Intel promised a lot with its Viiv multimedia PC concept, but very few of the PCs that use the platform have delivered. The Aspire iDea 500 is among the most exciting Viiv prospects we've seen, incorporating all the components that make Viiv interesting in a package stylish enough to co-exist with your current multimedia equipment.
The Aspire iDea 500 is a real looker. It has the same approximate dimensions as a standard DVD player, so unlike many Media Center PCs it can sit below your TV without looking completely out of place. The only thing that gives away its PC heritage is the Acer logo at the left side of the front panel. The rest of the front section is fairly understated. The centre section is home to a slot-loading DVD drive, which helps maintain the minimalist aesthetic, and to the right are a set of control buttons and an LED display panel that relays information about the PC's current state.
There's a blue backlit power button that wraps around the far left edge of the front of the PC, and the bottom half of the front panel is home to a silver flap, which when open reveals a row of input/output ports. There is a pair of 5mm headphone and microphone jacks, component video and S-Video ports, two USB ports, a CompactFlash reader, a 5-in-1 memory card reader and a 4-pin Firewire port. These are all easily accessible, barring the uppermost USB port, which is not ideal for connecting bulky USB devices due to its close proximity to the catch on the panel flap.
The rear of the Aspire iDea looks nothing like a typical PC. The Wi-Fi aerial is a feature that's increasingly popular on desktop PCs, but the remainder of the rear panel is more reminiscent of a high-end audio-visual device. We'll cover the list of ports available here later in the Features section.
The Aspire iDea has a solid technological foundation. Acer has chosen an Intel Core Duo T2600 CPU and 1GB of RAM as the primary components, both of which sit atop a motherboard using the Intel 945GM chipset. This means the iDea is Intel Viiv-certified, which essentially means it's a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC with seven-channel surround sound and a dual-core central processing unit (CPU) to handle media without struggling.
Inside, the iDea reminds us more of a laptop than a PC. The case can be removed by undoing a set of three screws but inside there's a complete lack of slots for upgrading the components. There are no PCI or AGP ports, no memory module slots, and no drive bays. Aside from the standard-sized 3.5-inch hard drive and the slot-loading DVD rewriter there's nothing you can upgrade yourself. Once you buy the iDea, you're stuck with its default specification.
Happily, the solid base specification means most users shouldn't need to upgrade. The 250GB hard drive is large enough to store well over 200 hours of high-quality video footage, which can be recorded via the iDea's dual hybrid TV tuners. These are twin digital Freeview receivers and twin analogue TV receivers, so you can record and watch (via picture-in-picture) two programmes simultaneously.
Getting the iDea's pictures onto a TV or other display couldn't be easier. It's got an embarrassment of graphics input/output ports, including two Scart output ports, composite and component video inputs, standard aerial IO, and DVI and HDMI outputs. The latter two are capable of outputting high-definition video protected by HDCP encryption. The front of the computer also has a set of composite video ports that let you quickly connect a digital camcorder or games console, hidden behind the silver flap.
Audiophiles will be pleased at the inclusion of a full set of optical and coaxial audio output ports, and the PC also features an integrated FM radio receiver so you can enjoy standard FM broadcasts as well as the DAB-like selection of stations (broadcast via Freeview) courtesy of the TV tuner card.
The iDea has a number of other clever tricks up its sleeve, including a wireless keyboard with an integrated mouse touchpad. Unlike many wireless keyboards, the iDea's doesn't need an external dongle that connects via a USB port -- the receiver is neatly positioned inside the chassis. And because it's a radio frequency (RF) model, you don't need to have direct line-of-sight with the PC for it to work. You can watch a scary movie from behind a sofa with the keyboard in your lap and you'll still have full control over the iDea, or perhaps more usefully, you can control it while it's fully hidden in a cabinet. The PC also ships with a standard Windows Media Center Edition remote control -- though this uses an infrared beam so you'll have to point it directly at the PC.
Finally, the iDea has four USB ports (two at the front, two at the rear), one Firewire port -- which is inaccessibly positioned at the rear of the system, a single LAN port and a Wi-Fi adaptor with an aerial that protrudes approximately 60mm above the top of the PC, and 25mm away from the back of it. This is worth noting if you're planning on installing the iDea in a cramped space -- as is the fact that the iDea 500 has vents at both sides that must remain unobstructed.
The Acer Aspire iDea 500 offers strong if hardly neck-breaking performance. Its dual-core CPU helped it rack up a PCMark 2005 score of 2,969. It's obviously not as quick as the all-conquering Mesh Xtreme FX60, which scored 6,302, or as slow as the HP dx5150, which scored 2,525, but it's perfectly adequate for a Media Center PC. Graphics performance was a disappointment, but we expected this from its integrated graphics controller as provided by the Intel chipset. It's simply not any good at running games, so if you're after a machine that can handle 3D graphics, you should look elsewhere.
One pleasing aspect of its performance is its quiet operation. The Aspire iDea 500 runs at a claimed 23db during idle, and at 28db when running Windows XP Media Center Edition at full load. This is barely noticeable when watching films during quiet scenes.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide