Review: The Media Center 2005 PCs Are Here

Latest Media Center PCs from HP, Nor-Tech, Sony and Toshiba bring a wealth of improvements in design and feature sets

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Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005, packed with new features for managing and accessing multimedia content, is providing system builders with a solid platform for creating innovative entertainment-centric machines.

These new systems can serve as a strong base product for entering the digital home market or for upgrading systems for existing clients. Many of these new units also show significant improvements in both design and feature sets compared with previous media-centric PCs.

Digital Connect Lab engineers took a look at the newest PCs running Media Center Edition 2005 from Hewlett-Packard, system builder Nor-Tech, Sony and Toshiba, along with the platform itself (see review). The units take excellent advantage of the added capabilities and fit better into home entertainment installations.

Media-centric PCs also enable integrators to sell more products, including security tools, flat-panel displays, smart storage units, digital photography and video solutions, and wireless networking and Media Extender gear.

Hewlett-Packard Digital Entertainment Center z545
Out of 15 multimedia-centric PCs reviewed in Digital Connect in the past year, HP's Digital Entertainment Center z545 ($1,999.99) is the most well-designed, high-performing and stylish. Many multimedia PCs look out of place in living rooms and dens due to their bland PC cases and designs, but the z545 resembles a standard DVD player, which should ease its acceptance in the home and help it fit into any A/V entertainment cabinet or other home setup.

The unit's wireless keyboard, which includes a scroll wheel, mouse buttons and buttons to access applications on the PC or to control playback and volume of a TV program, helps the unit fit into a home setting. The z545's remote control is also well-designed, with plenty of buttons. A common complaint about multimedia PCs is that they require numerous external receivers for their accessories, creating an unsightly tangle of wires and receivers. All of the z545's receivers are incorporated inside the unit for an uncluttered look.

The z545 is the only desktop PC reviewed this month with built-in wireless connectivity, which extends the locations the PC can be placed throughout the home. (An external antenna is provided, which attaches to a connector on the rear of the unit.)

The z545 includes nearly every connectivity option and all are easily accessible. The front of the unit boasts an 8-in-1 flash media reader and a plethora of connections, including two USB 2.0 ports and a mini (four-pin) FireWire port, as well as inputs for S-video, video, left-right audio, headphone and microphone--all well-marked and hidden behind covers. The front of the unit also includes a CD/DVD drive and control buttons that allow users to play, fast forward, rewind, pause and eject CDs or DVDs. A small screen on the front displays CD track data and other information.

Inputs and outputs on the back include video in, audio in, audio 7.1 pre-out, digital audio out, S-video out, component video out, VGA out, Ethernet and cable TV in. The rear also includes four USB 2.0 ports, a six-pin FireWire port and a connector for an FM antenna. All are well-marked.

Once recorded TV programs, photos or music are stored on a Media Center PC, users need a way to easily transfer the files or transport them. Palo Alto, Calif.-based HP eases the process with its Personal Media Drive, a 160-Gbyte internal or external USB drive that allows users to easily remove and add files or expand or back up the PC's storage. The Media Drive slides into a designated drive bay on the front of the z545 and is available separately for $199.99.

The z545 includes a variety of additional software, including the HP Image Zone Plus application, which provides expanded control and editing capabilities for photos.

The HP unit also includes the best documentation of any unit reviewed, consisting of a book that walks users through many elements of using the system and software.

The z545 produced an average sound output of 57dB, not overly noisy but louder than other PCs reviewed.
One complaint engineers have is that the z545 includes only one CD/DVD drive. For use in the home, having two drives is important for ease of copying and burning CDs or DVDs.

The z545 includes a 3GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 512 Mbytes of DDR memory, 200-Gbyte hard drive and ATI Radeon X300 SE graphics card with 128 Mbytes of DDR memory.

Nor-Tech Voyageur Media Center PC
Nor-Tech, Burnsville, Minn., builds customized PCs for solution providers to sell into the business and home markets under its Voyageur product line. The company released its first two Media Center PCs following the launch of Media Center Edition 2005. Digital Connect Lab engineers had concerns about both of the new models but overall were impressed with the systems.

The first unit sent by Nor-Tech, built in a large audio device-style case from Ahanix, was initially unable to boot, and the PC reported that it could not recognize its boot device or arrays. The fault was a Serial ATA cable that must have been knocked loose during shipping, even though the company hot-glues the connections to prevent that from happening, a Nor-Tech spokesperson says.

The second system, a cube-style unit built in an Antec case, performed well. During testing, engineers opened the case to see how easily the unit can be upgraded or customized. The plastic top of the case is attached with a single thumbscrew and easily slides off. An enclosure containing the CD/DVD drive and hard drive is located directly below the lid and must be removed to access the system's other components. But the power cable leading to the hard drive is extremely short and fell out every time the enclosure was removed. The tight fit inside the case makes it challenging to plug the cable back in. It is also difficult to line up the unit's CD/DVD drive with the drive's door on the outside of the unit once the case has been opened.

The Voyageur PC's small size and stylish looks help it fit into most home multimedia surroundings. Blue lights on the case's front and its silver color add to its unique looks. The front of the case is neat and uncluttered and, in addition to the CD/DVD drive, includes an 8-in-1 flash media reader, two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port and inputs for headphone and microphone. Connectivity options on the rear include speaker out, video in, S-video in, Ethernet, four USB 2.0 ports and keyboard and mouse connections. The unit includes a Microsoft wireless mouse, keyboard and remote control. They function well and are well-designed but require two external receivers, which detract from the unit's design.

Engineers also had concerns about sound emissions. The PC produced an average sound rating of 56dB. But after running overnight, the machine grew significantly louder, with an average output of 65dB, equivalent to the level of a typical conversation.

The PC includes a Western Digital 250-Gbyte 7,200-rpm Serial ATA hard drive, the largest hard drive of the units reviewed here, and offers ample space for storing digital media. The unit also includes an ATI eHome Wonder TV Tuner Card, 3GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, Intel D915 chipset and 512 Mbytes of 400MHz DDR memory.

One of Nor-Tech's strongest attributes is that every unit is custom-built, which helps integrators offer a variety of options to their customers. The configuration built for review costs $1,499.

Sony's Vaio line of PCs is built for high-performing entertainment and productivity needs, and its VGC-RA820G ($1,699.99) takes good advantage of the many strengths of Media Center Edition 2005.

The unit is housed in a solid-looking black tower, but its typical PC look and wired keyboard and mouse make it a better fit in a bedroom or dorm room than a living room.

The front of the unit is clean and neat, with its many ports and two CD/DVD drives hidden behind covers. The front includes a 6-in-1 flash media reader, three USB 2.0 ports, a mini (four-pin) FireWire port (or in Sony parlance, an i.Link port) and inputs for a microphone, headphone, S-video, video and left and right audio, all of which are well-marked. An archaic 3.5-inch floppy drive is even included on the front. The back of the unit includes four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire/i.Link port, Ethernet, optical out, speaker connections, S-video, video, VHF/UHF and keyboard and mouse connections.

The unit includes 2.1 speakers that produce a clear, crisp sound. Engineers also appreciated having two CD/DVD drives. For such a media-focused computer, the VGC-RA820G only includes one TV tuner, which hinders users from taking advantage of some of Media Center Edition 2005's advanced features.

Two vents under the unit's CD/DVD drives discharge heat and help minimize fan noise and, at 52dB, the unit was the quietest. A button on the side opens the case, providing easy access to system components. The case covering the CD/DVD drives also pops off easily.
The unit includes an external receiver for its remote control, which was unexpected since the case contains ample room for a built-in receiver. During testing the receiver had some difficulties receiving commands from the remote control unless they were pointed directly at each other and were separated by no more than a foot.

Easily accessible buttons along the top of the Vaio's keyboard control media access applications, eject the CD/DVD drives and adjust system volume. A wide selection of add-on software expands the VGC-RA820G's capabilities. Sony's Vaio Media application eases the sharing of media content between devices on a network and is a great tool for integrators. The PC also includes extra software for organizing music, burning DVDs, audio mastering and photo editing.

The Vaio PC includes a 3.2GHz Intel Pentium 4 processor, 1 Gbyte of 400MHz DDR memory, 200-Gbyte 7,200-rpm Serial ATA hard drive, ATI Radeon X300 video card and 5.1 channel high-definition audio.

Toshiba Qosmio F15-AV201
Toshiba's Qosmio F15-AV201 ($2,599) packs a lot of multimedia capability into a desktop-replacement, wide-screen notebook design, making it an excellent unit for a dorm room, bedroom, home office or kitchen. The unit includes a rich feature set, including a CD/DVD burner, four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port and a 5-in-1 flash media card slot.

The unit's QosmioPlayer software lets users listen to CDs or watch DVDs without having to boot the OS. A line of buttons below the unit's screen allow for control of playback and recording in QosmioPlayer or Media Center Edition. The unit also contains a strong collection of add-on software including Microsoft OneNote 2003 and tools to manage Bluetooth connectivity, power usage, networking and additional media capabilities. The F15-AV201 has a built-in 802.11b/g wireless radio, which can be turned on and off via a switch with an indicator light, helping to save battery power.

The Qosmio's built-in 30mm Harman/Kardon speakers produce crisp, clear sound, and its 15.4-inch display (1,280 x 800 resolution) produces sharp images. Engineers, however, were unimpressed with the quality of on-screen images while in Media Center Edition. Television signals came in fuzzy, extra gray lines frequently appeared on the screen and the display went black for a second every time the unit switched between applications. We suspect there was a problem with this review unit since it did not occur in a previous version. The unit was on the loud side, with an average sound output of 58dB.

A small remote control provides access to basic functions. Microphone and headphone jacks, monitor out port, S-video out and component out, and composite/monitor line-in and S-video in are included. There is only one TV tuner.

Engineers would like to see a swivel screen, like the one available on Toshiba's Tablet PCs. The Qosmio includes a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium M processor, Intel 855PM chipset, 512 Mbytes of DDR SDRAM and a tiny 80-Gbyte 5,400-rpm hard drive.

In the end, for integrators looking for a high-performing, stylish and well-designed Media Center PC, Digital Connect Lab engineers believe HP's z545 is a perfect choice. The z545 boasts a sharp look, strong capabilities and well-planned design that make it fly for multiple uses in the home.

As system builders and OEMs release new PCs running Media Center Edition 2005, integrators should expect to see further innovation in system design and function. Those assembling their own Media Center PCs should consider the strengths and shortcomings of the units mentioned here. For the needs of the average home user, multiple TV cards, wireless keyboards and mice with receivers built into the PCs, A/V-style device designs and quiet performance are essential. Unit specs are also important, and builders should include high-end graphics cards, large hard drives and fast processors to meet customers' multimedia needs.

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