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Dell Studio Hybrid: Small, Stylish… but Quiet?

It is Dell’s smallest, most stylish and greenest desktop PC. It’s also SPCR’s first official review of a Dell. The burning question: Is it quiet? We promise to answer fully.

Product
Dell Studio Hybrid
Mini Desktop Computer
Manufacturer
Dell
Price
Starts at $449; depends on components selected by buyer.

There has always been interest in smaller computers, starting from the time when the simplest ones (by today’s standards) filled entire rooms. In more recent times, the Small Form Factor PC was born when Shuttle launched its breadbox PCs half a decade ago, around the same time that VIA launched their mini-ITX 6.5″ square motherboard form factor. Since then, most PC makers have flirted with very small PC designs, and the big ATX box towers have continually shrunk to the point where most big brand PCs are housed in cases that would have seemed very modest just a few years ago.


IBM´s Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator computed scientific data in public display near the company´s Manhattan headquarters. Before its decommissioning in 1952, the SSEC produced the moon-position tables used for plotting the course of the 1969 Apollo flight to the moon.
Speed: 50 multiplications per second
Input/output: cards, punched tape
Memory type: punched tape, vacuum tubes, relays
Technology: 20,000 relays, 12,500 vacuum tubes
Floor space: 25 feet by 40 feet

Photo and caption © computerhistory.org


2008 Dell Studio Hybrid: About the size of a large college dictionary and infinitely more capable than the IBM SSEC.

The Hybrid Studio PC is Dell’s first serious entry into the realm of mini computers. It is more than a nettop in that it uses a CPU considerably more capable than most nettops, yet it belongs firmly in the SFF tradition which has liberally employed notebook components in desktop systems for useful size, heat and power reductions. Like the Asus Eee Box we reviewed a couple of months ago, the Hybrid Studio is, in large part, a notebook stuffed into a desktop box. But a very stylish box it is, especially for Dell, not usually known for cool designs. A clever sleeve fits over the PC box and combines with an equally clever metal stand that allows for great cosmetic appeal and variety.


Changing the color is just a matter of changing the sleeve.


A small change in the stand. This configuration doesn’t really make sense as it just takes up more desk space, but if you want to place it this way, you can. Note the SD card reader, dual USB 2.0 ports, headphone jack, power and optical disk eject buttons. The slot for the DVD drive is cleverly hidden on the left (or top) side of the front panel.

Dell also states that Studio Hybrid is their greenest consumer desktop PC:

Size and materials
Our smallest design is about 80% smaller than standard desktops, and it contains about 75% less printed documentation by weight when compared to typical tower desktops.
Power usage Uses about 70% less power than a typical desktop, and meets Energy Star® 4.0 standards with an 87% efficient power supply.
Packaging Studio Hybrid packaging is made from 95% recyclable materials. And the Studio Hybrid comes with a system-recycling kit, so you can help preserve and protect the environment.

All this is very laudable. Dell offers consumers worldwide free recycling of any Dell-branded computer equipment at any time. Dell also provides no-charge recycling of any brand of used computer or printer with the purchase of a new Dell computer or printer.

The base $449 Studio Hybrid configuration has the following main components:

– Pentium Dual Core T3200 (2.0GHz/667Mhz FSB/1MB cache)
– 2GB Shared Dual Channel DDR2 at 667MHz (2 DIMM)
– 160GB SATA Hard Drive (5400RPM)
– Windows Vista® Home Basic Service Pack 1
– Slot Load CD / DVD Burner (Dual Layer DVD+/-RW Drive)


Intel Integrated Graphics Media Accelerator X3100
– Integrated Stereo Audio with 5.1ch digital output (S/P DIF)

A wide range of options and individual upgrades are available. The sample we received had the following upgrades:

Dell no longer lists the T5850 processor, but a similar package with a T8100 processor (2.1GHz) and 2GB of RAM was listed on Dec 4/08 for $774. With this being the prime shopping season, prices may be bouncing up and down.

QUIET HOPES

The small size, notebook components, and Dell’s own environmental specification (for a model equipped with a more powerful T9500 2.6Ghz CPU) of just 24.2 dBA SPL at the ISO 7779 defined “operator position” (a little over 0.5 meter from the PC) gives us reason to be hopeful that the Studio Hybrid is a quiet PC.

