The Gadget: Dell Studio Hybrid. An HDMI-equipped small PC, with 2.16Ghz processor, 2GB of RAM, 250GB hard drive and internal Blu-ray drive.
AU: Remember, the US Hybrid is differently specced to the Australian model.
The Price: US$949 as configured.
The Studio Hybrid is small, no doubt about it. A little heftier than a Wii, its colour comes from a removable outer case that, in person, is far more transparent than the advertising art would have you believe. You can't really make out the colour unless you're looking for it. In our cabinet, we'd ditch that sleeve to make the case even smaller. (Dell confirmed that the PC can run just fine on its side, too.)
It was a joy, really. I used the bundled wireless laser mouse right on my couch. And the keyboard is light and comfortable.
While web browsing, in another window, I watched NBC over my HD antenna with a USB coax adaptor. The computer could handle the task fine, though when you changed channels, it wasn't quite as smooth as your HD box would be. But the bigger problem I had—one that is not specifically Dell's fault—is that the entire desktop didn't make it to my television (the edges were cut off a bit, a common problem for TVs displaying computer content). This is something to keep in mind before buying a media PC to use on your television (buy with a good return policy), and it wasn't ideal for TV.
Dell's integrated Blu-ray drive...really isn't too shabby. Even on my 720p test display, I'd have to say my PS3 is rendering images with less noise and more colour—Dell's integrated Blu-ray player warns that it doesn't support the full Windows colour space—but loading times were reasonable, picture quality was passable and, let's just say it worked better than original DVD drives did in PCs...though not by a lot. Still, the biggest downfalls are Dell's lacklustre integrated controls and when fast forwarding you realise that the system does have its limits (one time our screen stopped previewing the video altogether until we hit play again).
Most will say the Studio Hybrid is overpriced. I'm not sure if that's the case. While the system starts at US$500 and the unit I tested—one that I'm actually pretty pleased with—ballooned to US$1000, the PC is pieced together from mostly laptop parts so you'll pay a laptop price. That's the cost of the form factor, and an unfortunate reality of the media PC market as it stands today (you'll crush the Studio Hybrid's performance for the dollar, but it'll look like there's a computer sitting next to your TV.)
Still, US$1000 is a lot to ask for a computer using integrated graphics.
All the same, I'd argue that the Hybrid's flaw isn't its potentially high price, but its target market. The computer is trying to be a general purpose system when Dell should have simply tricked out its media centre capabilities to their max, or at least allow such an option. Integrate the digital tuner instead of making me stick dongles out the back and give me a remote to control everything from Blu-ray to Hulu, and I'm sold without seeing the sticker price.
But until then, I'd say the Studio Hybrid is just alright—not quite the media PC for everyone I'd hoped it would be. (You can't turn it on from your couch, you know?) The prospect of web browsing and Bittorrent can't pull me away from watching media on my PS3 or Xbox 360, and my stock DVR will probably handle video recording with a lot less hassle.
Then again, if Dell ever makes a Studio Hybrid 2, I'll be anxious to see the improvements. [Dell]