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Intel's new Viiv platform has arrived, but the revolution in PC system design it was supposed to spark is still a ways off.
Digital Connect Labs engineers reviewed Viiv PCs from Hewlett-Packard and custom-system builders Nor-Tech, ZLife and Digital Home PC. The platform includes admirable innovations, but PCs need to be better designed to take advantage of them.
The standards list Intel developed for Viiv PCs offers a strong base for multimedia PCs: every Viiv PC must include Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2; an Intel Core Duo, Pentium D or Pentium Extreme Edition processor; the Intel 945G, 955X or 975X Express chipset; RAID storage and a Serial ATA hard drive. These standards, backed by the hundreds of millions of dollars Intel is expected to spend evangelizing the platform, should provide significant benefits for integrators and help drive the technology into the mainstream market.
The platform also brings strong technological improvements to Media Center PCs that should help integrators put them as vital pieces of home integrations. Viiv computers include instant on/off capabilities, which don't completely turn off the PC but instead put it into a standby mode so it can still record TV shows and perform other passive activities. Intel also included robust transcoding capabilities in the platform, to allow video and audio content to easily move between devices and be displayed at optimal resolution. The platform supports up to 7.1-channel surround sound.
While these technical benefits are in place, it will take a significant amount of time for the market to make the best use of them. For example, one major goal of Viiv is to help system builders develop slimmer and sleeker PCs that more closely resemble CE devices. But the four units reviewed here all use pre-Viiv designs and therefore are still too big and look too much like computers to be a hit in the home. The units also display many of the same problems and design flaws found in pre-Viiv editions.
Another of Intel's goals for Viiv is to offer a strong digital rights management system for convenient access and sharing of content, but that feature is not expected to be completed until later this year. Intel is working with content providers to offer Viiv-optimized video and audio content, and is also collaborating with manufacturers of non-PC devices, such as wireless routers, displays, speakers and networked storage products, to ensure compatibility with Viiv PCs. Once the devices start to become available in a few months, they should significantly reduce the headaches that integrators face when installing and optimizing home systems.
The upshot for integrators is that Viiv will offer significant benefits down the road, but they shouldn't invest heavily in the platform until more of the pieces are in place and manufacturers catch up and improve their designs.
HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC
Digital Connect engineers have reviewed several Media Center PCs from HP, Palo Alto, Calif., all of which are well built and perform exceptionally. The vendor offers two Media Center PC designs, one resembling a DVD player and the other in a tower design. The former is much more appropriate for a home multimedia setting. The m7360n PC has a tower design, and it is surprising that HP chose this design for its first Viiv PC.
Integrators can order the series in preconfigured designs from www.hpshopping.com or design their own systems on the site. Custom-designed units take several weeks longer to be built than pre-configured, but the ability to customize the units offers enough benefits for integrators to make the wait worthwhile. The site also offers numerous free upgrades for custom-built units, which at press time included an upgrade to a DVD Writer and 1-Gbyte memory upgrade.
Digital Connect reviewed a pre-configured unit. Prices start at $899, and the review unit cost $1,199 (or $1,149 after a mail-in rebate), making it by far the least expensive product in this review.
Digital Connect reviewers have always been impressed with the connectivity options and ports on HP's units, and this one is no exception. Conveniently accessible on the front of the PC is a 9-in-1 memory card reader. Hidden behind a front door are two USB 2.0 ports, one 1394/FireWire port, connections for computer-style headphones and microphone, and inputs for S-Video, Composite Video and left and right audio. A bay for a portable HP Personal Media Drive is also on the front, along with a CD writer and a DVD-ROM drive. The M7360n is the only unit in this review to include two drives, a useful option.
The rear of the unit has four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port and Ethernet, digital audio in and out, radio and PS/2 connections. It includes only one NTSC TV Tuner, although a second is available for $60. Integrators should seriously consider the upgrade, as it will let customers watch one program while recording another. A VGA connector is included, but the unit lacks a DVI connector; 802.11b/g connectivity is built-in.
The PC includes HP's Media Center remote control, which is one of the best-designed remote controls, along with an HP wireless optical mouse and wireless keyboard. The mouse and keyboard each have their own external USB receiver; they should have been included inside the case to reduce clutter as with previous Media Center PCs.
The unit is powered by a dual-core 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 processor, and it has a 300-Gbyte 7,200-rpm SATA hard drive, a 800MHz front-side bus and 2 Gbytes of DDR2 SRAM memory. One side of the case removes easily by loosening two thumbscrews. There is plenty of space inside to upgrade the system.
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