NEC's PowerMate DL H7204 desktop PC is the first Intel Viiv certified machine to pass through our labs. After extensive testing our preconceptions are confirmed; it's still early days for Viiv and there's quite a way to go before its potential is realised.
Aside from the Viiv logo adorning the chassis, there's little to differentiate the H7204 from any other desktop PC on the market. The Viiv brand grew out of the demand for home theatre PCs, but the H7204's aesthetics are far removed from the traditional home theatre component, as the machine uses a tower form factor that may look out of place in some living rooms.
As far as we know, the reason behind the adoption of the tower format for many Viiv PCs is that manufacturers assume most users will continue to place their PC in the bedroom/home office, and use a Viiv network of certified Digital Media Adaptors (DMA) to beam content around the house. Unfortunately, Viiv-certified DMAs are yet to reach the Australian market, as outlined under "Features".
Another indication that the machine isn't necessarily suited for use from the couch in your lounge room is the fact that it comes bundled with a wired keyboard and mouse. It's also bundled with a NEC PV910 19-inch LCD monitor, but buyers that want to hook the machine up to their own display (eg: a TV) can opt to pass on the monitor, bringing the overall price down to AU$2600.
While on the subject of connecting to external displays, this is facilitated via DVI, VGA or S-Video ports. There's no HDMI, component or composite video outputs.
The front of the chassis offers up compartments for two optical drives, although only one of them is populated by default. Just below the optical drives is a 15-in-1 memory card reader and further below this is a set of handy front ports: 2 USB 2.0, one Firewire and audio jacks.
The H7204 is based on the latest Viiv specification, version 1.5. This gives it the ability to hook in to a network of other Viiv-certified components, such as DMAs, set-top boxes and wireless routers. According to Kate Burleigh, Marketing Manager for Intel Australia, the main difference between a Viiv-certified component and a non-certified one is that the former will be "automatically detected" by a Viiv PC, and can be manipulated/configured entirely with a remote from the couch.
Unfortunately, despite our extensive digging, we're yet to find a single Viiv-certified device that isn't a PC. Burleigh promises that these are due soon, however, and the three main launch partners are D-Link, Netgear and Linksys. Burleigh added that Netgear and Linksys will be the first two manufacturers to come out with Viiv hardware, and that further down the track Buffalo and Uniden will be verified for Viiv.
Although a few TV media types have pointed to Viiv-certified TV sets being available in the near future, Burleigh confirmed that, at least for the rest of 2006, Australians will be seeing nothing of the sort.
Until more Viiv-certified devices are available for purchase, in our opinion, Viiv is little more than a marketing slogan for Intel, much like its Centrino notebook brand.
To clarify, you're not necessarily forced to use Viiv-certified hardware with a Viiv PC. Burleigh told CNET.com.au that any of the current wireless streaming devices and routers are compatible, but Intel won't guarantee that they can be operated entirely with a remote control.
As with most media centre PCs, the H7204 comes equipped with a TV tuner and is capable of recording shows to the hard disk. This is handled through the Windows Media Center Edition interface, and recordings can be scheduled on the fly, through the integrated EPG or by setting a timer. Unfortunately, the EPG only provides details for the current and next program, as this is all that broadcasters are currently transmitting.
Whether you're gaming, watching TV, creating multimedia presentations, or doing all three at the same time, the H7204's set of internal components are more than up to the task. It's got a 3.2GHz Intel dual-core processor, 1GB DDR2-533 memory, a powerful ATI Radeon X1600 Pro graphics chip and an expansive 250GB hard drive.
Aside from the ability to network with other Viiv-certified devices, the other big drawcard for Viiv is the availability of loads of content streamed through the Internet. Some of Viiv's many content partners include Comedy Central, MTV, Yahoo, MSN, Reuters and XM online radio. All sorts of goodies are available, including short video clips (news, music, TV shows), audio downloads, and text formatted to be easily read three metres away from your couch.
The list of content partners and available content from said partners is updated on the fly over the internet, so you don't have to worry about installing software upgrades each time Intel adds a new partner.
Our initial impressions of this aspect of Viiv are positive, but there are a few caveats. For starters, most of the content is from the US and hosted on US servers, so load times are often frustratingly long and playback is choppy. Further, there are still some bugs to be worked out by many of the content partners; we often got served different content to that which we requested, and some content didn't appear at all.
Intel's Burleigh said that local content in the form of movie and music downloads is on the way and would be here "by Christmas". This will be a huge boost for Viiv and will take the concept of "video on-demand" closer to reality.
We were impressed with the system's overall performance. It handled games such as Doom 3 with ease, as well as all other tasks we threw at it including TV viewing and recording. We were also happy with the layout of the remote but, as mentioned, we would've preferred a wireless mouse and keyboard for using the PC in a living room environment.
The PC comes with a one year limited warranty. NEC's support team is locally based, and both phone support and e-mail support is available.
On its own the NEC PowerMate DL H7204 is a great PC, but if you specifically purchase it for the Viiv feature, you may be setting yourself up for disappointment at this point in time. Fortunately, this is set to change by the end of the year once local content and other Viiv-certified hardware arrives. Keep in mind, however, that Viiv-certified PCs based on Intel's new Core 2 Duo processor are due out soon, which may render this system obsolete quicker than usual.
The H7204 is currently available for purchase through Harvey Norman, Domayne and Joyce Mayne retailers.