The problem with most Media Center PCs is this: they're too loud. Nine out of ten MCE systems are based around muscle processors like the P4, and these have a tendency to run hot and need constant cooling.
The whine of overworked fans means that they make better Media Servers (stuck in a cupboard where they can be as noisy as they like) than Media Centers (which should be small, silvery and about as rowdy as a DVD player).
This XC Cube offers a different approach. It's one of only a few desktop PCs fitted with an 855GME motherboard, rejecting the gas-guzzling P4 in favour of a lounge-friendly Pentium M running at 1.8GHz.
While this Pentium M makes the XC Cube much quieter, it's not entirely silent. When TV is showing there's an incessant hum on the very edge of hearing, but no fan noise to speak of. Consequently, it's nowhere near as distracting as a Media Center based on an Athlon 64 or Pentium 4 processor. There is, however, a small trade-off in terms of speed - flicking between the options in Microsoft's entertainment OS often feels a little sluggish. Once the 200GB hard disk is chock full of videos, music and photos, this could get worse.
Size isn't everything
Despite its size, the XC Cube isn't light on features. In this Media Center incarnation, Hi Grade has opted to fill the 5.25-inch drive bay with a slot-loading DVD-RW/DVD-RAM drive, while a memory card reader occupies the 3.5-inch bay. This is vertically mounted and hidden behind a plastic flap to the left of the drive. A similar flap below the power button (which has a blazingly blue LED backlight) conceals an array of handy front connections.
The AOpen chassis looks like a traditional Shuttle, albeit with the top-third sliced off, and it boasts the same elegant black finish and silver trim as the fashionable Shuttle XPC. Hi Grade has fitted out this particular XC Cube as a full system, but it's worth noting that AOpen also supplies the MZ855-II case as a barebones option. As a guide price, Microdirect (www.microdirect.co.uk) are currently offering a Pentium M-ready version for £229 (£195 ex VAT).
Of course, no Media Center PC is perfect and, but with the November launch of Xbox 360 and (finally) Media Center Extender devices in the UK, the PC is subtly repositioning itself as more of a hideaway home server than a living room multi-player.
Like many Media Centers, this XC Cube is a PC first and slick CE device second. It only includes a single DVB tuner from Black Gold, for example, where two would have been preferable (this is a moot point, however, as the motherboard only features one PCI slot).
Unlike some modern Media Centers we've seen, the IR pod supplied here is an external one. This makes it a little untidy as a living room system - a dedicated Media Center would ideally have an IR window discretely built into the casing. Finally, the XC Cube isn't helped by the lack of a high-quality DVI input, which would make it easier to connect it to a flat panel TV.
If you're looking to put a PC under your TV, then this Pentium M-based XC Cube certainly ticks most of the right boxes. Despite the lack of twin tuners, it's surprisingly powerful, satisfyingly quiet and a good showcase for the Media Center concept.