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ABS Media Center PC 8400 review: ABS Media Center PC 8400

ABS Media Center PC 8400

Bill O'Brien
8 min read
Don't be frightened by our ABS Media Center PC 8400 test system's nearly $6,000 price. About 65 percent of that cost pays for its 30-inch NEC LCD--ABS also offers less expensive monitor alternatives for its Media Center PC that bring the price down to the mid-$2,000 range. Monitor aside, ABS packs its Media Center PC with top-notch components and peripherals, but Microsoft's Media Center OS still needs to work out some compatibility issues. Until you can play recorded TV shows on any DVD player, we suggest waiting for a future update to the operating system. If you simply must own an all-in-one entertainment/computing package now, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better collection of hardware than what you see here. Rather than clutter the Media Center PC 8400's front panel with a bevy of buttons and controls, ABS stocks the system with three remote controls: the ubiquitous Media Center OS remote (you can't buy a Media Center PC without one), a remote for the huge 30-inch NEC LCD, and yet another for the Logitech speaker set. In the same vein, the wireless keyboard and mouse let you keep your distance while working. If you opt for a 30-inch NEC LCD like the one that accompanied our test system, you'll be able to work comfortably from about 10 feet away.

Three remotes are your first clue that this isn't a regular ol' PC.

A cornucopia of connections on the back panel.

The NEC display may look right at home on the wall opposite your couch, but the bulky midtower case isn't nearly as living-room ready. You'd have an easier time finding a spot for the small box that contains the Alienware Navigator Pro. Adding to the obtrusiveness of ABS's Media Center case are the red, digital LED thermometer at the base, letting you keep tabs on the temperature inside the case, and the cold-blue power-indicator light shining at the top.
This large case does offer you the luxury of dual optical drives in the form of DVD-R and DVD-ROM drives, as well as a universal media card reader. Strangely, this card reader is powered by USB and FireWire cables that run through the inside of the case and out an opening on an expansion slot cover, then connect to corresponding ports on the back panel. A cleaner design would connect the card reader directly to the motherboard.

The crowded tower leaves some room for expansion.

Two USB ports are up front, along with the IR panel for the Media Center remote.

The back panel offers a quartet of USB ports, a built-in LAN connector, a pair of free PCI slots, a 56Kbps modem, and six 3.5-inch internal bays. In addition, the included Hauppauge Freestyle card supplies the necessary connector for TV input. Fear not, peripheral owners: a FireWire port and two USB ports reside under a panel on the bottom of the front panel should you need some temporary connectivity.

Finally, an LCD that makes sense for a Media Center PC.
Our ABS Media Center test system's most noticeable feature is its NEC flat-panel display. Then again, it's hard to ignore a 30-inch LCD where both video and graphics are displayed in rich, vibrant colors. (Of course, Gateway trumps this display with the 42-inch plasma panel that it bundles with its Media Center PC.) We popped in The Lord of the Rings on wide-screen DVD (backed by thundering audio from the Logitech Z680 5.1 digital speakers) and soon forgot that we were using a PC.
While the hardware that ABS bundles with its Media Center PC is top-notch, Microsoft's Media Center OS isn't quite ready for prime time. Windows XP Media Center Edition presents a unified environment for media handling, but we encountered problems with the video display freezing when we switched between TV and DVD. We were forced to reboot--not exactly the ideal solution if you're watching, say, the final minute of the Super Bowl. And when we tried to view or delete video clips from the hard drive, we were presented more than once with blank pop-up menus. It took a few tries to realize that we were being asked to select between yes or no options, then it took some time to figure out which button represented which option. Once we deciphered the buttons, the next occurrence was more of an annoyance than a problem. ABS has given you a way around using the Media Center OS for watching DVDs, with the bundled Nvidia nDVD player. Use Nvidia's program, and you lose the remote-control feature, but you'll still have the wireless mouse to operate the onscreen DVD player controls.
Although this Media Center PC comes with a fast, 4X DVD burner, we get the distinct feeling that Microsoft doesn't want you to record any TV shows to disc. Should you do that and, gasp, give it to a friend to view, who knows what litigation awaits for you or Microsoft (ask DVD Jon from Norway). To keep out of legal hot water and remain friendly with Hollywood, we suspect that Microsoft has buried the DVD-burner software so far down in the OS that you'll need a headlamp to find it. And even if you do locate it and manage to record a TV show, the resulting DVD file format is proprietary to Microsoft Windows Media Player 9.0. You're out of luck if you want play a DVD you burned on a friend's DVD player. The easiest workaround is currently just to pick up an inexpensive DVD-authoring package, such as Ulead VideoStudio or Sonic Solutions' MyDVD for Windows XP Media Center Edition.

