Sensibly designed in the style of traditional hi-fi separates, the Evesham ebox desperately wants to be accepted as a domestic appliance. More so than any other Media Center we've tested, the ebox looks the part. Its minimalist silver fascia and slot-loading DVD drive give it living-room credentials that many of its competitors lack.
We soon discovered that although our review model was a feisty-looking creature, the frustrations we'd experienced with other Media Centers were matched here. There seems to be a fundamental problem with all Media Center PCs -- simply, they are PCs.
Despite what some experts think, the Windows PC is not ready for the living room. Its susceptibility to viruses, niggling configuration problems and the ridiculous overhead of a whole Windows OS just to perform PVR (personal video recorder) functions are a nightmarish combination. If you think you and your family can deal with these problems in their entertainment centre, read on -- otherwise don't waste your time. If you don't enjoy fiddling with PCs, we would advise buying a dedicated non-Windows PVR.
The ebox is a basic, rectangular-shaped object almost exactly like a stand-alone CD or DVD player. The chassis is extremely solid. It's almost as hardcore as the Moore Medio, so you feel you could drop it out of a plane and expect to pull it intact from the bomb hole. The wire-brushed fascia on the front is broken up only by a couple of USB ports and the slot-loading DVD drive.
We've been lauding slot-loaders for a long time and it's great to see Evesham using one on its PVR. In a living-room environment, tray-loading drives are especially vulnerable to the fingers of deviant toddlers. There's no chance of little Timmy snapping the tray off your ebox -- it hasn't got one.
The top of the chassis is unremarkable but for the enormous fan vent that dominates the top right-hand corner. This is almost as noisy as it looks (more on that later) and you'll need to make sure it's not obstructed by other equipment stacked on top. A rear-mounted fan might have been a wiser choice.
The back of the ebox includes the outputs you'd expect from a standard PC. There are jacks for connecting the ebox to a surround-sound system, aerial-ins for your household aerial and S-video, VGA and DVI outputs. The back panel is sturdy and looked like it would survive regular plugging and unplugging of cables.
Like all Windows Media Center PCs, the ebox is essentially a desktop computer, turned on its side, in a different-shaped case, running Windows XP Media Center Edition. With each encounter with these machines, we've become less enamoured with the concept, but the ebox is at least attractive.
You can use the ebox as a PVR, scheduling programmes to record via an on-screen timetable. The Media Edition software itself is well designed and intuitive enough for a first-timer to figure out in a few minutes. Traditional video recorders were always the brunt of jokes, but the new generation of PVRs are excellent. One click will record the programme you're hovering over in the timetable; two clicks will record every episode of that programme forever.
The ebox will decode a digital television feed and record live video almost instantaneously. The 160GB hard disk can store hundreds of hours of television. Disappointingly, there's a lowly ATI Radeon X300 SE graphics card in the ebox, so extreme gamers won't get their kicks here. The base install of 512MB of RAM also betrays the ebox's lowly ambitions in the gaming department. There'll be no Half Life 2 for you.
The ebox's 3GHz Pentium 4 processor is more than enough to cope with PVR and entry-level gaming tasks. Given that it's ostensibly a living-room oriented system, it would be good to see a more gutsy graphics engine in the ebox, but that would hike the price into the stratosphere.
It almost seems unfair to level specific criticism at this Windows Media Center, because they are all crippled by the same flaws. But that's not going to stop us telling it like it is.
It took hours to set up the ebox so it was able to display an S-video picture on a home television, and we were forced to hunt down an old VGA monitor to configure it out of the box. This may well be a joyful experience for those who enjoy tinkering with PCs, but the average home user will need a pack of Zoloft to get through it.
Once we'd set up the ebox to record video in our living room, it soon became apparent that the fan noise was unbearable. When you first turn the ebox on, it makes a whirring noise like a legion of Apache gunships bearing down on their target. This soon quietens down to a noise roughly akin to a ceiling fan. When you're watching Gladiator at full volume on a surround-sound system, you're not going to notice this. But if you've left the ebox recording programmes overnight, there is no chance you could keep it in your bedroom and not be driven to an embolism.
Why someone thought it would be a good idea to use a complete Windows operating system to control what is essentially a glorified Sky Plus box puzzles us beyond human conception. The noise, heat and sheer wastefulness of most Media Centers makes them hard to recommend as a serious replacement for your video recorder. The ebox is little better than most Media Centers. If you like to mess about with PCs, you'll probably be able to get this working in your living room. If you expect to plug it in like a VCR and leave it to fend for itself, you'd better practise screaming.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide