The Asus Eee Box B206, priced at around £310, is essentially a netbook without the screen. Under the bonnet, it uses many of the same components, including an Intel Atom processor. Preloaded with Asus' own media-centre software and with only an HDMI port for video output, the B206 is clearly designed to sit next to your HD Ready living-room TV and feed it your digital photos, videos and music tracks.
The B206 is seriously small. In fact, it's so small that you can use a special bracket supplied in the box to bolt it onto the back of any display with standard VESA fixings on the rear. This means you can use it to instantly turn any TV or monitor into an all-in-one-style PC.
This feat of miniaturisation has been accomplished through the use of netbook components, including a 1.6GHz Intel Atom processor. Asus has also included a decently sized 160GB hard drive and a dedicated ATI Mobility Radeon HD 3450 on-board graphics chip to help out the Atom chip with video decoding.
Despite its small size, the B206 is relatively well specified when it comes to connectivity options. There are four USB ports (although one of these is used by the PC's remote-control infrared receiver), an HDMI port, an SD card slot and a stereo audio output that doubles as a digital audio output when used with the small adaptor included in the box. There's also decent wireless support, with both wireless-n Wi-Fi and Bluetooth present.
Like most netbooks, the system comes with 1GB of RAM and runs Windows XP Home instead of Vista. As XP Home doesn't include Microsoft's Media Center software, Asus has added its own media-centre software, Eee Cinema. This software is easy to use and works well with the included remote to let you play back your music, photos and video files via your TV or monitor.
Since the B206 draws just 20W of power when its running, it's much more environmentally friendly than a full-blown media-centre PC.
The biggest problem with the B206 is its lack of raw power. The 1.6GHz Atom chip really hasn't got the grunt to handle high-definition video. In theory, the ATI graphics chip should be able to step in and help out the processor with video decoding, but, in reality, this doesn't seem to work too often, presumably because its hardware video-decoding features aren't supported by most software codec packages.
The result is that, although DVD and standard-definition video files play beautifully, the machine struggles to cope with 720p HD video, let alone 1080p 'Full HD' files. For example, although the B206 just about managed to play some sample 720p files in the Xvid and DivX formats, it was quite obviously struggling with the workload and dropping frames. When it came to a Matroska 720p file in the H.264 format, the B206 just couldn't cope. It's not surprising, therefore, that 1080p video is a no-no.
As you would expect, the B206's PCMark05 and 3DMark06 scores were very low. In PCMark05, it clocked up a result of just 1,585, while scoring a measly 1,242 in 3DMark06. Those scores might have been something to get excited about in 1999, but not these days. This sluggishness is felt elsewhere too, as the B206 is relatively slow to load applications like Internet Explorer or the pre-loaded Open Office applications.
We're big fans of the Asus Eee Box B206's small form factor, but its lack of performance power is a major hindrance, especially considering Asus has designed it for a media-centre role. If you want to get high-definition media to your TV, you'd be better off with a dedicated, not to mention cheaper, media streamer, such as the Popcorn Hour A-110 or HDX 1000. The B206 might, however, be worth a look for those who are not yet into HD video and just want a simple, multi-purpose box to let them view media, surf the Web and maybe play undemanding games on their TV.
Edited by Charles Kloet