HP was one of the first to unwrap a Windows Media Center PC for the holidays last year. That rush job left room for improvement in both the operating system and the hardware. A year later, Microsoft has spiffed up the software, but the HP Media Center PC looks virtually identical. Sure, the m300y model we tested has a faster processor, a larger hard drive, and more-advanced graphics, but on the outside, it's the same, conventional tower case at a time when competitors are experimenting with bolder designs. There's nothing wrong with that if you want a high-end home PC that can moonlight as a TV and a digital video recorder, but the home-theater crowd will likely prefer a more stylish design.
Exactly how you feel about the design of the HP Media Center PC m300y depends on whether you want a PC or a convergence device for your home theater. Aside from a few miscues, the HP Media Center PC is an attractive, highly functional PC for a home office or a dorm room. But like other PC-based Media Center designs, it won't be welcome in most living rooms or entertainment centers because it still looks the part of a PC rather than a home-theater component.
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The first thing you'll notice about the m300y is the shiny, black-plastic front panel, which is crammed with conveniently located features. Below a pair of optical drives sits the Media Center PC's row of mode buttons for controlling Windows XP Media Center functions, a six-in-one media-card reader, and a floppy drive. A flip-down cover hides ports for FireWire, USB 2.0, composite video, and S-Video, plus a headphone jack. On the top of the case is a hatch for HP's dockable Photosmart cameras.
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The m300y's feature-packed interior leaves no room to upgrade, let alone maneuver.
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At least the wireless keyboard and mouse help cut down on cable clutter.
Beneath this slick facade, however, the m300y's design can be more problematic. The case opens easily enough--you undo two thumbscrews and yank the side off--but the squat minitower is so loaded with drives and PCI cards that there's virtually no room inside to maneuver. The DVR card (with coaxial cable input), Creative Labs Audigy 2 sound card, and the modem occupy all three PCI slots. The manufacturers will tell you that Media Center PCs aren't really designed for upgrades anyway, but we don't know many people with an Ethernet jack next to their TV. If you want to install a PCI adapter for wireless networking, as we did during testing, you'll need to deal with this cramped case and sacrifice one of the installed cards (the most likely candidate is the modem).
There's another downside to all these features. By the time you hook up the power, VGA, speaker, and coaxial cables, as well as the infrared receiver for the Media Center remote and attached IR blaster (if you have a separate set-top box), you have a tangle of cables. At least HP has ditched the old-fashioned keyboard and mouse for an excellent wireless tandem that reduces cable clutter somewhat and is also far more usable.
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Couch potatoes will want more screen real estate than a 17-inch LCD provides.
This year, Media Center PCs, including HP's 300 series, will be available in a much wider range of configurations and prices. The m300y model we tested is, in all respects, a high-end system that is fully configurable and available online and at retail kiosks. HP also plans to offer three retail models that are not configurable: the m370n, m380n, and m390n, with prices starting at $999. (The HP Media Center PC 800 series we reviewed last year is being phased out.)
Though it has many entertainment features, at heart the m300y that we tested is still a serious PC with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 chip, 512MB of memory, and a 200GB hard drive that should leave plenty of room for both Microsoft Office and BBC America's The Office. The version we tested included the Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 with 128MB of memory, but HP will also offer the m300y with the FX 5600 for $50 more.
If you do somehow run short on drive space, you can burn recorded TV shows to DVD using the 4X/2.4X DVD+R/RW drive. The second optical drive is a 16X DVD-ROM.
The long list of entertainment features includes both ones you might find on any high-end PC, such as a Creative Labs Audigy 2 sound card and Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers, and others designed specifically for Media Center, including the TV tuner/DVR card and a nice remote control with a USB receiver and an IR blaster. The wireless keyboard also includes controls for Windows Media Center.
Our m300y test system included a matching 17-inch LCD, the HP f1703, whose height-adjustable screen also tilts easily on a sturdy hinge. It's a beautiful PC monitor, but it is simply too small for TV or other Windows Media Center applications, which are designed to be used from 10 feet away. The video quality seems vastly improved, thanks to a lot of work on Microsoft's part, but live and recorded TV still exhibited noticeable flaws on our test system, especially with fast-moving scenes such as flapping wings or fine-detail images such as hair.
In addition to Microsoft Works, HP's Media Center PC package includes a variety of programs for video editing and DVD authoring and playback, including ArcSoft Creator, ArcSoft ShowBiz DVD, Stomp's RecordNow, and WinDVD SE.
Because of the intensive demands of Media Center tasks such as displaying and recording TV, burning DVDs, and video editing, Microsoft has set some strict guidelines for its hardware partners. Accordingly, our HP Media Center PC m300y test system had a high-end configuration with a 3.2GHz Pentium 4, 512MB of 333MHz DDR SDRAM, and a roomy 200GB hard drive. Though it trailed other 3.2GHz P4 systems we've tested and fell a hair behind Dell's 2.8GHz Media Center PC on SysMark2002, the m300y still has enough oomph for Media Center apps. The most likely culprit for the m300y's somewhat disappointing application performance is the 333MHz memory (PC2700). The other 3.2GHz systems we've tested featured suitably high-end 400MHz DDR memory (PC3200). For $40 more, you can upgrade the m300y's memory from PC2700 to PC3200; you should see a big performance boost.
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 also include capabilities for powerful 3D gaming. With its Nvidia GeForce FX 5200 graphics card, the m300y 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 Nvidia's GeForce FX 5900 line. The bottom line: Most games will play on the Media Center just fine, but high screen resolutions and advanced graphics features will slow it noticeably.