One of the better affordable Media Center PCs, but there's some way to go yet
Good connection options
Poor games performance
Separate IR receiver
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PCs are generally all about raw power rather than their suitability for your living room. Switch on the latest and greatest systems, and your ears will be assaulted by the sound of air being drawn through the system to keep the innards cool. In other words your average PC is uniquely unsuited to the task of acting as the PC at the centre of your digital home. They tend to look bloody awful at the same time.
Watford, however, is clearly aware of these shortcomings and so has gone back to the drawing board in order to create the Aries Media Experience, discarding everything that is generally taken for granted with PCs in the process.
And this is definitely a good thing. The very fact that this resembles a DVD player more than a PC is clearly a move in the right direction. You certainly won't have any doubts about its compatibility with the other components in your system when sliding it into your rack.
There are a few tell-tale signs that this isn't your standard piece of audio visual equipment - the grille above the processor is designed for functionality rather than for aesthetic styling, for instance.
The flap on the front of the machine concealing four USB ports and a Firewire socket is a slightly bigger indicator when it's open. And if you peer around the back of the machine, it will give the game away completely. Keyboard and mouse ports are fairly rare on normal kit, but saying that, dual TV tuner cards are fairly scarce on PCs too.
When you first turn the machine on, the sound of the fan spinning up is quite alarming - it feels as if the whole camouflage thing is wasted, but then the system quietens down completely before Windows has finished booting. And in fact we never heard the fan reach anything close to the initial volume while in operation, even under the most exacting test conditions.
The AMD Sempron 2800 processor at the heart of this system isn't exactly a cutting edge chip, which means it does run cooler than most of the competition anyway, yet despite that it should be powerful enough for anything that you would want to do with MS Media Center 2005.
Unfortunately things aren't quite so cheery when you begin to look at the gaming capabilities of this machine. Admittedly it doesn't set itself out as a gaming powerhouse, but it seems only reasonable that any entertainment PC you slide under your TV should be capable of throwing the odd game around.
In the case of the Aries Media Experience, it's more likely that it is the machine that you'll be throwing around instead - the old-fashioned integrated GeForce4 graphics engine just can't handle modern games convincingly. Having a separate box for the IR receiver is a little unprofessional, too - this would be much better if it was integrated into the machine's fascia.
The 120GB hard drive is a little on the small side for a Media Center PC too, as it won't take much to fill up, although the fact that there is a 10/100 Ethernet jack on the back of the machine means that you can just wire it up to your existing network, streaming content as needed. If you'd prefer to dispatch the wires, then a Wireless 54g module is available as an extra, as are a selection of larger hard drives for that matter.
The Aries Media Experience is one of the more convincing Media Center PCs that are currently available, and the price is very reasonable too.
Admittedly the machine isn't perfect - there is still room for improvement aesthetically, and there are some fundamental issues with the operating system that need to be resolved before the Experience is going to be guaranteed a future in the living room. But with its DVD looks and quiet operation, the Aries is definitely moving in the right direction.
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