In what will come as a surprising move to many, Altech Computers is the first Australian vendor to announce a Blu-ray playback device. Bagging "first in Australia" bragging rights is the Maestro Pro 2 media centre PC, which Altech promises will be available "through major retailers and specialist hi-fi stores in June, with a RRP of AU$3999."
The Maestro's core symphony is its Blu-ray drive, which is manufactured by Samsung. For the uninitiated, Blu-ray is one of the two next-generation DVD formats currently fighting it out to replace regular DVD discs (more information can be found here). The key attraction boasted by both formats is their increased capacity (Blu-ray currently comes in 25GB and 50GB flavours; HD-DVD in 15GB and 30GB), enabling the storage and playback of high-definition movies at full resolution.
It's not just a Blu-ray player though; the Maestro Pro 2 offers up many other media centre features. These include dual HDTV TV tuners, dual 250GB hard drives for storing all of your recordings, 7.1 channel analog audio outputs, a digital (SPDIF) audio output and optional 802.11a/b/g Wi-Fi. It even comes with a one month free trial of iceguide, which is easily one of the most expansive electronic program guides available in Australia.
Powering the machine's features is a dual-core Pentium D 930 (3GHz) processor and 2GB of DDR2 memory, which should provide enough grunt for most tasks.
The Pro 2 is aesthetically very similar to previous Maestro products, with a design that mimics those consumer electronics components that are typically found in the living room. Its sleek exterior -- which comes in both black and silver -- and LCD display should fit into most lounge rooms with ease, but it might be slightly oversized for some wall units.
Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) comes preinstalled on the unit, and manipulating the device from a couch is handled seamlessly using the bundled infra-red Microsoft MCE keyboard and remote control. The Microsoft keyboard and remote were both designed specifically for living room use, and are of much higher quality than the generic offerings provided by other vendors.
While it's great to see Altech being innovative and at the forefront of the next generation of DVD technologies, it's difficult to overlook the fact that, currently, there isn't a single piece of Blu-ray (or HD-DVD, for that matter) content available for purchase. What's more, studios aren't even able to give a rough estimate as to when said content will arrive.
Another issue to be aware of is that, once Microsoft finally releases Windows Vista next year, Windows MCE will effectively be obsolete as most versions of Vista will include a media centre interface.
The Pro 2 is a highly capable machine overall, but its sales will undoubtedly be hindered by the fact that next-generation DVD media/content is still a long way from becoming a reality for Australian consumers. Further, it may be unwise to jump head first into the Blu-ray camp so early in the piece, since the format war with HD-DVD is still, for the most part, undecided.