dropped frames.

Power Consumption, Heat and Noise Pollution

It should be noted that with custom boards and sensors, temperature readings aren’t always as accurate as they seem.  Despite this, we ran temperature checks both at idle and under load, and unsurprisingly, the system ran a little hot.

Location Idle Load
CPU Sensor 44°C 52°C
Motherboard Sensor 42°C 44°C

The system ran a little hot, but that’s unsurprising considering the confined nature of the case and restricted airflow.  Temperatures never really approached the danger zone despite keeping the CPU cores under 100% load for extended periods of time. When the system gets even a little bit warm, the fans will kick in, and unfortunately, they’re noticeable.  Dell has to do what it can to keep the system cool, but in a quiet room, the sound will be audible.  It’s not enough to be overly distracting, though, and if you’re using the Hybrid as a media center device, it shouldn’t pose any problems except during very quiet scenes, if at all.

Despite the temperatures, the Studio Hybrid excels at using very little power.  At idle, the system only consumed between 27 and 30 Watts of electricity.  This is pretty impressive for a desktop system, and it helps that the power supply is 87% efficient.  Even while decoding 1080p video, the computer used only 40 Watts of power.  At that rate, leaving the computer playing movies twenty-four hours a day only costs around eleven cents at the national average cost of electricity.  This is one of the reasons that Dell managed to get the Studio Hybrid certified under the Energy Star 4.0 standard.  When combined with the recently awarded EPEAT Gold status, the Hybrid looks to be a very green machine indeed.

Conclusion

When compared to standard desktops, the Dell Studio Hybrid is not a very powerful computer.  It’s obvious from the first glance, however, that it isn’t a standard desktop and comparing it thusly doesn’t do the system justice.  It’s a very stylish machine that would look great almost anywhere.  It manages to be capable enough to let you get work done while enjoying high definition content while being easy on the electric bill each month.  That’s not to say that the computer is perfect.  Far from it, it has some annoying shortcomings that, had Dell changed the way it was designed, would make it absolutely stellar.  In later revisions of the Hybrid line, it would be great if Dell offered a model with both discrete and integrated graphics, and the ability to switch between the two.  That way it could still be energy efficient and maintain the ability to be a graphical powerhouse. 

Despite its issues, the Studio Hybrid is a very attractive computer that would look great in a nontraditional setting.  I feel comfortable recommending it as a solution for style-conscious consumers looking for a media center PC or energy efficient desktop system.

Pros

  • Can decode high definition content
  • Very stylish exterior with an eye to the details
  • Energy efficient and pretty easy on the environment overall (as computers go)

Cons

  • Older integrated graphics may leave some users wanting; an update to the X4500 chipset would have been nice
  • Fans noisier than they could be
  • Can be pricey on some upgrades, like the $130 bamboo shell or $70 upgrade to 802.11n wi-fi

Further reading:

Announcement about the EPEAT-Gold certification

Information on the EPEAT program



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