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Hi-Grade Xtc2_02 review: Hi-Grade DMS Extreme Xtc2_02

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The Good Blu-ray drive; twin TV tuner.

The Bad Large case; a tad noisy.

The Bottom Line The Xtc2_02 is a solid all-round Media Center PC. It has ample storage space, Blu-ray movie playback capability and a dual TV tuner, so it lends itself to being the centre of your home-entertainment setup -- provided you can find room for it under your telly

Visit manufacturer site for details.

7.5 Overall

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The DMS (Digital Media Station) range sits at the top end of Hi-Grade's selection of Media Center PCs. It's designed to be the heart of your multimedia world, storing photos, music, recording television and playing hi-def Blu-ray movies directly on to your big-screen television. With dedicated Blu-ray players such as the Samsung BDP-1000 costing around the £800 mark, the £1,600 price doesn't seem entirely unreasonable either. You can buy the Hi-Grade DMS Extreme Xtc2_02 direct from the Hi-Grade site.

Design
The DMS Extreme Xtc2_02 looks like a DVD player that's been fed a strict diet of steroids and lard. Its horizontally oriented chassis makes it seem ideal for replacing your existing VHS or DVD player, but bear in mind that at 430 by 410 by 160mm it's about twice as tall as ordinary AV equipment -- it may not fit under your TV.

The top and sides of the PC have a shiny black metal finish, while the front has a matte brushed-metal effect. The front panel is subtly concaved, which helps to reduce the boxy overall look.

It's hard not to notice the vacuum fluorescent display (VDD) installed in the top left of the front panel. This, by default, displays the name of the PC as well as the current time of day, but can also show what's happening inside Windows Media Center. The only drawback is that it has been connected to a rear-facing parallel port to receive the data -- which means there's a discreet cable running from the inside to the outside of the machine.

At the front are a couple of flip-down panels that hide the system's input-output ports. The panel to the far right hides the Blu-ray drive, while the middle panel hides a memory card reader, which supports a range of popular formats. That's a handy addition to a Media Center PC, but we can't fathom why there's only one USB port at the front -- that's truly lame.

Things are relatively straightforward at the back of the PC, apart from a Wi-Fi aerial that protrudes by about an inch when upright or by four inches when fully extended. There's also two separate D-Sub video ports (one on the graphics card and another on the motherboard IO port). This could conceivably baffle the hell out of novice users.
 


Here you can see the HDMI-equipped graphics card, TV tuner and cable for the front display

 
Features

There's an element of skill in building a dedicated media PC, but although Hi-Grade has definitely taken steps in the right direction, there are drawbacks in its choice of components for the DMS Extreme Xtc2_02. (Read this article on what you need to do to build the perfect Media Center PC).

The Xtc2_02 uses a motherboard with a mobile chipset, ie one designed for laptops. This is a good choice, as laptops generally use less power and make less noise than desktop PCs -- benefits that translate well to a Media Center PC.

As a result, Hi-Grade has had to install laptop-specific memory -- in this case a pair of PC2-4300 1GB DIMMs -- and a mid-range laptop processor, the Intel Core 2 Duo T5600, which runs at 2GHz. The downside is that you can't add any existing desktop PC memory you might have lying around, as it won't fit.

The upside is that, becasue the processor is designed for laptops, it runs cooler than normal desktop chips, which, in theory, means Hi-Grade can use a quiet fan. Unfortunately, Hi-grade has used a standard Intel-branded heatsink and fan, which is still noisy despite the cooler chip.



The graphics card, an ATI Radeon X1600, is a capable mid-range card that'll run most games, but it also uses a noisy fan, which is particularly noticeable when running 3D games. The combined noise of the CPU and graphics card can't be described as earth-shattering, but it's certainly audible and contradicts Hi-Grade's claims that the PC is 'silent'.

Luckily, that's about all the bad news. The rest of the PC is stuffed with components that cement its status as an outstanding Media Center PC. Most notable is the inclusion of a Sony BDRW BWU-100A Blu-ray drive. This lets you play Blu-ray movies and burn discs with up to 50GB capacity. It's 'only' a 2x drive (4x drives are available) but it's not exactly decrepit -- it'll play and record DVD content as well. Unfortunately, you can't play Blu-ray movies inside the Media Center interface -- you'll need to fire up the accompanying Cyberlink BD Solution software instead.
 


The Blu-ray drive hides discreetly behind a flap

 
If the idea of spending £10 on a blank Blu-ray disc isn't your idea of money well spent, you'll be pleased to hear the DMS Xtc2_02 comes with tonnes of hard disk space. It has twin 500GB drives, giving you of 1TB of room. That's enough space to install over 260,000 MP3s, 1,500 DivX movies, over 1.5 million pictures, or 44 million word-only documents.

If you fancy using up some of that space, you'll want to turn your attention to the bundled TV tuner card. It's a dual-tuner Black Gold model, which lets you record one channel while you watch another. This is a hybrid analogue and digital model, so if Freeview reception in your area is poor, you have the analogue tuner to fall back on.

Surround sound comes courtesy of the Intel 945GT chipset. At the rear are audio jacks for mic-in, speaker-out, line-in, rear surround, side surround, centre and subwoofer, along with a coaxial digital out.

You also get a wireless keyboard with a built-in mouse trackball and an infrared remote control and its accompanying IR dongle, so you can control everything from your armchair.

Performance
The DMS Xtc2_02's dual-core CPU is more than powerful enough, considering the PC isn't designed for hardcore processing tasks. It's not as quick as a desktop PC that uses the equivalent 2GHz Core 2 Duo desktop CPU, but it scored 4,635 in PCMark 2005, which indicates it's one of the faster Media Center PCs we've reviewed. The Evesham Mini PC Plus, by comparison, scored 3,232.

Graphics performance was also good, for a Media Center PC. It racked up a 3DMark 2006 tally of 1,972, which isn't as high as the score achieved by the Acer TravelMate 8215WLMi laptop -- that scored 2,058. In real-world tests, the Xtc2_02 scored 32 frames per second in F.E.A.R. at the maximum graphic detail settings and a resolution of 1,024x768 pixels. Ultimately, the Xtc2_02 isn't a gaming-oriented PC, but it'll let you enjoy the odd bout of Half-Life 2 when you get bored of EastEnders.

Blu-ray playback was a mixed bag. The Xtc2_02 had no trouble displaying its wares over the graphics card's HDMI output (just plug and play), and the picture quality was reasonable -- but the video would stutter occasionally.

Another gripe is that the PC is unable to deliver audio over the HDMI connection -- this is surprising, as there's no audio pass-through cable from the on-board sound card to the graphics card. If you want audio, you'll have to connect speakers the old-fashioned way -- to the speaker sockets themselves.

Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Nick Hide

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