Generally speaking, home PCs running Media Center Edition 2005 are shrinking. Today, they're more likely to resemble conventional DVD players than typical desktop computers.
However, new UK PC-brand Lewis has adopted a different approach. It has produced a media centre solution for AV enthusiasts who like their high-end kit as big and sturdy as possible. Its Silverstone casing is a beefy, 1mm-thick steel box with a brushed aluminium front panel that's a better match, aesthetically, to Chord, Lexicon and top-of-the-range Denon kit than a super-slim DVD deck.
Actually, there's good reason for the girth. Firstly, the extra space offers better cooling, reducing internal and external heat while operating at an almost inaudible noise level of 21dB, thanks to cunningly placed fans. Secondly, unlike many of the anorexic media centres available, it has room for future upgrades. Which is not to say you don't get a stack of the very latest cards and processors in the 'off-the-shelf' version.
The MC800 is so called because the machine features an 800GB hard drive (alternate versions are the MC400 and MC1200, with equivalent hard-disk space), allowing for up to 750 hours of recorded footage at the lowest quality bitrate (taking into account the operating system and other preinstalled software), or 250 hours at broadcast quality.
It has a dedicated graphics card, the Geforce 6800GT (many media centre PCs fix the graphics processor to the motherboard). This is ideal for media applications, including DVD video upscaling and advanced adaptive de-interlacing, through an independent on-chip video processor capable of 1920 x 1080i resolution without tying up the main CPU. In fact, the card is capable of displaying resolutions of 2048 x 1536 - more than the ATI 9800, adopted by many other media PCs, could dream of. Of course, no commercial flatpanel screen can match this. Another benefit of using this NVidea card is that its settings are accessible from within MCE 2005, rather than having to exit to Windows each time.
The MC800 also features an AMD Athlon 64bit 3000 processor, 1024MB DDR 400MHz memory, two Black Gold DVB-T digital TV tuners, in-built Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, onboard DTS and Dolby Digital audio decoding and a dual-layer DVD burner/reader; compare that spec to Denon's comparatively-priced A1-XV DVD player. Makes you think doesn't it?
Connectivity is plentiful. Video duties are handled through DVI, VGA and S-video outputs, while coaxial and optical digital audio outputs are accompanied with 7.1 speaker outs (in the form of mini-jack sockets). Plus, with the twin Black Gold digital tuner cards, there are two sets of analogue audio/video inputs (through an adaptor) and remote control jacks to hook up your satellite or cable box for PVR functionality. Of course, the usual PC gubbins are supplied too, including no less than eight USB 2.0 and two Firewire (IEEE1394) ports. Center point
Like its contemporaries, though, regardless of the mechanics, Media Center Edition 2005 is the machine's biggest selling point. PVR functionality is top-rate; thanks, in no small part, to its 14-day EPG search function where you can filter shows by category. The inclusion of two digital tuner cards means you can watch one channel while recording another, pause live TV or chase playback.
Plus, as previously mentioned, an external set-top box can be connected and controlled through the operating system, allowing you to record TV from, pretty much, any source available.
The software also includes a full media jukebox with cover art for music albums or thumbnails for video, a photo library and FM tuner. Previously, I've whinged about the lack of DAB radio support, but there is now a downloadable update (Rollup 2) that introduces digital radio, so even that peccadillo has been resolved - it improves the front-end's usability in many other areas too.
Of course, there's no escaping the fact that the MC800 is still very much a PC. It's prone to crash (albeit very infrequently if you don't fill the hard drive with games and other home computer-specific software) and needs decent virus protection (not included). Therefore, it could never really be considered an ideal out-of-the-box solution to replace a host of existing kit. And some aspects, such as plug-in setup, still need at least rudimentary knowledge of computers to get working. You will also need a broadband internet connection, wireless or wired, to truly get the most from the machine.
But it's worth it. The MC800 is at the forefront of the all-in-one media revolution. Picture quality is exceptional thanks to the NVidea graphics card, with the finest details rendered with consummate ease. Normal DVDs, delivered with 1080i (or 720p) video upscaling, look fresh, cinematic and almost 3D. Similarly, HD content (downloaded from the net) looks simply incredible. Of course, this clarity is only available through DVI or, at a push, VGA. Via S-video, you do get a decent picture, but with an obvious degradation in sharpness.
Sound taken straight from the digital source and fed through the optical digital audio to a suitable amp is flawless. Even using the onboard decoders for Dolby Digital and DTS, a rich, detailed soundstage is only hampered by your choice of speakers, and it should be remembered that as new audio codecs are created, software patches (often free) keep you one step ahead.
In terms of performance and functionality there's probably no better advert for home cinema-specific media centres than the MC800, except, perhaps, Lewis' own MC1200 (with larger hard disk capacity). Each component has been chosen to provide the best media experience possible and there's no doubt in my mind that this is a high-end machine which won't embarrass more traditional components. It may be big - but it's beautiful. Rik Henderson
There's probably no better advert for the home cinema-specific media centre revolution