Unlike the other slim tower PCs we've reviewed this month, the Asus Essentio is the most unabashed about its intentions toward your living room. The combination of the small, high-gloss case, the HDMI video output, and the built-in wireless networking give you few reasons not to stick this little PC next to your television. At $649 you'll have to accept some sacrifices, namely to performance. But because the Asus Essentio does what it's supposed to do with only a few hiccups, we recommend it for anyone looking for a trim PC to put in the living room.
We've reviewed a number of slim tower PCs similar to the Essentio recently, HP's Pavilion Slimline s3500f, the Dell Inspiron 530s, and both the Acer Aspire X3200 and the Acer X1200. The Asus Essentio is more expensive than all of them, asking $70 more than the HP, its closest competition.
And to a certain extent, the Essentio can't offer as much as those systems. It's the only one out of that entire list with a more or less closed chassis. All of the others provide internal access like standard PCs, giving you the option to make upgrades to the memory, hard-drive storage, and expansion cards down the road. We suspect you could get inside the Asus Essentio (a warranty sticker on the back warns you from trying), but with no obvious access point, doing so runs the risk of putting the long-term integrity of the system in jeopardy. Some of you may find the closed chassis limiting, but we didn't mind it since Asus chose the components so wisely.
|Asus Essentio||HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f|
|CPU||2.2GHz Intel Penium Dual Core E2200||2.8GHz AMD Athlon X2 5400+|
|Memory||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM||4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM|
|Graphics||128MB (shared) Intel GMA 3500||128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150 SE|
|Hard drives||640GB, 7,200rpm||500GB, 7,200rpm|
|Optical drive||dual-layer DVD burner||dual-layer DVD burner|
|Networking||Gigabit Ethernet, 802.11n||802.11b/g and 10/100 Ethernet|
|Video outputs||VGA; HDMI||VGA|
|Operating system||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)||Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit)|
Unlike those competing systems, the Essentio provides us with almost everything we'd look for in a budget-priced home entertainment PC. The HDMI video and VGA video outputs let you connect this system to a wide variety of home displays from HD televisions to old CRT monitors. The roomy 640GB hard drive gives you plenty of local storage for your digital media. Finally, the high-speed, long-range 802.11n wireless networking adapter welcomes large data files, like streamed HD movies, and without the need to string extra networking cable around your home.
The other slim tower PCs share some of those features. The two $450 Acers have HDMI outputs, for example, and the HP system also comes with Wi-Fi and a large 500GB hard drive. But none except the Essentio has all three. The trade-off is that the Asus system loses a step on our performance benchmarks.
|Rendering Multiple CPUs||Rendering Single CPU|
Given its low-end, non-Core 2 Duo Intel CPU, we're not surprised by the Essentio's unimpressive test results. Its Photoshop scores are decent, but it trails behind the less-expensive HP system on our iTunes encoding test, as well as our multitasking and Cinebench rendering tests. None of these systems are suitable for gaming, and if you're in need of serious digital media editing you're looking in the wrong product category. There's no arguing, though, that of its peers, the Asus Essentio is not as fast.
We're actually OK with that, because as mentioned, the Essentio does things those systems can't. We admit we were concerned whether the slower performance would hinder HD video playback, but after watching a full-screen, 1080p trailer for Transporter 3, our fears were allayed. Playback was smooth and clear, with no hitches or dropped frames.
Instead, our one complaint about the video output is that getting the proper resolution and aspect ratio can be a challenge. The system won't support a 30-inch computer LCD and its 2,560x1,536 resolution over HDMI, instead defaulting to 1,280x800. That's fine, as our hunch is that most potential buyers would be more likely to connect the Essentio to, at most, a 24-inch LCD, whose native 1,920x1,200 resolution it can handle.
We had better luck connecting it via HDMI to a 32-inch LCD TV, where it was able to achieve the 1,920x1,080 resolution necessary for true 1080p playback. The problem there, however, was that Intel's graphics drivers don't adjust automatically for the television's aspect ratio, resulting in overscan, wherein the Windows desktops appears too large for the TV screen and you lose the edges. We compensated via Intel's software and its clunky-yet-effective manual aspect ratio settings. Ultimately you can make the Essentio work on a full-size television, but it takes some tweaking to get it right.
We also appreciate Essentio's wireless keyboard, complete with a built-in trackball. It's not the best trackball we've ever used, but it will certainly serve for couch-bound navigation. The system also includes a basic mouse, as well as an easy-to-use remote control that requires no external receiver. The Asus-made remote design is more akin to Apple's tiny remote than the standard, clunky Windows Media Center remote control, and while it might be missing a few buttons (there's no number pad, for example) it navigates Media Center with no trouble. And with no receiver it keeps the system free from clutter.
That pared-down aesthetic may be why we like the Essentio so much for the living room. It also has no TV tuner, which some of you may miss, but we much prefer to let the cable companies and their dedicated hardware handle TV reception and recording, especially if it means we don't need to mess with an IR blaster. We also find there's more than enough content available from the likes of the iTunes store, Hulu.com, NetFlix's online service, and other direct download and streaming sources.
Asus also chose well in the software included with the system. A Corel photo-managing application mimics Apple's iPhoto and other similar programs for organizing and treating digital images for display. And the Asus Intelligence suite of mini applications may be the best organized of all such software that provides system information and help with troubleshooting. We just wish it would minimize by default when you open up a new program.
And for the exterior of the Essentio, you get a relatively simple allotment of ports and inputs. The front features two USB 2.0 ports, a media card reader, and a pair of audio jacks. The rear includes four more USB inputs, 7.1 analog audio jacks, and an optical S/PDIF input. There's no FireWire or external SATA, so you'll have to use the USB 2.0 inputs to connect all external storage and imaging devices.
Asus backs the Essentio with one year of parts-and-labor coverage, a standard coverage plan. The phone support is less robust, requiring a toll call and with limited hours (9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Pacific Time). You might be better off trying the online help features first, where you'll find a collection of FAQs, driver downloads, and a user forum.
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 64-bit; 2.2GHz Intel Pentium Dual Core E2200; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Intel GMA X3500 integrated graphics; 640GB 7,200 rpm Seagate hard drive
Acer Aspire X3200
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.1GHz AMD Phenom X3 8400; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 8200 integrated graphics chip; 320GB 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive
Dell Inspiron 530-115B
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.66GHz Intel Core 2 Duo E7300; 4GB 800MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) Intel GMA 3100 integrated graphics chip; 640GB, 7,200rpm Western Digital hard drive
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.1GHz AMD Phenom X3 8450; 4GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 256MB (shared) ATI Radeon HD 3200 integrated graphics chip; 500GB 7,200rpm hard drive.
HP Pavilion Slimline s3500f
Windows Vista Home Premium SP1 (64-bit); 2.8GHz AMD Athlon 64 X2 5400; 2GB 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM; 128MB (shared) Nvidia GeForce 6150SE integrated graphics chip; 500GB, 7,200rpm hard drive.