PCs are widely regarded as the ugly red-headed stepchildren of real home cinema equipment. Huge, wheezing beige boxes, they are better suited to gathering dust in the second bedroom than lounging stylishly next to the flatscreen TV and surround speakers in your living room. Aren't they?
Not in this case. With the Mini PC Evesham has managed to shoehorn a real computer into an amazingly petite box. About six inches square and no more than a couple high, it owes one heck of a creative debt to the Mac Mini.
Unlike Apple's tiny machine, this is designed to be used as a media device. It comes pre-loaded with Windows Vista Home Premium Edition, which features Microsoft's lounge- and remote control- friendly Media Center application, making this both a Sky -style PVR and a hub for storing and playing back all your digital movies, music and photographs.
As well as being small, the PC looks cool, thanks to its blue power LED, brushed black frame and clean lines. There's no disc tray, only a slot that automatically pulls in CDs and DVDs.
Thanks to low fan noise and a vibration- damping rubber 'foot', it runs nice and quiet too. It's not totally silent, but what little noise there is isn't going to be heard over a film, TV show or audio track.
As you might imagine, there isn't much space on the back panel, so connectivity is a little more limited than on the average PC. There are only two video outputs here: DVI and S-video. The former supports high- definition resolutions and a VGA adaptor is also supplied, so hooking this up to a flatscreen TV or projector should be a cinch.
An HDMI output would have been handy, but you could always try a DVI-to- HDMI adaptor (and cross your fingers that your TV supports the right resolutions via HDMI - the Hitachi 37LD9700 screen I used didn't, surrounding the picture with a wide black border).
Audio options are similarly restricted to a two-channel 3.5mm line output and a mini optical output for digital surround sound. You also get a couple of USB ports, Firewire, an aerial input (but no loopthrough) for the built-in TV tuner and a single mic jack. While there's enough to do the job, it isn't a particularly AV-friendly selection, and the lack of any video inputs means you can't run a Sky or cable box through the system.
Save for a niftier, rejigged menu screen, Vista's version of Media Center is virtually identical to XP's. With its large text and icons, it's designed to be viewed on a screen from afar, and is accessible from the desktop at the push of a button on the supplied remote control. Alternatively, you can set it so Media Center starts up with the PC - select this option and you'll rarely have to see the rest of Vista, despite it running in the background.
Open up Media Center and you're presented with a range of options, including a DVD player, access to your music, video and photo libraries and live TV from the built-in DVB-T tuner. Accompanying the TV is a 14-day EPG serving up programme schedules and information. This works in a similar way to Sky 's EPG, allowing you to quickly set recordings for individual shows or even entire series.
With only one tuner here you can't watch one channel while recording another, which strikes me as something of a missed opportunity. Any recordings you do make go directly into a folder on the 100GB hard disk, and can be accessed easily from Media Center.
You can change the recording limit and quality, but at the default quality, which is near indistinguishable from the broadcast, a 75GB folder should be able to hold around 55 hours of recordings. You can archive anything you want to keep straight onto DVD through Media Center when space starts to run out. The recorder also buffers any TV you have watched recently (you can set the period of time), allowing you to effectively pause or rewind live TV.
The DVD player is decent enough, but with nothing in the way of image processing it can't compete with a good-quality standalone deck. Shaun Of The Dead, for instance, is clean and noise-free, with reasonable amounts of detail visible in faces, but also lacks sharpness and suffers from the appearance of jaggies around the likes of car grills, fences, railings and so on. Colours also seem a little washed-out and lifeless at times.
CD playback is solid but uninspiring, with Neil Young's Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere sounding too shrill and digital for my tastes. Stick a CD in and it will rip automatically to the hard disk, along with track info and album artwork. You can choose from a variety of bitrates, including lossless, but annoyingly you can't select these from within Media Center - you have to hop back into regular Windows Media Player and tick your desired boxes there.
Digital audio quality from DVDs and television is good, however. Shaun Of The Dead's surround effects were detailed where appropriate and suitably beefy at times (the gunshots are superbly hefty) while the score sounds great.
While squeezing so much functionality into such a small box is impressive, it's evident that the Evesham's size does limit what it can do. There's no space for an HDMI output, a dual digital tuner, any kind of memory card reader and the inclusion of a mere two USB ports means that hooking up external hard drives could be a problem.
On the plus side, you get an unobtrusive component able to bring PC functionality into living rooms where traditional PCs fear to tread. Microsoft has high hopes for its Media Center OS, and so do we. This debut Vista-powered media centre finally begins to show the power and promise of the platform. Sam Kieldsen