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Someone at Hi-Grade boiled the eye of a newt and the tongue of a toad together, resurrected the designer of the Sony Betamax and forced him to sculpt the DMS II's chassis. This is the Corey Haim of PVRs. Epitomising teen movies of the '80s, old Corey vanished into oblivion and so too, we thought, had the boxy design ethics of the era. But no, here is 1980 revisited in all its glory. It's the perfect PVR to watch Star Wars, The Goonies or Labyrinth on – you’ll be in retro heaven.
Ignore the DMS II's strangely retro case and you’ll find a well-put-together Windows Media PC. It’s a powerful PVR with a range of audio and video outputs that made it easy for us to hook it up to a television, LCD and plasma. More so than most other PVRs we’ve tested, the Hi-Grade is ready to be plugged straight into your existing set-up. Other manufacturers should take note.
The Hi-Grade’s clever rear-panel design makes it more hi-fi component than PC. The way the input and output panels have been engineered shames the hacked-together, office-PC-in-drag designs we’ve seen elsewhere.
The button layout on the DMS II is easy to get to grips with -- there’s the standard array of video-recorder-style controls. Most of the serious stuff is hidden underneath a large flap that opens to reveal two USB ports, a Firewire socket and a 7-in-1 media card reader, as well as S-video and stereo RCA jacks. There are also two sockets that are more common on traditional hi-fi equipment: a quarter-inch headphone and microphone socket. This is brilliant for serious audiophiles as they're likely to use equipment that works with this larger jack size, instead of the increasingly common 3.5mm.
Hi-Grade’s ambition to create a hybrid PC and surround sound system is in evidence everywhere on this machine. The rear panel includes 7.1 RCA analogue outputs and IR Blaster outputs for connecting your Media Center to a Sky box or cable television feed.
As with many of the Media Center PCs we’ve tested, the Hi-Grade suffers from a flimsy CD tray. It’s better than most, but it would have been a more effective idea to use a slot-loading drive. Tray-loaders are vulnerable to knocks or the curious fingers of a toddler.
It’s worth noting that the Hi-Grade is an extremely heavy machine. You’d expect this from any PC, but the extra fortification that’s gone into the chassis makes this especially cumbersome. There’s no good reason why you’d want to move your Media Center around the house, but in the event that you do, sign up for the gym now.
Most of the information about the Hi-Grade's activities is displayed on its green dot-matrix display. It’s a window into its soul. When you switch the machine on, it lets you know that Windows Media Edition (WME) is loading up. The dot-matrix is something interesting to stare at for a while, because WME can take several minutes to start up. It’s a far cry from the instantly accessible world of stand-alone video recorders and DVD players.
The 7.1 RCA analogue outputs will let you attach the Hi-Grade to a home surround sound system. We were extremely impressed that Hi-Grade chose to provide hi-fi outputs and not the usual selection of fiddly 3.5mm jacks. Anyone who’s set up a surround system before will be familiar with the sockets here.
Windows Media Edition is pre-installed on the DMS II. Once you’ve fought your way through the set-up procedure, this software will record live television instantly, or just the programmes you’ve selected from a schedule. We’ve used WME on a range of different PCs and the basic experience has always been the same: once it’s actually running, it’s well designed and easy to use.
Under the bonnet, there’s a 3.4GHz P4 processor, 1GB of RAM and 250GB hard disk. This is more than enough to store well over a lifetime's worth of ER on video, but you can upgrade the Hi-Grade with new drives if you somehow manage to fill the existing one.
As with all Windows Media Edition PCs, setting up the Hi-Grade was roughly on a par with building a model Space Shuttle. What seemed like it should have been childishly simple turned out to be an exercise in self-flagellation. The Hi-Grade didn’t output video to our television by default, so anyone hoping to get by with the S-video cable alone is out of luck. We were driven to plugging in a PC screen and keyboard before anything worked properly. Media Center PCs are nowhere near as easy to set up and maintain as the common DVD or video recorder.
Once we’d beaten the thing into submission (that is, fiddled with the Monitors control panel and sorted out the Internet connection), output from the Hi-Grade was visible on our TV. After a few minutes spent watching a noisy S-video output, we yanked out the S-video cable in disgust, burnt it, and hooked up a DVI connection to an LCD screen instead.
Watching The Fifth Element on the Hi-Grade confirmed that its DVI output is immeasurably better than its S-video - the machine produced a clean picture, with excellent contrast. Bruce Willis’ head sparkled like a Buck Palace doorknob and Milla Jovovich’s skin looked as edible as ever. Fast action scenes sounded plausibly grand in the 7.1 channel surround sound.
Scheduling TV recordings is a painless task. The bundled remote control allows you to scroll through television listings weeks in advance and select a programme. A single button press records that programme once; a double press records every episode of that programme shown from now until the end of the world.
Extreme gamers will find the Hi-Grade’s Radeon X300 PCI Express graphics card slightly underpowered for the very latest games, but we found the speed of our favourite games (Hitman Contracts and Max Payne) to be excellent. The Hi-Grade offers VGA, DVI, S-video and composite video out. As always, S-video and composite performance was unimpressive, but VGA and DVI gave sharp, clear images. This will mean you need a television, projector or plasma capable of taking VGA or DVI inputs, or settle for a more blurry output.
Media Center PCs are still not ready for the living room. It’s hard enough maintaining a Windows PC on your desk, but when your family’s entertainment hangs in the balance because of a virus or configuration problem, you’ll wish you still had your old VCR. Having said that, the Hi-Grade DMS II is one of the most fully featured and intelligently designed Media Centers we’ve seen. If you’re ready to invest the time in configuring it, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had here.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Tom Espiner