Here in the TR office, some of us dream of the ultimate small form factor (SFF) PC: one that's powerful enough to play games at decent settings yet small enough to carry under one arm, while remaining attractive, affordable and quiet. The Dell Inspiron Zino HD and Mesh Cute failed at the games element, while the Cryo Nano was still a little on the large side. Might the DinoPC Mini Carnivore be the candidate to devour all opposition?
To begin with, the Mini Carnivore's specifications certainly impress. Somehow, DinoPC has managed to cram a 2.9GHz Core i3, 4GB of RAM, a USB 3.0 compatible mini-ITX motherboard and an ATI/AMD Radeon HD 5570 into a chassis measuring 328 x 222 x 96mm! Granted, it's no Mac Mini, but then this little beast offers considerably more power and features, and costs considerably less besides. Indeed, in addition to the above specs DinoPC has added a slimline DVD rewriter (which you can upgrade to a Blu-ray rewriter for a mere £131), a 320GB 2.5in hard drive and a Wi-Fi dongle, and the whole package will still cost you just under £550.
We were a bit shocked by the size of the box our Mini Carnivore arrived in, but don't worry – it's all padding. In the huge outer box is a smaller one containing all the extra bits, including a sturdy stand to place the Carnivore upright. There's also a retail-boxed Addon (that's the brand name) 802.11g Wi-Fi USB stick. Obviously we would have preferred to see a Wi-Fi 802.11n dongle (or indeed a built-in solution – Ed.) here by default, but DinoPC's website allows you to upgrade to this for only £15.
Because it's housed in Antec's snazzily-named (not) ISK 310-150 mini-ITX case, DinoPC's smallest PC is an exercise in contrasts. From the front it looks great, thanks to a minimalist, silver faux-metal finish offset by a brushed metal, blue-backlit power button. However, the matt black sides and top look distinctly drab, and really aren't helped by the multitude of vent openings. Consequently this PC will only look its best if you can hide everything but the front from view (in an AV cabinet, for example), though this might make it more difficult to get at the Mini Carnivore's prodigious rear connectivity.
Back to the front panel, it sports an eSATA port, two USB connectors and headphone and microphone sockets, which are well-spaced and unobtrusively integrated. The slim-line DVD-Rewriter is hidden behind a neat flush panel but unfortunately, unlike most of these drive covers we've seen, it doesn't open automatically along with the drive (either by being stuck to the front of the drive tray or being sprung). Instead you must press the panel to operate its push latch, then pull it down and press the drive's open button. It's a small gripe – especially with optical discs being used far less often nowadays – but certainly if you were using this system as an HTPC it could get frustrating.
In terms of connectivity this SFF system comfortably eats many larger PCs for breakfast, thanks to its use of Gigabyte's GA-H55N-USB3 motherboard. The undoubted highlight here is a duo of USB 3.0 ports. These are accompanied by four USB 2.0 connectors and a second eSATA port, as well as a combined PS2 mouse/keyboard port and Gigabit Ethernet socket. Audio outputs include six colour-coded 3.5mm analogue jacks and a digital optical connector for 7.1 surround sound.
The motherboard offers VGA, DVI and HDMI video outputs, which are supported by the graphics chip integrated into the Intel Core i3 CPU. However, as already mentioned Dino PC has fitted a dedicated graphics card in the form of an ATI/AMD Radeon HD 5570. Unfortunately, because of its low profile this card only offers DVI and DisplayPort, meaning you'll need an adapter to hook it up to the HDMI inputs on your TV, which is another minor inconvenience for using this as an HTPC.