Update: Claritas was formerly trading under the name of Opus Technology.
There's one design aspect of the Claritas Media Centre that we unabashedly love, although it's only a very minor factor. What is this mystery aspect, we hear you ask? It's the fact that the firm's chosen to go with the correct spelling of Centre, even though the operating system that the product runs is Windows XP Media Center Edition. Sometimes, it's the little things like this that stand out.
Standing out is something that the Claritas Media Centre does with ease; while it's designed like a piece of high-end AV equipment, it's still fundamentally built from a standard PC tower case. The mix of the two worlds leaves you with a larger and heavier than normal bit of AV equipment, measuring in at 430 mm x 150 mm x 402mm and weighing in at a touch under 10kgs. It's still a better fit for most living rooms than the mass of Media Center PCs to date that have done a great job sticking out like sore thumbs in décor terms.
Claritas sells the same media centre configuration in three case types, silver, gold or black, although lower specification versions are also offered. From the front, the only real clue that it's a PC is in the three front ports - two USB and one Firewire - but from the rear it's classic PC all the way, with the normal run of connections for PC peripherals, as well as two digital TV tuners at the bottom of the rear of the case. Wireless connectivity is supplied via a plug-in antenna. Add to that cable clutter a wireless IR receiver for the remote control, and you're suddenly looking at a very PC-like tangle of cables in your living room - although thankfully for the sake of visual appearance, they're mostly at the rear of the unit.
Along with the gold-cased version of the 3500MCE, Claritas supplied us with a standard Windows Media Center remote, and the Microsoft Optical Desktop Elite For Bluetooth as well as the suitable cabling to hook up the Media Centre to most TVs. By default, the Media Centre will connect up via S-Video, RGB or out to component via an S-Video converter. Claritas will also supply a composite connector, although you'll get pretty shaky video quality that way.
Setting up the 3500MCE could be a little tricky for those outside the Sydney area; for those within there's the option to have it installed for you by Claritas Technology. We dove in sans help, using only the supplied quick start sheet, and while no one sheet can cover every possible home AV setup, the supplied sheet makes a fair stab at it. Within a short amount of time we had Windows XP Media Center Edition booting up on a standard TV screen. From there, it's necessary to configure the device, both in telling it the type of display you're attaching it to, as well as hooking it up to a broadband connection if you want to take advantage of the supplied ICE guide EPG. The 3500MCE comes with a year's subscription to the service; our test unit was configured solely with the EPG for the ABC.
As a PC, the 3500MCE boasts an AMD Athlon 64 3500+ processor, 1GB of RAM and a 200GB hard disk drive - enough for plenty of TV recording, as well as whatever other PC-centric tasks you'd care to charge it with. Graphics are supplied via an Nvidia GeForce 6600GT. On the TV side, the model we tested with came with dual TV tuners; as long as you can supply signal to it, it's thus capable of recording multiple digital TV signals at the same time. It'll also pause live TV, and thanks to the inclusion of a subscription to the ICE Guide service, you can program it to record all of a particular TV program run with just a few clicks of the remote.
The PC side of the 3500MCE works well enough, and certainly for any living room PC applications we can't see it being too heavily burdened, unless your tastes run to high end gaming or video editing along with TV watching. On the TV side, the Media Center interface is easy enough to learn and relatively pain-free. One observation - and this is as much true of any Media Center PC as it is of the 3500MCE - is that unlike hard-drive equipped PVRs (such as the Toshiba RD-XS34 or Kiss DP-558, there can be some noticeable pauses in-between selecting certain TV based actions such as recording or switching between DVD and TV watching and seeing them happen on screen. Unlike recorders of that style, there's also no outputs for simple L/R RCA audio if you're connecting up to a simpler system - then again, customers of the 3500MCE probably do all have optically-equipped audio receivers.
The supplied ICEguide is a great addition, as it really does streamline TV watching and recording, although you will need to bear in mind that it's not a free service, and you'll have to start paying for it a year after you buy the 3500MCE - right when you're most likely to be hooked to the service. The inclusion of bundled wireless is also a godsend - a media center designed for the living room that lacked wireless connectivity would either have to rely on a wireless bridge or a home that already had wall-based cabling in place.