Riding the second wave of Windows Media Center-enabled systems, the HP m7199a does an admirable job of pooling the copious dedicated home theatre devices into an all-in-one powerhouse. Thankfully, this makes it easy to overlook its glorified office PC exterior.
Curiously, despite the fact that it's pitched as a media centre PC, the system's enclosure uses a tower design that may have trouble seamlessly integrating into a typical lounge-room environment. This isn't just from an aesthetic standpoint, as its dimensions of 19cm x 38cm x 41cm (WxHxD) may also be problematic if you plan on slotting it into a traditional TV cabinet. We've mentioned this in previous reviews of HP Media Center products, but alas the issue remains.
Otherwise, the design of the enclosure has obviously been well thought out. Two slide-open bays adorn the front of the case, one concealing a compartment for an optional Personal Media Drive (the 160GB model will set you back AU$399) and the other hiding a plethora of connectivity options. The Media Drive is USB-based and fully portable, making it ideal for sharing media files with friends. The front ports in the other compartment include a number of A/V inputs - S-Video, composite video, stereo audio, a headphone jack and a microphone jack - as well as two USB 2.0 ports and a Firewire port.
Front ports are convenient for hooking up temporary devices such as a video camera, but otherwise the wiring can get fairly messy so you'll want to move around back, where there are yet more connectivity options: four USB 2.0 ports, a Firewire port, digital audio inputs, and another set of S-Video, composite and stereo audio connections.
A testament to the huge success of the iPod is the top of the chassis, which features an iPod dock compartment for convenient interfacing with the PC. Further, HP has even modified Windows Media Center to provide iTunes support from the main GUI, which proved very handy during our testing.
Under the hood is an Intel Pentium D 830 dual-core processor, 1GB of DDR2 memory and a 200GB hard drive. The dual-core processor is a particularly fine inclusion, as many of the tasks such a system is used for (audio/video encoding, content creation, streaming, etc) are conducted through applications that support multiple threads. Thus, a dual-core processor can theoretically perform these tasks twice as fast as a single cored version. The memory and hard drive capacities are also ample, and mustn't be overlooked since the creation and streaming of multimedia files chews up more primary and secondary storage than virtually any other PC-related task.
Gamers will be pleased to hear that the system comes equipped with a reasonably powerful Nvidia GeForce 6600 256MB graphics card that includes both D-Sub and DVI connectors. However, it's a shame that the provided 17" HP vs17 LCD panel lacks DVI connectivity . Further, the system relies on the monitor's onboard speakers for all audio playback, which are clearly lacking in volume and clarity when compared with a dedicated sound system. As such, those that decide to purchase the m7199a would do well to configure it with a larger, more practical display, as well as an external speaker system. (Standalone system price is AU$2800 without the AU$499 monitor.)
Aside from the connectivity options mentioned above, the system also boasts a 9-in-1 card reader (supporting all major formats), a 16x dual-layer DVD burner that writes both +R and -R media, and 802.11b/g wireless support for beaming content around the house. Also of note is the fact that the DVD burner uses LightScibe technology, and so is capable of etching text and images onto the disc.
No media centre would be complete without the ability to receive TV and radio streams, and the m7199a's dual TV tuner card with FM tuner accomplishes this with ease. Once hooking up the relevant antennas, users can record multiple digital TV signals as well as pause live shows - all without leaving the couch as the system is equipped with a remote control and a wireless keyboard/mouse combo.
Enabling all of these features is a generous software suite, which includes Microsoft Windows XP Media Center 2005 (obviously), WinDVD 5, Sonic DigitalMedia Plus 7, Sonic MyDVD Plus 6.1, Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia 2005, iTunes 4.7.1, HP Image Zone Plus, muvee autoProducer, Microsoft Works 8.0, Microsoft Money 2005 and Norton AntiVirus 2005.
The m7199a lacks an EPG (Electronic Program Guide), but iceguide is a great third-party alternative.
Anyone that's thinking of purchasing a media centre PC must first understand that, unlike most conventional lounge-room devices, much configuration is required to get everything up and running smoothly. Granted, HP's wizards and documentation hold your hand throughout much of the process, but it's easy to feel intimidated nonetheless. Conversely, once the system is configured to receive signals, navigating through the different media centre functions is a no-brainer.
As mentioned, the system's internal components are extremely powerful and handled any living room application we threw at it, including more intensive tasks such as gaming. We even attempted to record live TV and play games simultaneously, and the m7199a didn't skip a beat.
The 200GB hard drive allowed for hours upon hours of recording, while the dual-layer DVD writer enabled us to archive these recordings quickly and painlessly.
If you can get past its questionable chassis design, you'll be hard pressed to find a more powerful or feature-rich media centre PC than the HP m7199a.