The first batch of PCs were unwieldy, unattractive and noisy things that were in no way suitable for use in the living room. Today, the situation is less bleak, thanks in no small part to devices like the Asus A33.
This Media Center PC seems to have all the boxes checked: it's designed for the living room, it's good looking, it's fairly quiet, and most interestingly, it comes with a built in 300W amplifier that with the right set of speakers should get you an ASBO in no time at all. It's available at the end of March for a price of around £1,015.
The A33 is one of the best-looking PCs on the market -- Media Center or otherwise. Reason being, it looks nothing like a computer. It resembles a DVD player first and foremost, but doffs its cap towards component hi-fi systems, thanks to the enormous volume knob on the far right side.
The biggest indication that it's a PC is the Windows Vista sticker on the left. Remove this, and the only remaining clue is the SideShow-style display on the far left side. This 64mm (2.5-inch) auxillary screen works in conjunction with your main TV, displaying information on volume, bass and treble levels.
Other nice touches include a slot-loading DVD drive, which can be noisy when inserting or ejecting discs, but the absence of a tray helps keep the front of the chassis very clean. Below the drive bay, there's a flip-down panel that secludes a host of input-output ports. There are USB, 4-pin Firewire, composite video, a 6.35mm headphone jack, and a memory card that accepts most popular formats.
Nerds will need a change of underwear once they take a look at the rear of the A33 because it's home to a gazillion ports. It looks more like the control deck of a Airbus A380 than a PC, but that's a good thing, honestly. It has component, composite, S-Video and HDMI video output ports, but no DVI or D-Sub video output -- which only highlights its purpose as an under-the-telly PC.
Audio ports are in abundance, also. There are six discrete audio channel ports linked to the internal 300W amplifier, so you can connect your existing speakers and subwoofer directly to the system without using an external amplifier. If you don't have existing speakers, we'd advise you to get a set of high-performance passive speakers to really make the most of it.
Asus' decision to divert power to external speakers as well as to the internal components is commendable, but it lends itself to all sorts of heat issues. Thankfully, the A33 appears to be well ventilated. It sits on raised struts, which allow air to flow through the system. There are also vents at the rear, and at the top of the chassis, so as long as you don't place another object on top of it or obscure any vents, it won't burn your home to a crisp.
Asus has taken the less trendy option of using an AMD chipset and CPU in its A33 Media Center PC. In this case it's the AMD 690 chipset and the X2 4000 CPU. The latter is a dual-core model clocked at 2.1GHz, which isn't so fast that it needs loads of noisy cooling, but isn't so slow that it will cause your media to judder or skip. In combination with the monstrous 4GB of RAM, it makes a good foundation for a PC of this ilk.
The A33 suffers the same graphical limitations as any Media Center PC in that it uses a low-end graphics card. Again, a high-end GPU would require more cooling from a fan or cooling assembly that generates more noise, so it's understandable, if a tad regrettable, that Asus has opted for an ATI Radeon Xpress 1250. As a result, the A33 isn't capable of playing demanding games, and it's recommended video playback mode is only 1080i or 720p.
All the best Media Center PCs come with a TV tuner, and the A33 is no exception. It uses two hybrid tuners that can either display analogue or digital broadcasts. This is great because you can run them in analogue mode if your home aerial isn't good enough to receive digital Freeview TV. What's more, Media Center will let you watch one channel while you record three others simultaneously.