Not yet known for its media centre PCs, Enspire is predominantly a supplier of 3D workstations and graphic rendering systems for the film and TV industry. More recently the Australian vendor has begun making inroads into the home theatre market with a range of systems from the basic to the high-end. The AVR-200 is Enspire's entry-level unit, but the company also offers three higher specced models, the AVR-500, AVR-700 and AVR-800 that range in price from AU$2009 to AU$3544 respectively.
The company's mantra revolves around the "human element", emphasising usability and build quality just as much as audio and visual performance. With an intuitive interface, attractive enclosure and most importantly, a seven-day EPG, the AVR-200 mostly delivers on these promises, all with a highly affordable AU$1699 price tag.
Not unlike many other home theatre PC (HTPC) offerings, the AVR-200's chassis (available in black or silver) is a brushed aluminium number that uses a horizontal desktop - as opposed to a tower - form factor. It's significantly larger than a typical PVR set-top box (432x105x410mm), but should fit into most cabinets without issue.
Enspire has clearly taken a minimalist approach when designing the front of the unit, as the only button visible at first glance is the power switch, which is backlit by an attractive blue LED. Flipping down a front panel reveals the DVD drive, as well as a set of convenient front ports: headphone, microphone, IEEE1394 (Firewire) and two USB.
Indispensable for darkened movie sessions, the remote boasts a handy yellow backlight. Its button layout is identical to the standard Windows MCE remote design that's been adopted by many HTPC vendors, and for good reason. It's highly accessible and makes the machine's plethora of functions feel much less daunting than they would otherwise.
The AVR-200 is sold as a stand-alone unit, and thus lacks a keyboard, mouse, monitor and speakers. This is understandable, since it's designed to be integrated into an existing lounge-room setup, which ideally already includes a high-definition LCD or plasma display and an elaborate surround sound system. Yet it certainly doesn't want for connectivity options, so you can rest assured that all of your existing components should interface with the AVR-200. Available video outputs include DVI, D-Sub, component, composite and S-Video, while both digital (coaxial S/PDIF) and analogue audio outputs are also present.
Strangely absent is any cabling aside from the standard AC power adapter. Instead, these must be tacked on as optional extras, with composite and component (1.8m) cables setting you back an extra $9 and $78 respectively. There's also no user manual included with the current package, but Enspire has ensured CNET Australia that a manual is currently in the works and will be released shortly. Further, the intuitive interface and simple installation process makes this less of an issue than it would be otherwise.
The Achilles' heal of many HTPCs is the lack of a fully-functional EPG (Electronic Program Guide), which virtually cripples its recording capabilities. Thankfully, this isn't the case here. With the AVR-200, Enspire has taken advantage of ICEguide, which provides users with a seven-day forecast of free-to-air TV shows. The EPG is fully integrated with Windows Media Center Edition and is painless to setup. Updating the guide is as simple as clicking a few buttons on the remote, but since the software receives updates over the Internet, you'll need to ensure that the machine is hooked up to your home network. Bundled with the AVR-200 is a free three-month subscription to ICEguide, and users can opt to purchase a yearly subscription to the service thereafter for AU$146.
Boasting dual TV tuner cards, the machine is capable of recording two TV signals simultaneously, or even more attractively, playing one channel whilst recording another. It's also capable of creating and playing DVDs, thanks to its 16x DVD+/-RW dual-layer burner. Further, both wired (10/100 Ethernet) and wireless (802.11/a/b/g) networking is supported should you feel the urge to beam content around the house or access content stored on networked machines. Unlike competing offerings such as the HP m7199a, the AVR-200 lacks a card reader, which can make photo-sharing more tedious as you'll have to hook up the camera via USB.
Befitting of any sub-$2000 PC, the AVR-200 isn't exactly a speed demon. It's got an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ processor, 512MB PC3200 memory and ATi-powered integrated graphics. This is certainly sufficient for video recording/playback, but don't expect to be using the machine for gaming, or audio/video editing. Conversely, the 200GB hard drive is ample and more than we'd expect at this price point.
When evaluating prospective HTPCs, among the first criteria on your list should be low noise levels. This isn't much of an issue in fast action thrillers where the sound of gunshots and pierced flesh invariably drown out any ambient noise in the room. For scenes that rely on silence to build tension, however, the whirring of fans is a definite mood killer. Thankfully, this is a non-issue for the AVR-200, which is virtually silent bar a slow spinning cooling fan.
Configuring the system is painless and can be done entirely through the Windows MCE interface using the remote. Setting the unit up to receive signals and updating the EPG is simply a matter of following the on-screen wizard which Microsoft has made as novice-friendly as possible. In our testing in the Sydney metropolitan area, all channels were picked up without a hitch and we were watching and recording shows within minutes.
It's certainly not as powerful as other media centres we've tested - games appeared as more of a slideshow than a fluid, cinematic experience - but this qualm is virtually eradicated from one look at the AVR-200's extremely reasonable price tag of AU$1699. If you're looking for an entry-level HTPC, the AVR-200 should definitely be on your list of potentials.