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We like Media Center PCs. They're sometimes expensive and often not very fast, but they give us a break from the plethora of garish gaming rigs and dull student boxes that litter the market.
The latest Media Center to grab our attention is the super-stylish, super-cheap Asus Nova Lite Mini 2L, which has been designed for use in a living room. It's a machine that won't upset the audio visual feng shui of your home and will set you back approximately £379 when it's available in late July.
The Asus Nova Lite Mini 2L is undoubtedly one of the sexiest Media Center machines we've seen for a while. Its most appealing facet is its size -- it measures just 231 by 184 by 51mm, weighs 1.5kg and has a total internal volume of 2 litres, hence the '2L' suffix. As Asus is quick to point out, many standard desktops have a volume of 20-30 litres.
The Nova Lite's black and silver colour scheme isn't very imaginative, but it's excuted well. The majority of the machine has a glossy black finish, which is complemented by a matte silver ring across the circumference. The front of the PC is home to a slot-loading DVD drive, touch-sensitive buttons and a panel with a mottled silver mesh, all of which looks stunning.
As you'll see from our pictures, the Nova Lite is equally at home sat on its bottom or on its side. This allows owners plenty of flexibility when it comes to deciding where to position it. A special stand is included in the box for those who want to stand the machine up vertically, but be warned: the Nova Lite is a little wobbly when used in this mode, so you should be careful not to let any clumsy/drunk/spiteful family members near it.
One of the most interesting additions to the Nova Lite is a built-in speaker. This lives below a mesh on the top panel and is much like the speakers you find in laptops. It's not particularly loud and its sound definitely won't fill a large room, but it's handy for playing incidental Windows sounds if you're using the PC right next to your monitor.
Sadly, the Nova Lite has no front-facing ports, but there are plenty at the rear. There are four USB ports, plus HDMI and DVI video outputs. You'll also find an Ethernet port and three 3.5mm audio ports. The middlemost one can accept an adaptor -- supplied -- which turns it into an optical S/PDIF port, which you can use to connect digital surround sound equipment.
The internal specification of the Nova Lite isn't particularly impressive. It uses a 1.2GHz Celeron M CPU, of the type you might find in an entry-level laptop -- from the year 2000. Fortunately, this is paired with 2GB of DDR2 memory, which helps make up for the CPU's shortcomings, to some extent.
No Media Center PC is complete without lots of storage, but that's not really the Nova Lite's strong point either. Our review sample uses a 250GB drive, which is large enough to stash around 300 standard definition movies, 60 high definition movies or about 64,000 MP3s. This is the minimum storage we'd tolerate on a Media Center.
Graphics aren't so hot on the Nova Lite. It'll either come with onboard Intel graphics or the slightly quicker ATI RV 620 LE, which is provided courtesy of an MXM (mobile PCI Express module) module. Both will play back high-definition video as well as all the regular day-to-day PC stuff, but the latter is slightly better for those who use graphics-accelerated software.
One of our favourite things about the Nova Lite is the fact it has an optional integrated wireless adaptor. It's not the high-speed 802.11n variety, rather the slightly slower, more common 802.11b/g. It'll fit right in with your existing wireless network, which is a great way to transfer files between the Nova Lite and any other networked devices you may have.
The Nova Lite can ship with a choice of operating system. Asus offers retailers the option of Windows XP Basic, Vista Home Premium, Vista Home Basic and even Linux. We'd recommend opting for models with Vista Home Premium, since that includes the Vista Media Center interface, which is a great way to sort and enjoy multimedia files.
Happily, the Nova Lite includes an infrared remote control. This can be used to control the PC from a distance, although it's not possible to move the on-screen cursor using this method.
The Nova Lite wouldn't run our benchmarks, but it's slow; there's no two ways about it. Its 1.2GHz Celeron M CPU and 2GB of RAM mean it's only slightly faster than an Asus Eee PC 900, which isn't saying much. Don't despair, though: the machine is perfectly capable of playing movies -- even 720p high-definition flicks -- provided you're not running other complex applications at the same time. It won't play games, though -- even with the ATI RV 620 LE chip.
Because it uses such low-end components, the Nova Lite doesn't produce much heat. That means it doesn't need an awful lot of cooling and the noisy fans associated with that. We could hardly hear it during everyday use unless we stuck our heads right next to it. This feature, we're sure, will appeal to many people.
The Nova Lite isn't a particularly fast machine, but it's well designed and entirely suitable for purpose. It's not as complete a Media Center PC as Asus' A33, but if you're on a tight budget, it's definitely worth considering.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday