Like passengers on a rush-hour train, Media Center PCs keep jostling for elbow room in the crowded desktop market. Now with a new and much-improved version of its OS, Microsoft's computing-and-entertainment amalgam has emerged as a viable platform, especially for anyone with space constraints. The ABS Media Center PC 8500 features a sleek, rack-mount case that will fit in most home-theater configurations, and it has more than enough muscle for most Media Center activities. But our review unit shipped with a 17-inch LCD and a three-piece speaker set, suggesting that it might be better suited for a student's desk. And unfortunately, ABS's disappointing array of options prevents you from configuring a high-end system, but our $2,220 review system has more than enough muscle for Media Center activities and carries our endorsement for those tight on space.
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Rack it up: the D-Vine case will look right at home in your home theater.
Like the, the ABS Media Center PC 8500 uses the solid, horizontally oriented D-Vine case from Ahanix. It looks more like a hi-fi component than it does a computer, and we can easily see it mounted with the cable box and the VCR in a home-theater system. Adding to the Home Theater PC A5071's living-room appeal are Media Center Edition 2004's (MCE 2004) large icons, which can be navigated with the included remote control or a wireless keyboard and mouse. That said, the 17-inch LCD panel and the midrange three-piece speaker set that shipped with our evaluation unit would seem more at home in a tiny dorm--a situation that makes little use of its inherent design advantages.
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The case is large enough to accommodate full-size expansion cards.
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At what cost front-mounted FireWire? To power the FireWire port on the front, the system cannibalizes a port in the back.
The same students that might consider this system, however, are going to hate the fact that the case is hard to open, requiring you to remove a bunch of screws from the bottom. Once you get in, though, the interior is fairly well laid-out and provides easy access to the five PCI slots, the five drive bays, and the four DIMM slots. There's also a little glass window in the front of the case where the vendor can place a digital display that provides certain system parameters, such as CPU utilization and internal case temperature, or an internal wireless remote-control receiver. Neither was implemented in our evaluation model, however, and the company has no plans at this time to offer them in shipping versions. And while we love the front-mounted USB and the FireWire ports, we can't stand it when vendors enable one or more of these by threading a cable from the external ports on the back through the system itself, as in this case. Not only does this take up a port, it also looks less than elegant.
When Microsoft released the first version of its Media Center OS last February, the company placed strict requirements on its hardware partners. With MCE 2004, Microsoft has eased these restrictions somewhat, which is why we've seen a wider variety of Media Center PC configurations this time around. That's why we were surprised to find that neither the ABS Media Center PC 8500 nor its lower-level brother, the Media Center PC 8200, offers a great degree of customizability.
You can get the systems with only integrated audio, for example, and our test system's 128MB GeForce FX 5600 graphics card is the most advanced one that ABS offers. We would expect more-robust options for systems designed with video in mind. Our system featured a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 processor on Intel's 865G chipset, and you can upgrade the CPU to as fast as 3.0GHz. The AverMedia TV-tuner card includes both TV and FM radio inputs.
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Hidden neatly behind a flip-down panel is a 4X Sony DVD burner and a seven-in-one media-card reader.
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Wireless freedom: you can choose the wireless keyboard and mouse or the Media Center remote control.
Based on the Intel 865PE chipset, the Media Center PC 8500 that we tested took advantage of dual-channel memory support with two 256MB DIMMs, while its 160GB hard drive is the smallest one the company offers--an extra $105 gets you the massive 250GB Maxtor model. The two external drive bays accommodated a Sony 4X DVD+/-RW drive and a nifty seven-in-one flash card reader.
The new MCE 2004 addresses many of the issues we raised with the first version of the OS. The new version improves the TV picture quality, smooths the transition between the computing and entertainment sides of the OS, and introduces an FM- and Internet-based radio player. These complement the standard Media Center activities of watching, pausing, and recording TV; viewing photos and slide shows; creating playlists; and listening to music files.
Plus, MCE 2004 now lets you burn recorded TV shows to DVD within the Media Center interface. For this functionality, however, you need to use Sonic's PrimeTime DVD-creation app, which ABS is not offering at this time. The software bundle includes only Microsoft Works 7.0 for office chores and Nvidia's NVDVD 2.0 for viewing DVDs.
The ABS Media Center PC 8500 performed about as we would expect for a 2.6GHz P4 with 512MB of 400MHz DDR SDRAM. Its score of 266 on our SysMark 2002 benchmark is indicative of a system of its class. Sure, it bested the 2.8GHz P4-based ViewSonic M2100 system, but that has more to do with the ViewSonic's woeful underperformance. Although ABS offers faster processors for the Media Center PC 8500, the 2.6GHz P4 comes at a good price and has enough oomph for running Media Center tasks in addition to standard office chores.
Application performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2002, an industry-standard benchmark. SysMark measures a desktop's performance using off-the-shelf office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics and gaming performance
Since a Media Center system taps graphics subsystem resources more than your typical desktop does, we always like to see a fairly robust card with every system. The ABS uses Nvidia's midrange GeForce FX 5600 card, and though this is not the fastest card on the market, it is more than adequate for the multimedia tasks inherent to a Media Center PC, and it will suffice for the majority of gameplay, too. The ABS Media Center PC 8500's score of 616 on our new 3DMark03 benchmark illustrates the fact that the FX 5600 gives you more than 2.5 times the graphics performance of Nvidia's budget card, the FX 5200, but trails by a healthy margin a truly performance-class card, such as ATI's Radeon 9800 Pro.
3D graphics performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark03 Pro, an industry-standard benchmark. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 9.0 (DX9) interface at a 32-bit color-depth setting and at a resolution of 1,600x1,200. We also enable 4X antialiasing and 4X anisotropic filtering via Windows' Display Properties settings. A system that does not have DX9 hardware support will typically generate a lower score than one that has such support.