Considering that media centre PCs have been around for a year or two, it's a wonder that the bigger brands haven't already saturated the market with the buggers. But it's an area of home cinema that has remained largely exclusive to computer specific companies and smaller installer friendly start-ups (aside from Sony's numerous tepid attempts with proprietary software- driven Viaos).
Until now. Philips, the Dutch consumer electronic superpower, has just entered the fray with a machine that makes the most of the company's unrivalled picture processing experience.
The MCP9350i certainly looks the part. It resembles a high-end DVD or HD DVD player rather than a PC, media or otherwise. This is largely in part to the digital read-out, centre-mounted DVD tray and a range of legends along the bottom-right. One of these states that it includes an HDD - Hard Disk Drive - a true indication that this is mostly aimed at the non-computer literate. The only badge that spoils the aesthetic ambience is for the interior Intel Pentium 4 processor. Apart from that minor geek-related fashion disaster, it's as non-PC as a Roy 'Chubby' Brown gig.
Rear-mounted connections are more akin to AV kit than computers too. Obvious PC additions exist, such as DVI (which can double as an HDMI out using the included adaptor) and VGA video ports, but an RGB-enabled Scart output is fairly unusual round these parts. It's also heartening to find an optical digital audio output alongside a coaxial one - usually such machines just feature the latter.
Also unusual is the presence of S-video, composite video and analogue stereo inputs, and two sets to boot. They allow you to connect other video sources, such as a cable or Sky set-top box and, if you connect an IR blaster lead or two, you can use the pre-installed Media Center Edition 2005 to control or record from them. The software's internet-driven 14-day electronic programming guide (through Wi-fi or LAN hook-up) will even download channel information for whatever system you're using (such as Telewest or NTL).
That's not to say you have to hook up an STB, but it's advisable as the two internal tuners are only analogue - as is, you can record and watch two channels at the same time but only from a choice of five. At least the MCE 2005 is a joy to use, STB or no. You can even search for any type of programme or film to be shown over the next two weeks by actor, title, genre or what-have-you so it'll be mere minutes before you find yourself scheduling a whole hard drive's worth of reality TV tat.
Unfortunately, this is where most media centres fall on their posteriors. While the 250GB hard drive seems huge in comparison to a large proportion of HDD/ DVD recorders, a big lump of that storage space is taken up by software (anti-virus, firewall, operating system, etc). Plus, MCE 2005 only has four levels of recording quality - fair, good, better and best - with no variable bitrate setting, and they are hidden in a set-up menu with no quick choice option. However, the best setting (which is identical to transmission quality) takes up slightly less space than most recorders thanks to Microsoft's compression techniques (approximately 3GB per hour).
You can, of course, archive any video to a DVD, and another benefit of the MCP9350i's computer heritage is its truly multi-format DVD burner, which supports both dual and double-layer disc types - in fact, everything bar DVD-RAM. And you'll probably find yourself dubbing off footage fairly often as it's worth saving some space on the drive for other types of video file as well as MP3s and JPEGs.
Rip a CD and it'll appear in MCE, cover and all, ready for you to play whenever you like - like a digital pub jukebox. Drop other types of video files into your 'video' folder and the computer will play it regardless of the codec - it'll download any missing codecs in the background, as and when needed. And MCE will even create a moving slideshow of any stills you might have.
Admittedly, none of this sets this specific machine apart from other MCE 2005-driven PCs. But Philips has a couple of its own tricks up its sleeve. As part of the graphics chip, the company has included the same Digital Natural Motion engine employed on its PixelPlus TVs. That, combined with motion adaptive de-interlacing, provides a video picture previously unseen on any computer. It creates a rather filmic quality to TV and DVD pictures, sharpening edges and providing smoother tracking on motion such as with fast pans and football footage.
Unfortunately, this also has one or two less desirable side-effects. Artefacts and halo effects appear around any object moving quickly. And skin tones, while natural in colour, can look too processed, almost plastic. I know some people that absolutely love Philips' picture processing technologies, but I find them a little unnerving to be honest. However, you can turn both functions off through MCE's set- up and then it'll perform like any PC.
LikeMusic is another proprietary addition. If you press the relevant button while listening to an MP3 track, the software creates a list of other songs that are similar to the one playing. The programme uses a Philips proprietary algorithm that analyses tempo, voice gender and instrumentation and then groups all similar music using a generated meta-tag. It sounds complex, but is dead simple in practice and can throw up some surprising if generally pleasant results.
And through the optical digital audio output, the results for music and movie soundtracks are similar to a £500 plus DVD player. Not quite audiophile, but very close. I was especially impressed at its handling of DTS mixes on DVD - beefy and sharp.
Admittedly, the MCP9350i is not without faults, mainly thanks to the fact that no matter how much you hide it with fancy bells and whistles, it's still a computer at heart and needs tender loving care. But, Philips has done a very good job of bringing full convergence a little closer to the AV world, at least aesthetically. It's near silent in operation (similar to a DVD recorder) and is ready to go from the box. The big decider is whether you buy into Philips picture processing. Rik Henderson