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Alienware DHS-2 Media Center review: Alienware DHS-2 Media Center

Its first attempt at a Media Center PC was bulky and overpriced, but with the DHS-2 Media Center, Alienware moves closer to getting it right. Sacrificing expandability for form factor, the DHS-2 is mostly a fair deal that will slide right in with the rest of your A/V rack.

Asa Somers
6 min read
Alienware DHS-2 Media Center
Following the debut of its multipurpose DHS-301 Media Center PC, which brought PC functionality to a rack-mounted DVR system, Alienware has expanded the DHS line with the new DHS-2 Media Center, a svelte, more powerful version of the original. Designed expressly for the living room with its slimline silver case, the DHS-2 Media Center improves on its forebear with a faster processor, a bigger hard drive, and a few additional bells and whistles. Although the DHS-2 provides better value than its predecessor, the Editors' Choice award-winning WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410 is a much better deal.

The DHS-2 Media Center comes in an attractive silver case with black trim that looks at home with other A/V componentry and measures only 4 inches high. A small digital display in the upper-right corner provides time, date, and system info. A flip-down door along the bottom hides front-mounted inputs (audio and video, FireWire, and two USB 2.0 are among them) and a 7-in-1 multimedia-card reader.


Alienware DHS-2 Media Center

The Good

Slim rack-mount design; dual TV tuners; wireless keyboard and mouse have 30-foot range; very quiet operation.

The Bad

No room for expansion; no third-party audio-card option; many will need two cable boxes to take advantage of two tuners.

The Bottom Line

You'll sacrifice upgradability and pay a little more than you might for similar specs, but if you're into the MCE OS and want it in your living room, Alienware's DHS-2, with its good looks and slew of A/V ports, is up to the task.

Our test system uses a 3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 530 processor (at the time of this writing, a free upgrade from the 2.8GHz CPU) and 512MB of RAM, and it includes a 160GB hard drive, built-in wireless Ethernet, and a multiformat, double-layer DVD burner. You may want more storage space than the single hard drive it offers, but otherwise, for the purpose of using the DHS-2 Media Center for passive home entertainment, we expect that this configuration will serve you well. A low-end 128MB ATI Radeon X300 PCI Express graphics card and integrated audio are unfortunately the DHS-2 Media Center's only multimedia subsystem options, not that we would recommend spending more for a high-end graphics card to play PC games from your coffee table.

It's plain that Alienware doesn't encourage home tinkering; the case is screwed shut with two Phillips screws and two torque screws. With torque wrench in hand, we opened the box and found a customized motherboard layout with two riser cards. One card provides three PCI slots, two of which are occupied by cards that provide the rear-panel audio connectors. The third slot is unoccupied but useless because it doesn't have an accompanying bracket slot on the back of the case. The other riser card connects to the motherboard's x16 PCI Express slot so that you can use more than just a half-height card inside the slim case. You could perhaps upgrade the graphics card, but there is limited clearance behind the PCI Express slot, so it would need to be a short one. It would also need to draw enough power from the slot itself; there are no free connectors from the power supply.

We don't fault Alienware for making this type of PC a fairly static design. Ideally, it's supposed to be stacked up on top of your A/V gear and left alone. Alienware has configured the DHS-2 with two TV tuners (and at the time of this writing, the company was offering the second one as a free upgrade), which allows you to record one show while simultaneously watching another, at least in theory. Support for multiple tuners is a new feature of Media Center Edition 2005 PCs, but taking advantage of the dual-tuning capability is cumbersome for many, because you'll need two signal sources (two cable boxes, for example), unless you're one of the relatively few who has an unscrambled cable signal and can bypass a cable box altogether. All multimedia PCs suffer from this problem; scrambled signals render the channel-guide software useless and make using bundled remote controls dependent on inelegant IR blasters. Don't blame Alienware, blame FCC regulations. Once plug-and-play TV technology becomes prevalent, the idea of a media PC may be a more fully realized concept.

The included Gyration wireless RF keyboard and mouse work at distances of up to 30 feet, allowing for comfortable operation from the couch. (We recommend a very big display if you want to see a Word document or a Web page from that distance.) The mouse features gyroscopic motion-sensing technology that allows you to use it away from the desktop, more like a standard remote control. These components work well for channel surfing and menu navigation, and even light Web browsing wouldn't be a problem, but they obviously don't lend themselves to playing PC games.

The full complement of audio and video connections on the DHS-2's rear panel includes a host of RCA audio and video inputs, 7.1-channel surround-sound inputs, optical audio, two FireWire ports, a pair of USB 2.0 inputs, and dual IR-blaster outputs. Alienware includes IR-blaster cables, as well as a set of high-end Belkin Pure/AV component-video cables. Our system did not include a display, although Alienware offers three large-format LCDs and a 30-inch LCD TV as options. Even counting a set of adequate Logitech X-530 5.1 speakers, our system still came in shy of $2,000. You can certainly find cheaper PCs with more-robust features, even with Media Center. But few systems on the market provide the slim form factor, which holds a certain design-minded appeal.

The DHS-2 Media Center performed about as expected, given its processor and memory. Other Media Center-based PCs that scored higher on our tests than this one had more-powerful specs, but they're all also traditional desktop towers, so you're more likely to use them for traditional PC-related tasks. Still, the application performance scores for the DHS-2 Media Center prove that it will be able to handle basic computing chores. We wouldn't recommend trying to play Doom 3 from your couch with the Gyration input devices, but it might be comforting to know that the DHS-2 Media Center can at least play older 3D games at respectable frame rates.

Alienware backs the DHS-2 with a standard year of 24/7 toll-free phone support and onsite service. You can upgrade to two years of coverage for $195 or three years for $265. The company has really beefed up its Web support services, too. You'll find a full knowledge base, along with customer support forums, a driver-download area, and live chat support.

Application performance
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, 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 gaming performance (in fps)
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF  
Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,024x768  

To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1,024x768 tests and are set to 4X and 8X, respectively, during our 1,600x1,200 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal provides an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
Alienware DHS-2 Media Center
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.0GHz Intel P4 530; Intel 915P chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X300 (PCIe); Seagate ST3160023AS 160GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Cyberpower Media Center Ultra Edition
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Via K8T800 Pro chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (AGP); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
iBuyPower Media XP
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.4GHz Intel P4 550; Intel 915G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X300 (PCIe); WDC WD2000JD-98HBB0 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
ZT Media Center X3113
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Celeron D 335; SIS 661FX chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX 4000 (AGP); Seagate ST380011A 80GB ATA/100 7,200rpm

Alienware DHS-2 Media Center

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Support 7