Looking for all the world like a go-faster DVD player from the Far East, Acer's elegant Aspire L200 is actually a multimedia PC running the latest (2005) variant of Windows XP MCE.
It may be low-profile, but it weighs the same as a high-end DVD player. It also carries a similar price tag, although as a PC it can do a helluva lot more! How many DVD players do you know that can surf the web, run games, 'stream' media to a network player, timeshift TV, play hi-def video, download music and act as a powerful jukebox?
Oh yes, and an 8x Panasonic DVD/CD burner means the L200 can make DVDs (and indeed CDs, which the average 'stand-alone' DVD recorder can't). As regards DVD media, the drive in question supports DVD-RAM (albeit not video), DVD-RW/ RW, DVD R/-R and even dual-layer DVD R. How about that for flexibility?
A peek inside this quiet-running machine reveals a neat but densely- packed array of hardware. The L200 is powered by a speedy Athlon 64 3200 processor (on a Microstar motherboard), 512MB of RAM and a 160GB Serial-ATA HDD. The slimline Hiper case means there's little room for expansion - that motherboard has three PCI expansion slots, of which only one is available.
It's occupied by a Hauppauge digital/analogue terrestrial TV tuner card with composite and S-video inputs for external analogue sources - so no PCI slots are free at all. Still, the L200 offers no fewer than eight USB sockets - four at the front, four at the rear) and two FireWire ports for your expansion needs. The processor ventilation grille is on top of the case, and shouldn't be blocked.
Inseparable from mother
Unfortunately, the machine's ATI Radeon Xpress 200 graphics card cannot be changed, because it's an integrated part of the motherboard. A shame, not least because it lacks the digital video output many DVD players now include.
In contrast, ATI's more expensive products tend to offer DVI connectivity - which means there's no need to go to analogue and back up again when feeding a projector or flat-panel display. The L200 sports a VGA socket - the next best thing for such displays, and essential for hi-def - plus composite and S-video outputs, for conventional TVs, that can't be used at the same time as VGA. In my opinion, these are pointless on a PC - give me that DVI jack any day!
Another drawback of that onboard graphics hardware is that it lacks 1280 x 720 (720p) and 1366 x 768 (WXGA) display modes. These would give 'pixelfor- pixel' compatibility with the native resolutions of modern projectors and flatpanel screens, thereby reducing unsightly scaling artifacts (notably with fine text).
You do get a 1920 x 1080 mode, but this is redundant because few displays of this resolution are available - certainly around the L200's price point - but most modes seem to be geared up for 4:3 displays. Driver updates will hopefully redress this - but they certainly can't remedy the audio side of the equation. With the L200, you're restricted to 2-channel motherboard sound - if you want anything better, you'll have to add a external soundcard via USB or FireWire.
DVD-As or Super Audio CDs won't play to their full potential when they're inserted into the L200's slot-loading disc mechanism - you would have every right to expect this from a regular £900 DVD player. DVD-A playback would be a possibility, however, were you to invest in Creative's SoundBlaster Audigy 2 NX.
This £85 24/192 soundcard not only gives you 2- and 5.1/7.1 channel DVD-A playback, but it will also handle the Dolby Digital (up to EX) audio found on standard DVDs. If DVD-A doesn't appeal to you, then you could always use the L200's rear-panel coaxial digital output (amusingly labelled 'SP/DIP') to feed multi-channel DVD-soundtrack bitstreams to your audio system. Depending on your decoder's capabilities, it might even sound better...
MCE 2005 - basically, a multimedia 'front-end' for Windows XP - has been the subject of previous HCC investigations. Driven primarily by a dedicated remote, it provides shortcuts to photos, TV record/replay (including timeshifting), video, DVDs and music. It's smooth, graphically-rich and friendly too.
But, keeping my rather strained DVD analogy going a little further, perhaps we should discuss how the MCE PC experience differs from that of a regular DVD player. For a start, you don't have to wait for a DVD player to boot up (an exception is KiSS's Linux-based DP-558, which also includes HDD recording). Nor do you have to switch on your display if you, for example, just want to listen to a CD or MP3 disc.
Why can't I turn you on?
Operationally, the Acer is a little bizarre. The power buttons of the two remotes - one's dedicated to MCE functions, and looks like a conventional AV remote, while the other's a conventional wireless keyboard/joypad - will turn the machine off, but not on again!
To wake up the L200, you have no option but to reach for that parallelogram on the front panel. It is also worth noting that in these days of environmental awareness, the L200 guzzles far more power than a regular DVD player.
The machine has a 200W power supply; in contrast, the average DVD player consumes around 20 watts and runs noticeably cooler to boot. Dedicating all that power-hungry processing to the comparatively-simple task of playing DVDs or MP3s is akin to buying a five-litre 4 x 4 monster and using it for nothing more punishing than school runs and the weekly trip to Tesco.
than the average DVD player. It can already handle HD playback - WMV-HD is supported as standard, thanks to Windows Media Player, while MPEG2 HD transport-streams and DiVX 'High Def' can be handled with third-party codecs and software like VLC Media Player.
You might be prepared to accept operational foibles, though, when the versatility of a PC over a common-orgarden DVD player is factored in. Thanks to software upgrades via the internet or CD-ROM, it will take new video formats and codecs in its stride. The use of the ubiquitous Windows means that programs for practically every application you can think of will run on this baby.
And although playback performance is ultimately fettered by the lack of DVI (not a problem with the L200's MCE competition) and those less-thanoptimal display modes, DVDs and other video still look remarkably good in terms of detail and dynamics. But it's eclipsed by the dazzling visuals experienced when playing back sample HD footage (notably the pre-loaded Mysteries of the Nile WMD-HD clip).
Driven by a 14-day EPG, the TV tuner (which also supports digital and analogue teletext) is great, although it's less sensitive than many Freeview boxes and so DTT reception needs a strong signal at its disposal. The machine's analogue audio output is lacklustre, making that digital output essential for quality sound (and multi-channel, come to think of it). I also found the L200 to be remarkably stable by the usual Windows standards. My only glitch concerned the infrared keyboard - and that, funnily enough, wasn't down to Windows! It stopped responding on one occasion, requiring me to temporarily remove its batteries.
There's much to like about this media centre, but those looking for a single unit able to replace many conventional units could end up disappointed. However, if you're looking to use a MPC as an additional device, for BitTorrent, HD files and maybe timeshifting digital TV, then this Acer is amongst the best of the bunch currently available.
Ultimately, the L200 is a great if difficult-to-upgrade machine, but the lack of a DVI output is a mistake as regards serious home cinema usage. Martin Pipe