WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410
If you're looking for a living room-friendly Media Center PC to anchor your home theater, fix your gaze upon the WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410. It's a top-to-bottom home-theater system, complete with a rack-mount PC case, a 30-inch LCD HDTV, and . The PC itself costs $999 (after a $200 mail-in rebate), and the LCD will run you another $999 (after a $100 mail-in rebate). The configuration and total system cost ($1,998) closely resemble that of the similarly priced , with one big exception: the Alienware doesn't come with a 30-inch LCD. Indeed, the PowerSpec MCE 410 represents an incredible bargain, one with more pleasant surprises than unfortunate compromises.
For starters, there's the sexy rack-mount case, which looks right at home among stereo components. It's mostly black, with a large silver volume dial and a digital status display. The latter is a nifty perk: it tells you what mode you're in and what channel you're on, and it gives the elapsed time of the movie you're playing and other context-sensitive information--all in big blue letters and numbers. It looks cool, too.
Other front-accessible goodies include a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a four-pin FireWire port, line-out and microphone jacks, playback control buttons (in case the remote goes missing), and a 7-in-1 media-card reader. All of these items hide behind a pair of fold-down doors. Around back, the MCE 410 provides all the usual expansion ports, including four USB 2.0 and one six-pin FireWire, plus RCA stereo line-in and line-out jacks and optical and coaxial S/PDIF-out jacks. Inside the low-rise, densely packed case, there's more room for expansion than you'd expect: a full-height PCI slot (mounted sideways via a riser card), two half-height PCI slots, and a pair of open RAM sockets.
Stocked with a 3.0GHz Pentium 4 530 processor, 512MB of 400MHz DDR SDRAM, and Intel's 915P chipset, the MCE 410 has sufficient power to run Microsoft's MCE 2005 operating system smoothly. It also includes a 160GB hard drive--smaller than we'd like, but fair given the price--and a multiformat, double-layer DVD burner. Hard-core gamers may take issue with the 64MB ATI Radeon X300LS graphics card, which lacks the muscle for visually demanding titles like Half-Life 2, but the MCE 410 really isn't intended for hard-core gaming. You could theoretically swap in a faster card, but it has to be small enough (that is, half-height) to fit the case.
Similarly, the integrated 8-channel audio chip may displease audiophiles who insist on Audigy 2-caliber hardware, but we found it more than sufficient for cranking out loud, living room-worthy sound. Same goes for the bundled Altec Lansing VS 4121 three-piece speaker system, though this is where the size of the living room comes into play. The trio can easily fill smaller spaces, but if you're outfitting a large room, you'll want a more powerful speaker system--and probably a surround sound system at that.
Missing from the equation is Wi-Fi, which would help users who don't have a wired Ethernet connection easily accessible behind their entertainment centers. That's one area where the Alienware DHS-2 has the advantage. Also to our considerable dismay, WinBook supplied a wired mouse and keyboard--just not logical for a system clearly designed for couch-based computing. Thankfully, the company plans to switch to wireless components in the near future, though it wouldn't say when or whether the system's price would increase as a result.
Given its relatively low price, we didn't expect much from the PowerSpec LCD, a 30-inch LCD TV/monitor. To WinBook's credit, it's a sharp monitor, a colorful HDTV, and a surprisingly versatile set overall. It features a 15:9 aspect ratio and 1,280x768 native resolution, meaning it can display full 720p HDTV. A pair of nonremovable, 10-watt speakers flank the screen, so you could use the Altec Lansing's satellites as rear speakers (cord length permitting) and enjoy 4.1-channel surround sound.
The WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410 uses Aver Media's single-tuner UltraTV 1500 MCE tuner card. If you want to view HD shows, you'll need to connect a cable or satellite box directly to the TV. The sample HD clips we downloaded to test the PowerSpec LCD looked stellar, and the display also has all the inputs and outputs the first-time home-theater buyer is likely to need. Even standard-def TV looked bright and colorful, though perhaps a touch on the soft side. Our only real complaint with the PowerSpec LCD was its 600:1 contrast ratio and corresponding black-level performance, which we'd classify as mediocre. But at no time while watching our sample movies and TV shows did we ever stop and think, "This doesn't look good." For an entry-level HDTV, the PowerSpec LCD looks great.