(An aside: It is a shock and surprise that Dell’s comprehensive environmental test data is not accessible directly from the web product pages. You have to dig through the corporate information section of Dell’s main site or the separate Dell Earth site to find this page: http://www.dell.com/regulatory_compliance_datasheets. Why this info is not linked directly from the product pages is a question no one at Dell could answer. They can’t really believe consumers don’t care, not when the marketing for the Studio Hybrid pushes its green aspects!?) Some of Dell’s larger desktop PCs have had the reputation of being reasonably quiet, although no one has suggested they are “SPCR” quiet. This is, in fact, the first official opportunity we have had to examine a Dell PC.

BASICS

The sample system came in a fairly big box. A wireless keyboard and mouse are included, which partly explains the large box size; good shock protection is another reason. The Studio Hybrid is very small, but bigger than the Asus Eee Box we reviewed a couple months ago, partly because the SH includes a slot DVD drive.


Our sample box shows signs of previous trips to other reviewers.


The Studio Hybrid is well protected inside.


The hardware contents included a wireless keyboard and mouse. The item wrapped in cables is an external AC/DC adapter of the type Dell uses for many of its notebook PCs.

Slim 65W power adapter: 19.5V @ 3.34A

The software disks and manuals.

The Back panel sports a small fan exhaust, line and speaker audio outputs, SPDIF out, Firewire (mini), three USB 2.0 ports, DVI and HDMI outputs, ethernetport, and DC power input jack.

In summary, the system looks good, is equipped with a DVD burner, and has a modern set of connectivity options. The older 965 chipset is a bit of a disappointment, though; a more recent chipset might provide better efficiency and graphics capability. It came loaded with Microsoft Windows Vista Home, MS Works, Roxio Creator, Office PowerPoint Viewer, PowerDVD,
Google Desktop and DellDock. With all the software fully installed and ready do go, all that’s needed is to plug it in and turn on the power.

USE IMPRESSIONS

The clever visuals continue when the power is turned on. The Dell logos on the side light up, and filtered through the blue plastic sleeve of our sample, they glow blue. The hybrid logo and other switches on the front panel glow similarly.


Looks even cooler when powered up.

The supplied wireless keyboard is slightly lacking in tactile feel, but it’s not bad, and the mouse works fine as well. The radio for these must be embedded inside the Studio Hybrid, because there’s no antenna to be seen.

The default desktop screen is unique: A green theme that should appeal to lots of users.


Cool desktop screen.

The initial impression of performance is positive: It feels much like a mid- to low-end desktop PC or midrange notebook. Not blindingly fast in opening new windows and executing familiar tasks, but not dragging its heels, either. It feels fast enough for any SPCR-related content creation.

SPCR regulars are probably clamoring already: But how does it sound?! Well, not quite as good as it looks. Surprisingly, the single fan makes more noise than most similarly-equipped laptops with even smaller fans. The subjective impression is that it is not entirely the amplitude of the noise, which isn’t that low, but the noise is exacerbated by its complex tonal quality.

Before we delve more deeply into the acoustics, let’s test this PC for performance and value.

TEST METHODOLOGY

We decided that it was important to compare the performance and value of the Studio Hybrid against a similar system that a typical SPCR DIY reader could assemble using retail components. The comparative system was cobbled from likely parts on hand in the lab, a modest mini-ITX machine you could
put together for less money compared to the configuration Dell
sent us. In fact, if the Blue Ray drive of the second system was replaced with a more standard DVD bruner, the comparison system price would drop at least $50.

Dell Studio Hybrid Configuration:

Price: ~$800

Comparison mini-ITX System Setup:

Price: ~$700

Note that the comparison system was not actually built into the Thermaltake Lanbox, which is a large shoebox style SFF case. The case was included in the component list to make a complete system. All the other components were put together on an open test bench platform for actual testing.

This is not to suggest that a bigger breadbox style SFF like the Thermaltake Lanbox would be a seen as a viable consumer alternative to the much more stylish Studo Hybrid. Most would consider the latter too big to be directly comparable. But for SPCR DIYers, it may be a viable comparison. There are also a few small fanless mini-ITX cases, albeit with more limitations on component size, and at higher prices.

A more suitable comparison in terms of size is the fully assembled Asus Eee Box B202 that we reviewed a couple months ago. However, that smaller system is clearly outlassed in performance by the Studio Hybrid, not having any optical drive and powered only by a single-core Intel Atom processor. It’s also selling for just $300 at Newegg these days. The yet-unavailable Eee Box B204 and B206, which offer HD video capability with hardware video decoding via ATI Radeon HD 3400 graphics, may be a closest competitor to the Dell SH.

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Benchmarking Particulars

  • Eset NOD32: in-depth virus scan of a folder containing 32
    files of varying size with of them being file archives.
  • WinRAR: archive creation with a folder containing 68 files of varing size
    (less than 50MB).
  • iTunes: conversion of a MP3 file to AAC
  • TMPGEnc Xpress: encoding an XVID AVI file to VC-1 (1280×720, 30fps, 20mbps)

SpeedStep was enabled, and the following features/services were disabled during
testing to prevent spikes in CPU/HDD usage that are typical of fresh Vista installations:

  • Windows Sidebar
  • Indexing
  • Superfetch

Our main test procedure is designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states (measured using a Seasonic Power Angel), and to
test the integrated graphics’ proficiency at playing high definition video.
Standard HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs can be encoded in three different codecs: MPEG-2, H.264 / AVC and VC-1. MPEG-2 has been around for years
and is not demanding on modern system resources. H.264 and VC-1 encoded videos,
on the other hand, are extremely stressful due to the complexity of their
compression schemes and will not play smoothly (or at all) on slower PCs,
especially those with antiquated video subsystems.

We use a variety of H.264/VC-1 clips encoded for playback on the PC. The clips
are played with PowerDVD 8 and a CPU usage graph is created by the Windows Task
Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak CPU usage. High
CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated
graphics subsystem. If the video (and / or audio) skips or freezes, we conclude
the board’s IGP (in conjunction with the processor) is inadequate to decompress
the clip properly.

Video Test Suite


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded in H.264 with Apple Quicktime.
The Quicktime Alternative 1.81 codec was used to make it playable in
PowerDVD.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
WMV3:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, “HD WMV”).

 


720p | 60fps | ~12mbps
VC-1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X trailer is
encoded in VC-1 using the Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile (aka
WVC1) codec — a much more demanding implementation of VC-1.

 


1920×1080 | 24fps | ~19mbps
VC-1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec.

 

TEST RESULTS

The Dell Studio Hybrid was able to play all the video clips in our test suite without any problems. In comparison to the comparison mini-ITX system, the CPU load was substantially higher across the board, but the actual system power draw was slightly lower. In the flat-out CPU and graphics stress tests, the Dell drew 10W less power than the comparison system.

Dell Studio Hybrid
Test State
Mean
CPU Use
Peak
CPU Use
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
3W
Idle
N/A
23W
Rush Hour
45%
66%
~38W
Coral Reef
32%
45%
~37W
Flight Sim.
49%
61%
~43W
Drag Race
55%
70%
~42W
Prime95
N/A
58W
Prime95 + ATITool
N/A
62W

 

C2D E7200/Intel DG45FC
Test State
Mean
CPU Use
Peak
CPU Use
System Power
Off
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
7W
Idle
N/A
35W
Rush Hour
14%
24%
~44W
Coral Reef
12%
16%
~44W
Flight Sim.
18%
25%
~48W
Drag Race
20%
26%
~48W
Prime95
N/A
68W
Prime95 + ATITool
N/A
72W

It’s interesting to compare our test results with Dell’s environmental data. Two major difference exisit in Dell’s test method and ours: Theirs is at 230VAC input; ours is at 120VAC. AC/DC Power supplies are less efficient with lower AC voltage input, so our numbers will be a bit higher (2~4%). Dell also uses an unnamed “Industry Benchmark” — it’s likely that their test does not result in as high power demand as Prime95 and ATITool, which were both selected for the highest possible power draw.


Dell’s own specs indicate lower power draw, except at idle.


CPUZ shows how the processor underclocks and undervolts at low load…


…compared to full load.

The comparison m-ITX system had a small but significant lead in all the performance benchmarks we tried. The biggest difference was in the 3DMark06 score, which is actually the least important; no one will want to play modern 3D games with either of these systems as neither are adequate for good playability. With the time and power sequences, the higher power draw of the comparison system was generally compensated by the shorter time required for completion. For example, the TMPGEnc benchmark took the Dell 24,336 WS (watt-seconds, yes, an invented parameter) compared to 22,040 WS for the mini-ITX system.

