With the arrival of Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 and its support for tantalizing features, including HDTV and dual tuners, you may be tempted to enlist a Media Center PC as the centerpiece of your home theater. One such candidate is the $2,599 Cyberpower Media Center Ultra Edition, which runs the new OS from inside a case that looks right at home among stereo components. Add to it Nvidia's bleeding-edge GeForce 6800 Ultra graphics card, and you have the makings of one impressive PC for your entertainment center. Unfortunately, for all its horsepower and home-theater highlights, the system gets low marks, owing to one foolish, annoying, and ultimately fatal design flaw: it's infuriatingly loud.
The Cyberpower Media Center Ultra Edition could easily be mistaken for a stereo component. Its case has the girth and the glossy black exterior of a high-end receiver, and its front end hides all its telltale computer ports and drives until you flip down either of two metals doors. Only the power button is exposed. You do need to find a home for the system's rather bulky IR receiver (for the included Media Center remote), which is about the size of a deck of cards and plugs into a rear USB port.
Although the Ultra Edition has a big case, there's little room at the inn. All five drive bays are occupied, so you can't add a second hard drive--not internally, anyway. The system does leave two PCI and two RAM slots free for expansion. Outside, it offers a standard complement of USB 2.0 (four in back, two in front) and FireWire (one in back, one in front) ports.
The Media Center Ultra Edition suffers from three major problems: the fan on the power supply, the fan on the processor, and the fan on the video card. This terrible trio makes the system so noisy, it's just plain unacceptable in a home-theater environment. Ironically, there's a dial on the back that enables you to adjust the power supply's fan, but turning it only made the system louder. The graphics card fan is the real culprit, by far the noisiest of the three, but so what? The combined noise level directly interferes with one's enjoyment of games, music, movies, TV, and everything else you'd want to do with the system, especially if the computer is sitting in the middle of your living room. Other similarly configured systems we've tested don't suffer from this problem, meaning Cyberpower can (and should) take steps to address it.
This system's deafening fans are really too bad, because in most other respects, the system is a gem. It's equipped with both a DVD-ROM drive and a double-layer DVD burner; two TV tuner cards, which enable you to record one show while watching another one live; the aforementioned GeForce card, which beautifies and turbocharges games; and Microsoft's superb wireless mouse/keyboard combo. Although there's no room for a second internal hard drive, the included 250GB drive provides ample space for recorded shows and other digital media. The only real downside is the onboard AC 97 audio hardware, which lacks the versatility and the audio quality of a high-end sound card, such as the Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS. Here's hoping your stereo receiver has an S/PDIF input for use with the system's onboard port.
Though powered by AMD's latest processor, the Athlon 64 FX-55, the Media Center Ultra Edition performed about on a par with FX-53-based systems. Based on past observations, we suspect the MCE 2005 operating system is responsible for the lower-than-expected scores. Even so, there's no question the machine has muscle to burn, especially where games are concerned. It logged 284.1 frames per second (fps) in our Unreal Tournament 2003 test and 51.22 fps in Far Cry, both exceptional scores.
When connected to a monitor, the Media Center Ultra Edition produced surprisingly good TV images--much sharper than what we've seen from most other Media Center PCs. When we connected the included S-Video cable to a TV, the signal stayed crisp, but we noticed pronounced moire effects. Most users will be much happier connecting the system to a PC monitor, an LCD TV, or any other display that has a VGA or DVI input. The system's $2,599 price does not include a monitor, but Cyberpower does throw in Logitech's excellent Z-640 5.1 speaker set.
Cyberpower supplies Microsoft Works 7.0, along with manuals for the motherboard and the graphics card and a three-year warranty (including one year of onsite service). You'll probably need to take frequent advantage of the company's free 24/7 tech support because the system comes with no setup instructions. Users will have no idea how to connect it to a TV or configure it for use with home-theater components.
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating||SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating||SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating|
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
(Longer bars indicate better performance)
|Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,600x1,200 4xAA 8xAF||Unreal Tournament 2003 Flyby-Antalus 1,024x768|
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1,024x768 tests and are set to 4X and 8X respectively during our 1,600x1,200 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal provides an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.System configurations:
Cyberpower Media Center Ultra Edition
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-55; Via K8T800 Pro chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 Ultra (AGP); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
iBuyPower Media XP
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.4GHz Intel P4 550; Intel 915G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce 6600 (PCIe); Maxtor 7Y250M0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
Sony VAIO VGC-RA820G
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel P4 540; Intel 915P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB ATI Radeon X300 (PCIe); WDC WD2000JD-98HBB0 200GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA
ZT Media Center X3113
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Celeron D 335; SIS 661FX chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce4 MX 4000 (AGP); Seagate ST380011A 80GB ATA/100 7,200rpm