The Logitech Z680 speaker set booms.

A 4X DVD-R drive and a DVD-ROM drive.

Let us not forget that the ABS Media Center 8400 is also a 2.53GHz Pentium 4 PC with 512MB of DDR SDRAM--an impressive combo for any PC. We would have preferred a two-drive system for media handling--one drive for the raw video and the second as a destination for the final edited copy--but the single 120GB Western Digital hard drive does an adequate job with its 8MB cache. The GeForce4 MX440 graphics card isn't the fastest gaming engine in the world, but it will suffice for most of today's games.

Application performance
We put the ABS Media Center 8400 through its paces, and it came through with flying colors. Running 333MHz DDR SDRAM helped the system's overall application performance arrive nearly at the top of its class for 2.53GHz P4-based systems, even outperforming a number of PC800 RDRAM-based desktops with the same processor. This high level of performance is more than enough to run your apps, as well as edit and play all of your media.
Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark2002 Rating  
SysMark2002 Internet Content Creation Rating  
SysMark2002 Office Productivity Rating  
Alienware Navigator Pro Media Center (2.66GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
Sony VAIO PCV-RZ16G (2.666GHz Intel P4, 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz)
ABS Media Center PC 8400 (2.53GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
HP Media Center (2.66GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz)
PC Progress X-Theory Platinum (2.53GHz Intel P4, 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz)
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 and gaming performance
Microsoft claims that the Media Center PC system configuration requirements are very strict. As a result, you can't put just any old component into a Media Center PC. This explains why the configuration options for ABS's Media Center PC line are so limited. ABS chose to populate the Media Center line with an Nvidia GeForce4 MX440-based graphics engine, with no other upgrade options.
The MX440 is a strong performer and should be able to aptly handle nearly all of today's mainstream games and family titles. However, serious gamers who are looking to ABS's Media Center PC to play the latest game titles with all of the bells and whistles enabled are in for a disappointment: ABS's Media Center line just can't pump those pixels like systems with faster 3D graphics engines can, such as the Alienware Navigator Pro with its Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200-based graphics engine.
3D graphics performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Futuremark 3DMark 2001 Pro (16-bit color)  
Futuremark 3DMark 2001 Pro (32-bit color)  
PC Progress X-Theory Platinum (ATI Radeon 9700 Pro)
Alienware Navigator Pro Media Center (Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200)
Sony VAIO PCV-RZ16G (Nvidia GeForce4 MX440)
ABS Media Center PC 8400 (Nvidia GeForce4 MX440)
HP Media Center (Nvidia GeForce4 MX420)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark 2001 Pro Second Edition, Build 330. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8 (DX8) interface at both 16- 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)
Quake III Arena  
PC Progress X-Theory Platinum (ATI Radeon 9700 Pro)
Alienware Navigator Pro Media Center (Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200)
Sony VAIO PCV-RZ16G (Nvidia GeForce4 MX440)
ABS Media Center PC 8400 (Nvidia GeForce4 MX440)
HP Media Center (Nvidia GeForce4 MX420)
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- to high-end graphics subsystems. Quake III performance is reported in frames per second (fps).
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.

System configurations:
ABS Media Center PC 8400
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.53GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX440 64MB; Western Digital WD1200JB-00CRA-1, 120GB, ATA/100, 7,200rpm
Alienware Navigator Pro Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200 64MB; Western Digital WD1200JB-00CRA1, 120GB, ATA/100, 7,200rpm
HP Media Center PC
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX420 64MB; Seagate ST3120023A 120GB 7,200rpm
PC Progress X-Theory Platinum
Windows XP Home; 2.53GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; ATI Radeon 9700 Pro 128MB; Western Digital WD600BB-00CAA1 60GB 7,200rpm
Windows XP Home; 2.666GHz Intel P4; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX440 64MB; IBM IC35L120AVVA07 120GB 7,200rpm

ABS offers a long, three-year warranty with free, lifetime labor support. The policy includes toll-free access to technicians during West Coast business hours and onsite service via third-party 2Net for the first year. Better still, depot service covers the next two years. For a few dollars more, you can convert those last two years to onsite service, this time through third-party Bantec.
On the other hand, don't expect much from the ABS user manual, which is comprehensively generic. All of its information applies in some way to the PC 8400, but none of it is necessarily specific to the system. Online support is limited to a tech-support e-mail address and driver downloads. Thankfully, Microsoft provides a printed manual to help you get up and running with the new Media Center side of its Windows environment.

ABS Media Center PC 8400

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 8Performance 8Support 7