The only controls on the front of the system include a blue-lit power button and an eject button for the front-loading optical drive. The front bezel also contains a small backlit LCD InfoPanel, which displays song tracks and titles, picture names, DVD chapters, and TV recording status. A flip-down panel hides the eight-in-one media-card reader, as well as two USB 2.0 ports; a single FireWire port; and headphone, microphone, and audio-in jacks for plenty of convenient up-front connectivity.
You'll have to remove six screws to get to the internal components, but once the lid is off, you'll find a roomy and organized interior, thanks to the attention that Alienware always devotes to grouping and routing the cabling out of your way. Expansion options are more flexible than those of many media centers we've seen, including the no-longer-available (but similar in design) Gateway FMC-901X Family Room Media Center. If you want to add more parts, you'll find two available 3.5-inch drive bays (internal only) and three open PCI slots, although the video card's enormous heat sink blocks one of them. The DHS-301 Media Center PC uses Intel's last-generation 865PE chipset, which means you won't find any PCI-Express (PCIe) slots inside. PCIe, with its increased video bandwidth, lends itself very well to editing high-definition video, so while the absence of any supporting slots may not be a deal killer, you should keep looking if you want to give the anticipated video of Junior's first steps the high production values it deserves.
The rear of the DHS-301 Media Center PC includes connections for coaxial TV cable and an FM antenna, courtesy of an ATI TV Wonder card, with a small adapter with inputs for S-Video and component audio and video. Additional video ports on the graphics card accommodate 15-pin SVGA, S-Video, and DVI connections, and the motherboard features 5.1-channel analog audio inputs, S/PDIF optical and coaxial audio-out, Gigabit Ethernet, and microphone-in ports. You'll also find four additional USB 2.0 ports and one FireWire input. In other words, short of the highest-end home-video components, such as an HDTV or a digital projector, you'll be able to connect virtually any entertainment or home-computing device you can think of to the DHS-301 Media Center PC.
For couch-surfing convenience, Alienware included a Gyration wireless keyboard and optical air mouse combo with our test system. The bundled IR remote controls DVR functionality and other Windows Media Center applications, such as My Videos, My Music, and My TV. Working in conjunction with the included IR blaster, you can program the remote to manage your set-top cable or satellite box.
The Alienware DHS-301 Media Center PC uses Intel's 2.8GHz Pentium 4 processor on the 865PE chipset, and you can configure it with either 256MB or 512MB of 400MHz DDR memory. Our system arrived with 512MB of RAM, ATI's 256MB Radeon 9800 Pro graphics card, and an 80GB 7,200rpm drive. We think 80GB is a bit small for a system that will be storing movies, TV shows, music, and pictures. We recommend upgrading to a 120GB ATA drive for $30 or, better yet, a 200GB SATA drive for $69. (At least you can archive large files with the multiformat DVD burner.) Our test configuration is firmly entrenched in the midrange desktop category, but it's more than adequate for the purposes of home entertainment.
Alienware operates under the assumption that customers will connect the DHS-301 Media Center PC to their own home-entertainment setup, so a display and speakers are not included, although Alienware offers a variety of each for sale on its Web site. Current offerings include 5.1-channel speaker sets from Klipsch, Creative, and Logitech, as well as LCDs from NEC, LG, and BenQ; our review sample came with a 30-inch BenQ DV3070 LCD TV, a $3,000 option that serves its purpose with style, even if the picture quality is only mediocre (basically the same assessment we made about the).
For sound, the integrated audio chip on the motherboard was only fair. During DVD playback, we found the output flat at times when it should have been explosive. Highs were not as crisp as they could have been, and bass response lacked punch. And while it's true that by adding a sound card you will override the onboard chip and thus render the front-panel audio ports inoperative, we still think that Alienware should at least give consumers the option of upgrading the sound at the time of purchase. The company could even offer one of the high-end cards that includes an external port box as an ad hoc way to replace the front-panel ports. As it stands now on Alienware's Web site, you can't make that choice.
ATI's TV Wonder card renders a clean cable signal, although we did notice a 2- to 3-second lag, which we didn't experience when it was connected directly to our set-top box output. We connected to the Web via our wireless network using a USB wireless key, but if dial-up is your only option, be sure to configure your DHS with a 56Kbps V.92 modem, a $68 option, to take full advantage of Microsoft's Media Center intuitive TV channel guide and recording capabilities. In addition to Nero's CD-burning software and CyberLink's PowerDVD, the bundle that accompanies the DHS-301 has Sonic's PrimeTime Deluxe DVD-burning application, which works with the Media Center remote, allowing you to transfer your favorite shows and video clips to DVD from the comfort of your couch. Once we downloaded our local channel guide, programming the system to record a live Yankee game was easy; we simply selected the channel and the time slot from the guide using the remote, hit Record, and we were able to pause and replay the game at will.
When judging the performance of a Media Center PC, it's important to add both form factor and cost to the equation, and it won't hurt to be honest with yourself about how you're really going to use your PC. The Alienware DHS-301 Media Center PC is not a high-performance computer. Its processor, chipset, and system memory are a generation behind, but the simple fact of the matter is that you don't need a speed demon to perform most A/V-related tasks. Were you to use this PC as your main desktop (as you might the vertically oriented ), you might want a more current, more powerful configuration. But couch-based computing has never really taken off, and since the DHS-301 Media Center PC is designed to fit in your living room, this system is probably best considered a secondary PC, dedicated solely to managing your home-entertainment center.
That said, if you actually were to use the DHS-301 Media Center PC to run common applications, you should have little to no trouble. While its SysMark scores lagged behind those of all of the Windows Media Center-based PCs we've reviewed recently, the performance is still adequate enough for satisfactory day-to-day use.
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using 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
The Alienware DHS-301 Media Center PC uses the generation-old but still relatively powerful 256MB ATI Radeon 9800 Pro card, and it delivered a more-than-adequate score of 170.7 frames per second (fps) on our low-end, 1,024x768-resolution Unreal Tournament 2003 test. You'll be able to play older 3D games without any trouble, but its 54fps score on the higher-end, 1,600x1,200 Unreal test may cause you to balk if you're looking for a PC that will handle newer games, such as Doom 3, at higher detail levels. Then again, even if this PC delivered the fastest 3D scores around, can you really see yourself playing a 3D game, especially a precision-based game like a shooter from your couch? Neither do we. So from a value standpoint, if you don't envision using the DHS-301 Media Center PC to play 3D games, you could consider the lower-end 9600 XT graphics card and save yourself some money.