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Unlike PCs based on Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition OS, which have fairly lofty ambitions, Niveus Media's Onebox Media Center aims a bit lower. Based on Windows XP, but with proprietary software for handling entertainment tasks, the Onebox aims to be an entertainment system first; its use as a PC comes in a distant second.
Designed to aggregate several entertainment features--a DVD player, a digital video recorder (DVR), and a digital-picture viewer--the Onebox looks like it belongs in the living room rather than on a desktop, and it sounds like it, too, thanks to nearly silent operation. The Onebox is shaped like a standard VCR and clad in a matte-silver finish with little adornment. Two flip-down front panels reveal a DVD drive, a six-in-one flash-media-card reader, and several ports, including one FireWire and two USB 2.0 connectors. The rear panel features a full complement of PC ports, including parallel and serial connectors, but these seem a bit out of place, given the device's intended use.
Our test unit, based on a 1GHz Via C3 processor and 512MB of DDR SDRAM (though the system is now being offered with only 256MB of memory), proved to be no speed demon from a computing standpoint. But its 80GB internal hard drive can hold plenty of recorded TV shows, and the 64MB ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon 7500 graphics card delivers smooth DVD playback. We hooked the Onebox to a CRT monitor via the All-in-Wonder's VGA port, but you can also connect it to a television using the card's S-Video port. The system supports 5.1 surround-sound audio, but only through the graphics card's S/PDIF and composite-video outputs.
You control the Onebox with the bundled wireless remote/mouse. At press time, the final version of the remote was not ready, so we had to test the system with a different one, which had poorly labeled buttons and no remote-mouse feature. Pressing the remote's power button turns on the Onebox, boots Windows XP, and starts the Onebox Media Center software, which brings up a TV screen. It takes about a minute to load.
In general, the Onebox's own Media Center software works fine. Its large onscreen icons are great for across-the-room viewing, while the pop-up virtual keyboard lets you rename channels and label digital pictures with ease. But jumping back and forth between Media Center and Windows XP was a clunky experience with our prerelease version of the software. Worse, as a television, the Onebox takes too long to switch on, and it occasionally needs rebooting. (Niveus suggests that you place the Onebox in Suspend mode so that powering up the TV function takes less time.)
An even greater concern is Niveus's confusing support policy. Although basic coverage consists of a 90-day parts-and-labor warranty, the company offers buyers a "free extended limited warranty," which stretches it to a full year. There are a couple of catches, however. For one, you'll have to prepay shipping charges and retain your proof of purchase for service. Thankfully, tech support calls are toll-free and available during West Coast business hours.