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The launch of the Apple Mac Mini reinforced the already enormous rift between Apple fans and their PC-loving counterparts. PC fans criticised the Mini's limited connectivity and questionable power, but Apple fans hit back, praising its innovative form factor and stylish design. PC aficionados were quick to point out they had the option of buying small form-factor PCs such as those supplied by Shuttle, but their argument was easily dismissed, as even Shuttle's offerings looked obese next to Apple's miniature marvel.
Credit to Aopen then, for plugging the gaping hole in the PC market with its 'Pandora' box -- a Mac Mini clone designed to accept Intel components and cater to the Windows faithful. Never slow off the mark, Evesham has secured the exclusive rights to the Pandora, and rebranded it the Mini PC. It certainly looks promising, but whether it can live up to expectations and silence the Apple crowd is another matter.
The Mini PC has the same physical dimensions as a Mac Mini, so it's small and light enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Whereas the Mac Mini is finished in Apple's trademark white plastic, the Mini PC has an aluminium shell, which feels far more solid. The front of the unit is uncluttered. There's a circular power button in the centre, and a raised-edge Evesham logo tucked away to the bottom right. Some would argue the unit would look better without the Evesham branding, but the overall effect is aesthetically pleasing.
The Mini PC uses a slot-loading DVD drive -- a good choice, as a tray-loading drive would have compromised its sleek looks. All the necessary ports are located to the rear of the PC. There are are two USB ports, one six-pin FireWire port, S-Video and DVI monitor outputs, and an Ethernet port. The PC's onboard audio card only provides a pair of outputs (mic and speakers), so there's no way of connecting it to a set of surround-sound speakers. Finally, on the back there's an exhaust vent for expelling hot air.
Due to obvious space restrictions, the Mini PC doesn't use an internal power supply. Instead it uses an external power brick similar to those on many TFT monitors and laptops. These power supplies run silently, which is a definite plus for a media-oriented machine such as the Mini PC.
The Mini PC is founded on Aopen's Mini ITX motherboard, which unlike most PC motherboards accepts laptop processors and memory. Evesham has selected a 1.4GHz Celeron M 360 and 512MB of DDR2 memory clocked at 533MHz as a base specification, but there's a more advanced model, the Mini PC Plus, which uses a 2GHz CPU. Neither is designed explicitly for high performance, but both are very capable of running everyday applications at a decent lick.
The Mini PC uses the Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) operating system. It's perfect for viewing your collection of digital images, sound and high-definition movies from a single, easy-to-use interface, and although it's not Intel Viiv-certified, it has most Viiv functions -- except surround-sound output. Bizarrely, the Mini PC has an integrated speaker inside its chassis. This is of little significance, as it's not very loud or clear, but it's certainly an interesting addition.
The basic Mini PC specification doesn't include a TV tuner. Evesham says external MCE-compliant tuners are available via its Web site, but none were available at the time of writing. It is also possible to add one of several LCD TVs to the package, including a 32-inch model for an additional £697.95. Unfortunately, these display TV signals independently of the Mini PC -- their internal tuners can't output to Windows XP Media Center Edition, so you'd need another tuner anyway.
There's not much room for recording programmes as it is, as the Mini PC only ships with a 40GB hard drive. This is a paltry amount of space for any computer, let alone an MCE machine. The disk is only big enough to store around 10 hours of high-quality video, so we recommend you buy the optional 100GB drive instead (for an extra £65).
If that's too much to swallow, the Mini PC's DVD-rewriter drive is an acceptable means of backing up data. The drive writes to DVD± (plus and minus) discs at 8x, DVD-RAM discs at 5x, and it's dual-layer compatible, so it'll write up to 8.5GB of data to compatible discs.
As mentioned, there's only a pair of USB ports available. Once you've connected a mouse and keyboard (which aren't included in the package), there's nowhere to connect other peripherals except the FireWire port. Because of this, potential buyers should definitely invest in a USB hub.
The Mini PC doesn't have many video-output ports, so you'll need to make sure your chosen television or monitor has a DVI input port if you intend to get the best image quality. If this isn't a priority, you can use the S-Video port.
In trying to keep the standard package under £500, Evesham hasn't supplied much software, but there's a copy of Microsoft Works 8, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and database applications.
The Mini PC isn't built for speed, but its performance in common productivity applications is commendable. Its Centrino CPU is designed to run at fairly low clock speeds, but it'll happily run most applications at a decent lick, and only begins to struggle with more demanding tasks like video encoding.
The Mini PC isn't any good for playing modern games. It refused to start our Far Cry test, and struggled to run Doom 3 at 6fps. To its credit, it had no trouble outputting high-definition video to our 1,080p display.
One minor gripe was that the Mini PC could occasionally get very noisy when running processor-intensive applications, although Evesham says the fan on our review sample may have been slightly damaged during transit. At all other times, the noise emitted by the Mini PC is barely noticeable.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide