If you've been following our experiences with Windows Media Center PCs, such as the Moore Medio and the Evesham ebox, you'll know that we've had endless problems getting a video signal from these PCs into our television. One of our main criticisms of the Media Center PC is the hassle involved in getting it to behave as a VCR managed to more than two decades ago. For most consumers, these things simply aren't ready to be plugged in.
Elonex has obviously worked out that Microsoft wasn't going to fix its software any time soon, and has brought the mountain to Mohammed. By integrating the monitor into the PC, niggling screen configuration problems have been done away with. There's no need to open Control Panel and hunt through screen resolutions, swapping frantically between television and computer screen. Everything works straight out of the box.
You're paying for the privilege of this ease of use, but judging from our past experience of Media Center PCs, we think most people would gladly pay an extra £1,000 instead of gouging out their own eyes in despair while trying to set one up with their existing TV.
The Lumina has a small footprint, but it's not a machine you'd want to regularly transport from living room to bedroom. It weighs more than an LCD TV of the same size, because it's got a whole computer stuck to its back.
Elonex has chosen an attractive and mature look for the Lumina. It's a small point, but the fact that the case isn't a billboard of 'Intel Inside' stickers gives an excellent first impression. There's no quicker way to make a PC look tacky than to splatter it with go-faster stickers saying things like 'ATI RAGE!' and 'WiFi Enabled!'.
The 32-inch LCD dominates the front panel and you wouldn't know it wasn't a normal TV set unless you looked behind the machine. This is the Lumina's secret weapon: it's an incredibly inconspicuous PC. The best way to invade the living room is to take on the guise of a device that is already there, in this case the lowly television. Almost every other manufacturer has missed the point entirely, giving us Frankenstein PCs that look like they've squeezed into their Sunday best, but are still undeniably beige boxes.
The right-hand side panel of the Lumina holds the bulk of the controls you'd expect from a standard PC. There's a FireWire port and a single USB connector. The Lumina's bundled keyboard and mouse are wireless, but it would have been useful to include more USB connectors on this side panel -- you can never have enough of them. Two additional connectors are available on the back panel, but these are packed so closely to the Ethernet jack we found it was often difficult to pull out one cable without upsetting others.
The rear panel on the set includes 5.1-channel surround-sound connectors you can hook up to a surround-sound amplifier to beef up the internal speakers. There's also an 8-in-1 memory card reader on the side panel and a receiver for the wireless keyboard and mouse. Usually these receivers plug into a USB port, so we were glad to see that Elonex has made the effort to integrate its receiver into the chassis itself.
The Lumina's wireless keyboard and mouse are familiar affairs: nothing to write a love song about, but more sturdy than some bundled keyboards we've seen. Both use standard AA batteries, but you can replace these with rechargeables.
A slot-loading DVD drive is built into the right-hand side panel on the Lumina. This is a good choice of loading mechanism that avoids the possibility of a badly placed DVD dropping onto the desk when you're trying to load it. Although slot loaders choke on half-sized CDs, the 8cm discs are not very common.
You can't tilt or swivel the Lumina, but on a TV of this size you'd be ill-advised to do that anyway. Most of us are used to televisions that sit at a fixed 90-degree angle to the surface they're on, so dry your eyes and move on, it's no loss.
The Lumina's thin body hides a full-sized PC, but despite space constraints it's still a reasonably fast machine. The 3GHz P4 is a swift processor and Elonex has coupled this to a Radeon 9600 AGP graphics card -- a powerful enough combination to handle basic video-editing tasks and the less demanding of today's games. Since you're likely to be using the Lumina as a PVR and not a gaming machine, this is not an overwhelming disappointment. If you are a keen gamer, your best bet is to connect a PlayStation or Xbox to the Lumina.
The 200GB hard disk and the Elonex's base configuration of 1Gb of RAM will be up to most tasks, including video editing. You can store untold volumes of recorded TV on the Lumina, and 1Gb of RAM will fare well at general Photoshop work.
Setting up and recording television is identical to the procedure you'd use on any other Media Center PC. Once we’d plugged in an aerial, the on-board tuner scanned for available channels and automatically assigned these to presets.
The Lumina's 32-inch LCD is deliciously bright and crisp. As with all LCDs, there are compression artefacts visible when viewing digital television. If you're familiar with JPEG compression, you'll have seen this kind of distortion before around the edges of a low-resolution photograph when you zoom in on it. The artefacts look like small, mottled, discoloured areas around high-detail elements of the picture. From a distance it's acceptable, but up close, you'll be reaching for the sick bag.
Unfortunately these artefacts are simply a result of digital television's disappointing resolution on any large television. When high-definition television is adopted on a wider scale, you'll find that the image quality of compatible digital TVs increases to a point where you can take advantage of these huge LCD screens. For now though, most LCDs simply expose how poor the digital TV signal really is. It's entirely tolerable from a few metres away, but it's only when playing DVDs that you'll get to really show off what the Lumina is capable of. It's important to note that although the Lumina can play a high-definition DivX or Windows Media video, it's not a true HDTV. To qualify as an HDTV, a television must have a DVI or HDMI input; the Lumina has neither.
Amazingly for a Media Center PC, the Lumina didn't give us any installation headaches. We're more used to Media Centers behaving like a primary school bully -- beating us into a sorry pulp in an attempt to hide their own horrible inadequacies. The Lumina, on the other hand, was charming and hospitable.
This ease-of-use has a lot to do with its built-in screen: most Media Centers need a good thrashing before they'll submit, but this monitor is already hardwired to the computer, so we didn't have to blindfold it and put a gag in its CD tray before the thing would agree to display a picture.
Elonex has opted for Microsoft's Windows XP Media Edition. This has a glitzy, spectacular feel to it. Menus float around the screen with dreamlike fluidity. There's enough animation to make a Pixar employee vibrate with glee and the PVR interface is especially easy to use. One click on a TV programme in the on-screen schedule records that programme once; two clicks and every episode of that programme will be recorded until the end of time.
If you're desperate to use a Media Center PC in your home, but you don't hold a PhD in molecular physics, the Lumina represents your best shot at getting one of these machines to cooperate.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide