Dell waited until the second version of Microsoft's Media Center OS came out to launch a complementary PC, and the $1,949 Dimension 4600C with Media Center seems to reflect the company's reserve. Our review unit shares the same name and compact case as the regular Dimension 4600C series, and both its identity and its design are better suited to an office than a home-entertainment center. The midrange configuration, while powerful, omits a few Media Center functions. And the bundled 17-inch LCD and the 2.1-speaker set are better suited for cramped spaces such as small dorm rooms and home offices than living rooms. While the Dimension 4600C with Media Center is a competent system, we're waiting for more innovative case designs. Along with the improvements that Microsoft has made to its Media Center OS, we were hoping to see some creative case designs from PC manufacturers. Dell is not alone in serving up a tired desktop case for its Media Center PC; still, we were underwhelmed by the case that the company chose for our review unit. Its compact profile should be easy to squeeze into your entertainment system, but its design--a dull-black case with a flimsy, gray-plastic front panel--blends better into a back office than a living room. You can choose the standard desktop case of Dell's and 8300 lines instead, but they're bigger and no more attractive.
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|Internal expansion is limited: the drives are not easily removed, and expansion cards must be half-height.|
The Dimension 4600C Media Center PC gives you the connections you need to integrate with your home theater: cable, S-Video, DVI (an adapter is included for connecting to an analog monitor or a TV), and 5.1 surround-sound audio ports, plus an S/PDIF digital audio port.
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The two front-panel PC Card slots compensate somewhat for the lack of free PCI slots inside.
Getting inside the case is easy--press a button on the top and the bottom, and the case opens like a clamshell--but upgrading would be hard. The sole AGP and PCI slots were both occupied on our review unit by half-height cards--the 4600C is too narrow to accommodate full-size cards. The optical drive and the hard drive are slimline, notebook-style drives that are attached firmly to the chassis and difficult to swap out.
The two PC Card slots on the front of the case compensate somewhat for the lack of internal expandability. Dell even bundled two PC Cards with our test system: a CompactFlash adapter and a four-in-one reader for SmartMedia, SD, MMC, and Memory Stick flash media cards. You could also add a wireless network card, though there's an Ethernet jack on the back. For connecting cameras, camcorders, and MP3 players, the case serves up eight USB 2.0 ports (two in front) and two four-pin FireWire ports.
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Tools of the Media Center trade: a wireless keyboard and mouse and a Media Center remote.
If the Dimension 4600C with Media Center's design says "home office" more than "home entertainment," so do its features. Equipped with a 2.8GHz Pentium 4, the Intel 865G chipset, and 512MB of fast 400MHz memory, it will ably handle any office task. The half-height 64MB ATI All-in-Wonder 9000 Pro graphics card gives you the needed Media Center connections, fits inside the system's compact case, and runs Media Center tasks without a hitch, but it's a few generations old. Gamers will require a more recent, full-size graphics card. One feature new to Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 is FM radio support, but the ATI card doesn't have room for an FM radio port. And unfortunately, the All-in-Wonder 9000 Pro is the only graphics card that Dell offers at the moment for its Media Center PCs, regardless of which case you choose.
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MCE 2004's program guide is more useful with a filter for searching for particular types of shows.
Adding to the Dimension 4600C with Media Center's office appeal is the 17-inch Dell E171FP LCD and the 2.1 Harman Kardon speakers. This bundle would work well if you had CNNfn running in a small window on the desktop while you worked in your home office. Any TV shows you record using Media Center could then be burned to disc and played on your DVD player on the big screen in your living room. As part of a living-room setup, however, you'd probably want a bigger screen and 5.1 speakers. Dell offers all of its standard Dimension displays for its Media Center, the largest of which is a 20.1-inch LCD.
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You can resize the Media Center window and get some work done while watching your stocks scroll by.
Dell bundles Sonic's PrimeTime app, which lets you burn recorded TV to disc within the Media Center environment. It gives you a list of your recorded programs (the 120GB hard drive can hold roughly 50 to 120 hours of programming, depending on the quality setting), and it uses a very simple interface for choosing which shows to select and burn to a DVD. You'll have to get off the couch to drop a disc in the DVD+RW drive, but you can control the rest of the action with the Media Center remote. You can't sit too far away from the 17-inch screen before the text becomes too small to be legible, but the wireless keyboard/mouse combo gives you some freedom and cuts down on the cable clutter. Still, TV looked sharp on the display, colors were well saturated, and the image was bright.
Dell preloads Microsoft Works Suite 2003 for getting work done while Media Center records each of the day's syndicated episodes of The Simpsons for later viewing. You also get Easy CD Creator for burning CDs and PowerDVD for viewing DVDs. Application performance
Using a 2.8GHz Intel P4 and 512MB of 400MHz DDR SDRAM, the Dimension 4600C with Media Center was the second-best-performing Media Center PC we've tested so far, edging out even the 3.2GHz, Pentium 4-based HP Media Center PC m300y. The m300y uses a faster processor but slower, 333MHz memory. The Media Center-equipped Dimension 4600C bested its plainer Dimension 4600C namesake, again in large part due to the difference in memory speed. We were impressed with the Dimension 4600C with Media Center's performance and would recommend it for both office and Media Center tasks.
Application performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark2002, 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 performance
A true home-entertainment platform should include capabilities for powerful 3D gaming. With the 64MB ATI Radeon All-in-Wonder 9000 Pro graphics card, the Dell 4600C Media Center PC gets you at least halfway there. The system's 3D graphics performance is capable, especially if you keep your game's screen-resolution setting low, but it lacks the zest of a more powerful graphics engine, such as the ATI Radeon 9800 Pro line. The bottom line is that most games will play adequately on the Media Center, but high screen resolutions and advanced graphics features will slow it noticeably.
3D graphics performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark2001 Pro. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8 interface at both 16-bit and 32-bit color settings at a resolution of 1,024x768. A system that does not have DX8 hardware support will typically generate a lower score than one that has DX8 hardware support.
3D gaming performance (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Quake III Arena. Although Quake III is an older game, it is still widely used as an industry-standard tool. Quake III does not require DX8 hardware support--as 3DMark2001 does--and is therefore an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. Quake III performance is reported in frames per second (fps).
Performance analysis written by CNET Labs technician David Gussman.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Dell Dimension 4600C
Windows XP Home, 2.8GHz Intel P4; Intel 865G chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; integrated Intel 865G 64MB (shared memory); Seagate ST3120023A 120GB 7,200rpm
Dell Dimension 4600C with Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004; 2.8GHz Intel P4; Intel 865G chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI All-in-Wonder 9000 Pro 64MB; Seagate ST3120026A 120GB 7,200rpm
HP Media Center PC m300y
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004; 3.2GHz Intel P4; Intel 865PE chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 128MB; Maxtor 6Y200P0 200GB 7,200rpm
ViewSonic NextVision M2100 Digital Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004; 2.8GHz Intel P4; Intel 845GV chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce FX 5600 128MB; Maxtor 4R160L0 160GB 5,400rpm
ZT Home Theatre PC A5071
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004; 2.2GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-51; Nvidia Nforce-3 Pro 150 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; ATI Radeon 9800 Pro 256MB; Seagate ST3160023AS 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
The standard warranty is the industry average one-year parts-and-labor coverage, which was the policy included in the price of our test system. You can select up to four years of warranty support, which includes onsite service. Dell also offers its $59 CompleteCare Accidental Damage Service, which adds coverage for the length of your warranty. In addition, you can opt to receive Express Tech Support, home installation of your new system, and even an online training package.