Thanks to the front end that is Microsoft's Media Center Edition 2005, almost all media PCs are very similar in usability, and non-computer geeks could be forgiven for thinking one is much the same as any other. They'd be wrong, though; a media centre PC is made up of so many different elements that each and every one of them can determine whether the final product is a smooth-running piece of kit or a disaster waiting to happen. Just because it's labelled 'media PC' doesn't mean it's anything more than a standard desktop computer with a nice piece of software.
Lewis recognises this and, most importantly, recognises what's needed not only to ensure a decent living room experience, but what type of hardware fits neatly into a dedicated home cinema set-up. Its MC800 (reviewed in HCC #123) is a beast of a PC that belongs in the same category as high-end receivers and DVD players, and is a perfect companion to both. However, not everybody wants a tank in their rack, or can actually afford one. Thus, the company has created the MC200; a cut-down version in both height and components.
The Silverstone casing employed on the MC200 is, I'd wager, invulnerable to nuclear blasts. Made from the same 1mm-thick steel as its bigger brother, it's (roughly) half as tall but still as sturdy. There's something altogether satisfying about its robust nature, especially considering the sub-£1,000 price point. It's a vast contrast to most 'DVD-deck' media PCs available now.
One downside of it's slimmer design, in comparison to other Lewis alternatives, is in ventilation; with less space to cool the internal gubbins, the onboard processor fan makes a slight humming noise. While it's not an enormous issue considering there's not a single projector in existence as quiet as the MC200, it's a smidgen noisier than a conventional DVD-player.
Apart from four of its eight USB 2.0 ports and stereo audio and line-in minijacks (which are conveniently placed on the front and side respectively), connections can be found nicely spaced on the rear. Video is catered for through DVI, VGA and S-video outputs while audio is delivered via a PC stereo minijack plus coaxial and optical digital outputs - rare for a machine in this price bracket.
Two S-video, care of the two Black Gold DVB-T digital TV tuners, allow you to feed the machine with set-top box pictures and use MCE 2005 as a remote PVR. And there's an RF antenna input for each tuner too (you'll need to feed both for twin tuner support, so buying an RF splitter is advised). Of course, standard functionality is present, as represented by network and RS232 ports.
In terms of features, the MC200 is a fully-fledged member of the 'jack-of-all-trades' club. It has WiFi built-in, a DVD burner that supports DVD R Dual-Layer burning as well as the standard formats, a 200GB fluid bearing hard drive which runs quieter than other types, and comes with Microsoft's new MCE 2005- specific IR remote keyboard and a stand-alone clicker, both of which control other kit too.
First indication of price down-sizing comes in the form of the machine's piddly 512MB of DDR RAM. Although the processor is a 64-bit AMD3000 , the lesser RAM does have a noticeable effect on application speed. It's also limiting if you want to run modern games.
The graphics card, an nVidia GeForce 5200, struggles to show off fast-paced 3D shooters. But then, this is not a games machine, and the 5200 has one surprising trick up its sleeve - it's ideal for handling true HD pictures. High-definition content downloaded from the internet runs smoother on the MC200 in both 720p and 1080p than I've seen on PCs with far meatier graphics cards.
The 5200 card is certainly good enough to give justice to Media Center Edition 2005 and, specifically, the twin digital TV tuners. Having the two of them allows you to watch one channel while recording another and the quality of pictures through each cannot be matched by any stand-alone Freeview set-top-box thanks to video upscaling.
The PC can also upscale standard DVDs in the same way that the new flood of players do, except it goes up to 1080p. And one further benefit that the MC200 shares with its computerbased peers is that you can add a USB or internal HD DVD drive at a later date for full high-definition disc support.
Audio can be considered fine when fed to a suitable amplifier through digital connectivity; it's certainly comparable to any sub-£400 DVD player.
Ergonomically, there are some caveats. The Lewis uses an infrared keyboard and remote control, which means that you have to place the USB IR receiver somewhere facing your viewing position - and it isn't exactly a looker. As good as the keyboard is, with exceptional button placements, you may consider replacing it with a Wi-Fi alternative, which would result in a cleaner install.
In terms of performance and functionality there's little awry with the MC200. It may lack the home entertainment manners of the new breed of Viiv media PCs, but it's a solid enough proposition. Each component has been chosen to provide a satisfying media experience, and from a design standpoint, this is a high-end machine which won't embarrass more traditional components. Rik Henderson
To get hold of some HD content in order to put the Lewis MC200 through it's paces you'll have to go to the internet. Fortunately, there are several websites where you can download either free or paid-for legal HD content that'll run through Media Center Edition 2005 or Windows Media Player 9 or 10.
One such site is www.wmvhd.com, which leads to a Microsoft web address that allows you to download movie trailers and clips in 720p or 1080p. Unfortunately, you can't purchase the full DVD versions as they won't run on a machine registered anywhere outside of the US or Canada.
Alternatively, there are a host of peer-to-peer sites, which allow you to illegally download content. Just make sure you have a good enough broadband connection.