Avizo Media Systems' MCE302, which runs Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005, is one of the fruits of Microsoft's decision to release this variant of its operating system as an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) product. As a media centre PC it looks the part, with custom-made cabinetry that would happily grace a high-end processor or DVD player.
The unit comes pre-installed with all of the hardware needed to make the most of MCE, including a pair of terrestrial-digital TV tuner cards that will allow you to watch one TV channel while recording another (or indeed record two different channels simultaneously).
The rear of the unit reveals that Avizo takes its AV connectivity seriously. In terms of video alone, the MCE302 caters for component (the time-honoured three phono sockets) as well as DVI and VGA.
A conventional analogue S-video output is also provided for those who want to make VHS recordings of media, or waste the full potential of the system by plugging it into a TV. In terms of audio, the MCE302 gives you a 7.1 analogue audio output (which uses horrible 3.5mm jacks) and an optical digital one that will feed the audio bitstream to an external decoder.
A machine like this begs for a broadband internet connection - essential for MCE's EPG functionality - and to this end the MCE3002 offers two backwards-compatible Gigabit Ethernet ports (a Belkin 54g Wi-Fi USB dongle is also supplied for wireless networks).
Of the four rear-mounted USB ports, one is taken up by the receiver needed by the wireless keyboard/pointing device. For connecting external storage devices (and digital camcorders, should you plan to edit video with third-party software) there is a FireWire port.
Sensibly, this is located on the machine's front panel - together with mic/headphone sockets and two further USB ports - under a hinged flap.
Just above this is a green fluorescent display that provides you with information about some MCE operating modes (including TV channel). To the right of this is the disc tray, behind which lies a Philips multiformat dual-layer burner that will allow you to read or burn DVDs and CDs.
Microsoft, in its infinite wisdom, has decided to use a proprietary file format for TV recordings. Thankfully, this is understood by the (time-limited) DVD encoding plugin included with Ahead's Nero disc-authoring software.
In other words, you'll still be able to make your own DVDs from recordings, complete with fancy menus and so on (after a month, though, you'll need to purchase this plugin from Ahead if you want to continue using it).
To find out exactly what makes the MCE302 tick, I took the lid off. The standard of construction is excellent, with all components neatly laid out. Most of the componentry, including the Intel graphics, is located on an AOpen i915GMM-HFS motherboard.
In terms of processor, you'll find a 1.73GHz Pentium M. Avizo claims that this silicon powerhouse is equivalent in performance to a conventional Pentium 4 running at between 2.6GHz and 2.8GHz. It's been specified because it consumes less power, and thus runs cooler.
There's a small fan on the processor, together with a larger side-mounted one that primarily cools the Maxtor SATA HDD, but the power supply is a fanless type. Even after several days of continuous operation, the MCE302 was only slightly warm.
Expansion potential is limited. Both PCI slots are occupied by the Black Gold digital terrestrial tuner cards, which also sport S-video inputs for capturing and viewing analogue-video sources - indeed, the MCE302 features infrared emitters that will control many external set-top boxes, including Sky.
The motherboard does, however, give you a vacant PCI Express slot for a fancier graphics card, but the height of the case means that only lower-profile cards can be accommodated. Gamers will almost certainly demand superior graphics power, although the use of such hardware may also pay dividends for high-def use.
The PureVideo drivers of NVIDIA's cards, for example, take the load off the CPU when decoding high-def video; with its notebook-optimised Intel graphics chipset, in contrast, the MCE302 was found to struggle somewhat when playing HD DiVX content.
Conversely, a 1080i MPEG-2 file was, courtesy of the VLC Media Player freeware downloaded from the internet, handled nicely. I was pleased to note that among the graphics card's modes is a 720p (1280 x 720) one that will pixel-match many projectors.
For some reason, though, I had to reduce the refresh rate from 75Hz to 60Hz to avoid scaling artefacts with my 720p-native Hitachi PJ-TX100 projector. These artefacts, which distorted fine Windows GUI text, proved to be even more obtrusive than the motion-judder noticed when viewing UK-standard DVDs and TV shows.
Another criticism is that although there's a 1280 x 768 mode, no 1366 x 768 resolution is offered for the benefit of matching LCD and plasma panels. Hopefully, driver updates will fix all of these problems.
Overall, the MCE302 is a good performer. MPEG-2 high-def footage and DVDs alike look breathtaking when experienced via DVI, and great via component or VGA. NTSC DVDs looked better than PAL ones, because they use the same 60Hz refresh rate the problematic Intel graphics drivers cornered me into using; playback was thus smoother.
However, TV sessions were spoilt by disappointing definition and jaggies, even when viewed fullscreen. And the enforced use of 60Hz meant, for example, that the BBC News 24 'ticker' was far from smooth. Ironically, TV shows burnt onto DVD with Nero looked better than the live broadcasts - suggesting that different MPEG codecs are employed.
The onboard audio was something of a disappointment, with a restricted dynamic range; hurrah, then, for that optical digital output which restored the 'oomph'.
For all of these niggles the MCE302 is, on the whole, a well-designed media centre. Not once did it lock up or crash, even when running multiple tasks simultaneously (actually, the wireless keyboard/handset receivers did stop working at one point, but the nice Avizo man fixed that early on and no further trouble was forthcoming).
The Avizo is a generously equipped Media Centre PC with decent connectivity. Performance niggles are generally minor. Worryingly, no anti-virus software is supplied - but on our recommendation Avizo will be providing AVG's superb 'free edition'. Note that you can specify a better graphics card at extra cost, which should hopefully address the vast majority of our performance reservations.