We've seen standalone R690 motherboards. We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the M690 mobile platform. And now the first media centres pre-built with an R690 motherboard are rolling off production lines.

How will this new chipset change our expectations of small form factor media centre PCs? It has a lot to offer that could put Intel's equivalent offering into second place. The graphics on board - equivalent to an X1250 Pro - are more powerful than most other onboard solutions, taking some of the load off the CPU for decoding high definition video.

Since the majority of R690 motherboards come in Micro-ATX dimensions, they are perfect for squeezing into an HTPC case. With HDMI output on board as well, the Ebox HD could be a taster of how R690 will raise the performance bar for home theatre PCs this year.

Varied results

Evesham has removed the guts from its previous media centre efforts - built around the KMF Ebox 3 chassis - and replaced them with MSI's K9AGM2-FIH and an Athlon X2 3800 chip.

We have already looked at that particular board and the AMD Athlon X2 3800 sits neatly in the mid range of CPU performance tables, hitting the sweet spot between value and performance.

Dual cores and decent number crunching abilities can deliver smooth media playback when it's needed, and although there are plenty of faster CPUs out there, this one isn't adding greatly to the Ebox HD's cost.

Pairing Windows Vista Home Premium with this hardware is an obvious choice, since Microsoft's Media Center application comes as standard with more complete Vista bundles. The X1250 has no problem running the Aero interface, with a full 2GB of DDR2 memory aiding media playback.

However, since the R690's integrated graphics use a UMA shared memory interface, the total memory was reported as 1.5GB. The exact amount devoted to graphics can be set in the BIOS, and lowering it slightly helps Vista's overall performance without visibly hurting the graphics.

While the general performance of the Ebox HD was fine, there were some times when the system was not as responsive as we would have liked. Some tasks seemed to take longer than similar Vista machines we have tested.

This could be partly due to the loss of half a gig of system memory to the X1250, but there are other reasons too. The R690 is so new that the drivers have some way to go before being fully mature - especially under Vista - so we expect some results to improve over time.

Running the SuperPI measurement of CPU performance showed nothing amiss with the X2 3800 processor, but the Windows Experience benchmark settled at 3.0; brought down by the integrated graphics.

This score depends mostly on your GPU's gaming throughput, and as such isn't a completely fair test for a media centre. Running Sandra and looking at multimedia tests indicated the EBox HD on paper is more than capable for what it was made for.

Another positive aspect to the Ebox HD is the chassis used by Evesham has a slick appearance. It's hardly small, but the black box has a smooth facia which won't look out of place under the TV.

Switch on the Ebox and a green glow illuminates the front, not unlike Microsoft's Xbox. The R690's fan controls mean the computer can be close to silent when in use, and this is a huge advantage over some of the noisy HTPC chassis we have seen. On the rear panel, you have the usual USB ports and audio connectors along with SP-DIF, HDMI and component video output.

Like the previous Ebox, Evesham has fitted a Hauppage Dual DVB digital TV tuner into the PC, meaning you can have complete PVR functionality if you wish to use it. This is tightly integrated with Vista's Media Center software. All you need to worry about is selecting the option to record or playback television content without having need of the bundled Hauppage software.

Whether or not media centre PCs really benefit from R690 depends on your requirements. An HDMI connector is important, but the R690's near-monopoly on offering this feature won't hold true for long. The X1250 is a good all round integrated graphics chipset, but Intel is regaining lost ground in this area.

A feature not present in the Ebox HD is an optical drive supporting either Blu-Ray or HD DVD. We can't blame Evesham for this, since the lack of availability and high prices are squashing HD takeup across the board. It's reasonable to assume most people will, in the future, watch HD video from optical disc and this will make HDMI (plus the picture sharpening features of this new generation of chipsets) stand out.

The Ebox HD is a mere fiver more than the previous model's list price. With a slightly faster CPU, a doubling of system memory and an increase in disk storage, this new R690 based media centre is certainly passable in terms of muscle, but it's more of an incremental update than the giant leap we were hoping for.

The complete package from Evesham is great bang for your buck, but if you have a media centre already, there is little reason to replace it with this one unless you must have HDMI now.