The trouble with the first Media Center PC from HP is that it's really a thinly disguised, high-end desktop in a standard tower case. Windows XP Media Center--the operating system that Microsoft designed specifically for entertainment-oriented PCs--begs for more creative hardware, and that's precisely what it gets from Alienware. For its Navigator Pro system, Alienware abducted Shuttle's X PC SB51G design, a squat little box reminiscent of the Apple's G4 Cube. As impressed as we are with the number of features packed into this small case, the Navigator Pro nonetheless gives reason for concern. For one, the system runs hot, increasing the potential for a processor meltdown. College students and others who have an obvious need for a PC and TV-in-one that fits in a tight space--and looks good doing it--will find the Navigator Pro enticing, but Microsoft really needs to sort out the copy-protection and compatibility issues before this or any other Media Center PC will be attractive to a broader audience. Alienware's Media Center PC is available in two versions: Navigator and Navigator Pro. Each system's design is identical, but the Navigator Pro that we tested included a slightly faster processor, a larger hard drive, and a DVD burner. The systems' only other drive bay is occupied by a multiformat flash card reader.
Can go where big CPU towers cannot.
One of the chief challenges for Media Center PCs in general (and other convergence devices as well) is that few people want a full-sized PC next to their TV or stereo system. The Alienware Navigator Pro partly addresses this issue. The PC's glossy black finish and compact dimensions (7.4 by 7.9 by 11.8 inches) make it look more at home with your entertainment center or home stereo system. Nonetheless, Alienware missed a few details crucial to using a PC in, say, your living room. Like the HP Media Center, the Navigator lacks a wireless keyboard and mouse and doesn't include built-in wireless networking. Without built-in wireless, you'll need to either string an Ethernet cable to your entertainment center or purchase a USB adapter (or one of the various bridges on the market that connect wired Ethernet to a Wi-Fi, phone-line, or power-line network).
|USB 2.0 and FireWire up front.||Media card reader welcomes all types.|
Unfortunately, the Navigator's compact case design limits your expansion options. Like the two drive bays, the Navigator's single AGP slot and PCI slots are all occupied. Not that additional, empty slots would be an option--when you remove the thumbscrews and pop off the case, the internal components are so tightly packed that upgrades would be arduous. The cube has another drawback: it gets hot. To save space, the processor lacks a cooling fan or a heatsink, and despite the case's air-cooling measures, the Navigator Pro ran hotter than typical PCs. Only time will tell whether the extra heat will cause more serious problems.
A DVD burner is a necessity for any Media Center PC.
The Navigator Pro's most noteworthy features, however, are the ones tailored to Microsoft's Media Center applications. The TV tuner card combined with XP Media Center's free Tribune Media Services programming guide and DVR features let the system function much like a TiVo. The matching black, 22-inch monitor, NEC's MultiSync FE2111SB-BK, provides the screen real estate that you'll want for watching TV or navigating the Media Center interface from afar using the included remote. (The package also includes an IR blaster, in case you need to control a set-top box.) TV images looked soft and somewhat muted on the included monitor, but we suspect that the culprit is the tuner card or the Media Center software rather than the monitor and graphics card since DVD movies looked sharp on the same monitor. DVDs sound great, too, thanks to the Navigator Pro's included Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 surround-sound speakers.
|The remote control lets you kick back.||You'll get big sound from the Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speakers.|
You can burn a DVD, but you first must exit the Media Center window and hunt for the files on your hard drive. Making matters worse, the proprietary DVR-MS file will play on only other PCs with the forthcoming Windows Media Player 9.0 and not on DVD players (in our anecdotal tests using the Windows Media Player 9.0 Release Candidate 1, however, we were not able to play them back). Memo to Microsoft: Wake up. The competition for the Media Center PC isn't ordinary PCs with DVD recorders; it's standalone DVD recorders, such as the Panasonic DMR-HS2. Based on our experience with previous Alienware PCs, we expected good things from the Navigator Pro, and it indeed delivered. To gauge its performance in CNET Labs' tests, we compared the Navigator Pro to the HP Media Center PC and the Sony VAIO PCV-RZ16G--both of which have very similar specs and are designed specifically for digital audio and video uses. We also threw in a standard desktop with identical specs, the midrange Dell Dimension 4550. For such a small integrated system, the Navigator Pro really packs a punch.
As its SysMark2002 scores demonstrate, the Navigator Pro is more than capable of handling everyday computing tasks, despite its multimedia focus. Across the board, it scored higher than its competitors--about 7 percent faster than the HP Media Center on SysMark2002 overall.
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
Alienware found a way to put a high-end graphics card within its system, and this will end up benefiting gamers the most. Using an Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200, the Navigator Pro's graphics performance was outstanding. All recent games will run well, even at high resolutions.
3D graphics performance (Longer bars indicate better performance)
To measure 3D graphics performance, CNET Labs uses Futuremark's 3DMark 2001 Pro. We use 3DMark to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8 (DX8) interface at both 16-bit 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)
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-end to high-end graphics subsystems. Quake III performance is reported in frames per second (fps).
Alienware Navigator Pro
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200 64MB; WDC WD1200JB-00CRA1, 1200GB, ATA/100, 7200rpm
Dell Dimension 4550
Windows XP Home; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 Ti 4200 64MB; Western Digital WD120JB-75CRA0 120GB 7,200rpm
Sony VAIO PCV-RZ16G
Windows XP Home; 2.666GHz Intel P4; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440 64MB; IBM IC35L120AVVA07 120GB 7,200rpm
HP Media Center PC
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 420 64MB; Seagate ST3120023A 120GB 7,200rpm The Navigator Pro ships with an average one-year parts-and-labor warranty, which you can extend for another year or two for an added cost. For repairs, you have two options: send the machine back to Alienware to be fixed or have a new part shipped and swap it in yourself. Alienware doesn't offer onsite service for its Navigator line of Media Center PCs, but its in-house technicians are standing by the phone 24/7.
To help you get up and running with your Navigator PC and Media Center OS, Alienware includes a full-color start-up poster specific to the small-format Navigator case. The poster clearly explains how to set up your system and it includes Media Center-specific tasks such as hooking up the IR blaster for your remote and connecting the system to your cable or satellite box. A Microsoft manual is included in the box for its Media Center OS. Alienware also provides ample support information on its Web site in the form of FAQ pages, data recovery and upgrade tutorials, and message boards where you can interact with tech support as well as with other Alienware customers. A user forum page has been created to handle issues specific to Navigator PCs.