Benchmarks Comparison
System
Dell Studio Hybrid
E7200 / DG45FC
CPU Clock
2.13Ghz
2.53Ghz
System RAM
3GB
2GB
Boot-up Time
58 sec.
48 sec.
PCMark05
4176
5178
3DMark05
953
1514
3DMark06
444
1002
NOD32
301 sec
~40W
319 sec
~45W
WinRAR
274 sec
~45W
248 sec
~50W
iTunes
312 sec
~43W
242 sec
~50W
TMPGEnc
468 sec
~52W
380 sec
~58W
*Boot-up Time – start button to when the round Vista logo
appears

One oddity of the Dell was the long 59 seconds needed for it to go to sleep when this mode was directly engaged from the Start menu, compared to just 19 seconds for the comparison system. We suspect that the radio of the wireless keyboard/mouse might have been at fault.

ACOUSTIC ANALYSIS

Much of the testing was done in a quiet 20′ x 10′ room with 8′ ceiling where ambient conditions were 20 dBA and 22°C. Acoustic testing was done in this room as well as in the anechoic chamber, where the ambient level was 11 dBA. Idle measurements were taken 5~15 minutes after boot or reboot, whenever none of the temperatures had changed for several minutes. Load measurements were taken after >15 minutes of full load.

Let’s go back to Dell’s environmental data sheet on the acoustics. Note that ISO 7779 calls for a distance of about 0.6 meters between microphone and noise source, compared the the 1m distance we generally use at SPCR. For a PC that’s truly meant to be placed atop a desk, like the Dell SH, the ISO 7779 measurement distance is more realistic than our standard one meter.

Here are the measurements from the anechoic chamber on our sample.

Acoustics: Dell Studio Hybrid
Test State
SPL (dBA)
System Power
1m
0.6m
Idle
21
26
23W
Maximum
31
35
62W

Subjectively, the noise is not exactly loud, but it becomes a bit grating over time. As the load on the system is increased, the fan ramps up in speed. According to SpeedFan, the system idles at 43°C CPU core temperature. The fan started to ramp up at 77°C. This seems a very high temperature, and it may not be correct, as Speedfan may not have correctly identified the sensors.

Unusually, it is not the higher pitched elements in the noise that are most annoying, but rather, the hum emitted by its hard drive. The overall noise is markedly improved by distance, and if it was placed a meter or more away, most people would have no trouble describing it as quiet. Alas, being small has its price: We expect to put it on the desk next to the monitor just as Dell pictures it. Then the seated user is very close to the SH, within two feet. At that distance, it doesn’t sound quiet, not to us.

It’s not clear why the measured SPL difference between 1m and 0.6m was so large. In theory, the difference should be just 3 dB. It may have something to do with the particular angle of the microphone with respect to the fan of the SH. Simple fact: The noise from the back of the unit is far worse than from the front. Point the fan towards you, and the sound quality and level get much worse, with the higher pitched tonal aspects of the sound far more apparent. Point the back end away, preferably to a sound absorbent surface (as in the anechoic chamber), and the noise improves, not only in level but quality.

The hard mounting of the relatively quiet notebook drive used in the SH was the main cause of the annoying hum. The 90Hz fundamental tone of the 5400rpm drive was exacerbated by every desk we placed it on. Placing a 1″ thick piece of soft foam between the SH and the desktop helped reduce the hum. In the frequency spectrum graph above, the red line represents idle noise from a meter away. The mic was positioned at about 45 degree angle from the front. The black line represents idle at 0.6 meter. The lavender line is at 0.6m again, this time with the foam damping underneat the unit. The 90Hz peak is reduced 17 dB by the foam, compared to direct placement on the desk. The on-foam placement provides 5dB more attenuation than obtained by doubling the distance from the unit.

Look below at the idle frequency spectrum at the ISO 7779 operator position (captured in our anechoic chamber):

  • The very sharp peak at 90Hz is the tonal hum of the HDD, already discussed above.
  • The higher peak at ~430Hz is the main tonal sound of the fan, unfortunately placed smack in the middle of the musical range (440Hz is the A note above middle C), where human hearing is extremely sensitive.
  • Further peaks at 1kHz and 1.5kHz are both audible as minor tonal aspects.
  • Those with keen hearing will also hear the 3~4kHz peaks.

VS. OTHER SYSTEMS

How does the Dell Studio Hybrid compare to the Asus Eee Box mentioned earlier? The latter is a lower power PC that is not capable of HD video reproduction, but it is of similar size and it has the same basic intended usage: Right on the desktop next to the monitor, mostly as a nettop. Our assessment of the Eee Box acoustics was much more positive, as its sound did not exhibit the tonality of the SH, and it was considerably lower in level. At full load, there was no contest.

The newly released Anitec SPCR-certified SilenT3 was also added to the comparison mix. This is a system with capabilities quite similar to the Dell, including HD video playback. Its acoustics are better than either the Asus or Dell.

SPL at 1m: Dell Studio Hybrid vs Asus Eee Box vs Anitec SilenT3
Test State
Dell
Asus
Anitec
Idle
21 dBA
18 dBA
15 dBA
Maximum
31 dBA
20 dBA
15 dBA

MP3 SOUND RECORDING

These recordings were made with a high resolution, lab quality,
digital recording system
inside SPCR’s own 11 dBA ambient anechoic chamber, then converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve
listened long and hard to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original
WAV files to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review. All the recordings listed below were made with the mic at 1m distance.

For the most realistic results, set the volume so that the starting ambient
level is just barely audible, then don’t change the volume setting again while
comparing all the sound files.

Comparable System sound files:

  • Asus
    Eee Box B202 at idle, 18 dBA@1m and 14 dBA@1m (behind LCD monitor)
    — The recording of the Eee Box was made with the unit at idle, and the microphone
    1m away, first on a table in the hemi-anechoic chamber, and then mounted on
    the back of an LCD monitor, and the microphone 1m away from the front of the
    monitor. It starts with the room ambient, followed by the product’s noise. The acoustics of the Eee Box barely changes with load, which is why only idle noise was recorded; there’s virtually no audible difference at full load.

CONCLUSIONS

The Dell Studio Hybrid is a disappointment. On the one hand, it’s one of the most visually attractive consumer propositions Dell has ever created. The look and style of the SH is undeniably cool. But that isn’t quite enough to compensate for its relatively lackluster performance or its annoying acoustics, not at the asking price of our sample.

Our cobbled-together DIY mini-ITX system clearly outperforms the SH in almost every way, and it could easily be assembled into a case with much better acoustics, although not one nearly as small or stylish as the SH. The less capable but much more affordable Asus Eee Box provides equally attractive cosmetics in an even smaller box; for most of the functions that the SH is intended to do, the Eee Box is probably its equal. The much bigger but still small Anitec SilenT3 provides at least as good performance, and its acoustics are so far superior that the two machines aren’t even in the same ball park.

The base $449 Studo Hybrid package is probably a better value than the higher-end model we examined. Its slower processor might make it less capable with HD video, but extra RAM might help that. The cheaper package may make it worthwhile for some SPCR readers to void the warranty and break into the box to modify the fan or replace it with a smooter, quieter one. Some intrepid modder will surely do this.

Despite our mostly negative assessment, we think the Studio Hybrid has some promise. Surely Dell can go back to the drawing board and devise a quieter cooling system, especially for a box that draws no more power than many a quieter notebook PC.

Our thanks to Dell
for the review sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
Asus Eee Box B202: An Atom-based mini PC
Hiper Media Center PC HMC-2K53A-A3

Anitec’s SPCR-certified SilenT3 PC

* * *

Discuss
this article in the SPCR forums.

BONUS: INSIDE THE STUDIO HYBRID

As an exercise in geek curiosity, we delved into the Studio Hybrid with trusty screwdrivers and pliers. It’s a cleverly condensed package.


A single screw loosed the sleeve from the PC.

Opening the metal cover was more difficult. It’s a bayonet / friction fit affair that we thought we might break. Note the wire handle, which allows the hard drive and DVD drive assembly to be removed easily after a locking screw is undone.

Hard drive and DVD drive assembly removed. Not much room to soft-mount the HDD.

The cooling system has obvious notebook roots.

The offending fan.

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