So far we've been impressed by ASRock's Core 100HT-BD, and for its target audience the lack of gaming capabilities is unlikely to be a deal-breaker. The advantage to using low-power parts is that overall power consumption is very modest: up to 25W at idle while staying under 45W at load. These figures are similar to the Tranquil PC ixL, with slightly lower maximum usage.
This low power draw results in low heat output, which in turn means cooling can be kept to a minimum, and aside from the CPU tunnel fan there is only a small fan at the machine's back. While idling the Core 100HT is virtually silent, and though under load its fans become audible, it's a gentle background hum that's rarely intrusive and fairly easy to ignore.
ASRock provides a Windows Media remote with its HTPC, but don't expect too much. It's a generic, glossy black (or white if you went for the pale version of the Core 100HT) affair with a decent layout and rubberized buttons, but these are a bit too small and occasionally stiff for ideal comfort, while the whole remote just screams 'cheap'. At least it uses AAA batteries, so you can switch to rechargeable ones.
A more interesting control option is the AIWI link ASRock has built into its HTPC. As already mentioned, this allows you to use your iPod or iPhone as a motion-sensitive remote and keyboard for the machine, linked via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth. All it takes is a software download for both machines. Unfortunately we did not get a chance to test this functionality, and on the gaming side it is rather limited in its scope with current support from only four major game titles. However, this is set to increase dramatically, and regardless it's a neat feature to have.
So in terms of looks, build, size and features ASRock's smallest HTPC does an impressive job – all we could still want is a TV tuner, and that can be added using a USB dongle. But how does it hold up in the value stakes? The configuration as reviewed should set you back around £500, which seems very reasonable. Even adding on a copy of Windows 7 Home Premium, if you need it, should keep the price below £570. Of course you can get ASRock's own dual-core Atom-based machine for less (around £340 with Blu-ray) in a similar chassis, but that will offer considerably less power and connectivity.
For a more valid comparison, the closest specification of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD costs £650, and while this does net you discrete (albeit still weak) Radeon graphics, a faster and bigger hard drive and more RAM, the Core 100HT-BD is slightly smaller, offers far better build quality, superior connectivity and – most significantly – a CPU that's in a whole other league. Combined with its superior wireless capabilities and features such as THX and AIWI, ASRock is the clear winner.
A less straightforward contender is the £550 DinoPC Mini Carnivore, which nets you more power on every front but is not nearly as good-looking, compact, frugal or quiet, and goes up to £700 if you configure it with a Blu-ray writer (the only HD optical solution offered) and Wi-Fi N. If you want to do a bit of half-way decent gaming it's the better buy, but otherwise ASRock wins out again.
ASRock has managed to stuff all the features, connectivity and power most home cinema enthusiasts will need into its reasonably attractive little black box. The Core 100HT-BD is a nettop-sized HTPC offering desktop-like performance at a very reasonable price, and thus wins our Recommended accolade.