Innovations such as water cooling and quad-SLI have turned gaming PCs into space-hogging giants. But some Media Center PCs have taken the opposite route, shrinking to sublaptop proportions. The positively petite Mac Mini Core Duo has won the affections of many and inspired copycat systems such as the Blueado m5e and the AOpen MiniPC Duo MP945-V. AOpen has offered Mac Mini clones before, but this is the first one to harness the power of Intel's Core Duo processor, giving it specs very similar to Apple's little white box. They're so similar, in fact, that it makes it easy to compare prices; curiously, AOpen's $899 clone actually costs about $100 more than the similarly configured Mac Mini. But if you're looking for a Windows Media Center experience in a Mac-Mini-size box and would rather avoid the complexity and expense involved in setting up a dual-boot system using Boot Camp, which would require purchasing a Windows XP license, the AOpen MiniPC Duo is about as close as you can possibly get.
The silver-and-blue case is about the size and shape of a stack of CD jewel cases, measuring just 6.5 inches square and 2.3 inches high. The top is slightly bowed, not flat like the Mac Mini, and the front panel has a power button/indicator light and an eject button for the slot-fed DVD burner. It's not as elegant as the Mini but not garish by any means.
Besides a standard DVI connection on the back (the system includes a DVI-to-VGA adapter), you'll also find what AOpen calls a Multi-TV output, which is a dongle connection with S-Video-, composite-video, and component-video outs. Three audio jacks provide standard mic-in, line-in, and line-out connections, with one jack doubling as an S/PDIF out.
With only two USB 2.0 jacks on the rear panel and no PS/2 connections, once you plug in a USB mouse and keyboard, you'll be out of room for peripherals (except for a single rear FireWire jack). While plugging a USB hub into such a tiny system sort of undermines the whole aesthetic, it's the only way you'll be able to add components such as a USB TV tuner.
Thanks to its 1.67GHz Intel Core Duo T2300 CPU, the same dual-core processor as the Mac Mini Core Duo, the AOpen MiniPC Duo MP945-V manages to turn in impressive scores for an ultra-small-form-factor PC. It scored 6 percent faster than both the Mac Mini and the similarly small Blueado m5e, which has a 2.0GHz Intel Pentium M 760, on CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 application benchmarks. That's close enough to be almost statistically insignificant, but it is technically faster than the Mac Mini, a point sure to irk Mac fans everywhere. With similar benchmark scores, the AOpen's size advantage gives it an extra edge against the otherwise excellent Blueado system.
While the MiniPC Duo is easy to pick up and take with you, you'll need a few accessories to complete the experience. The system doesn't include a monitor or speakers, or even a mouse and keyboard. Bundled software is also slim, limited to a few media apps such as PowerDVD. Thanks to the included DVI-to-VGA-and-DVI adapter, you can power two monitors at once, and the system includes a Wi-Fi antenna that screws into the rear panel. We would have liked to see a Media Center remote at least, if not a wireless mouse and keyboard set.
Warranty coverage varies because AOpen sells to resellers and wholesalers instead of directly to the public, but the company includes a professional-looking, detailed 50-page instruction manual that covers the hardware's main features, and the AOpen Web site offers downloads of manuals and drivers.