Polywell MiniBox 900VX-2800
When is a media-center PC not a Media Center PC? When it's equipped with Windows XP Home and third-party DVR software instead of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE). Polywell's MiniBox 900VX-2800 is one such system, a small-form-factor (SFF) PC that relies on disparate applications for recording TV, playing DVDs, listening to music, and so on. However, we think novice and mainstream users will prefer the seamless integration and easier operation of an MCE system, while power users will want more robust software than Polywell supplies.
About the size of a toaster oven, the MiniBox 900VX-2800 will fit nicely in dens, dorm rooms, and small apartments. It features a built-in media-card reader and front-mounted USB 2.0 and FireWire ports. Like many SFF PCs, however, its crowded interior makes expansion difficult. Although you have tool-free access to the top and side panels, you have to remove the drive cage (also a tool-free operation) to reach the memory and the expansion slots. The latter consist of three occupied PCI slots and, thankfully, one available AGP slot. Thus, it's possible to install a video card that's a lot more powerful than the onboard Nvidia MX440 graphics chip, and this is important if you have any aspirations of turning this into a gaming PC.
The rest of the MiniBox 900VX-2800's specs are solid: an AMD Athlon 64 2800+ processor runs the show, aided by 512MB of 400MHz memory and a pair of 160GB Serial ATA hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration. But while the diminutive PC turns in respectable application test scores, its 3D performance remains in the basement. Without a video card upgrade, you can forget playing most modern games.
You might want to consider a monitor upgrade as well. The MiniBox 900VX-2800 comes with a no-frills, 15-inch Pixo LCD monitor. We didn't expect much from this off-brand display, but it produced reasonably sharp text and vibrant color in regular Windows applications. Movies and television, however, revealed the monitor's mediocre contrast by exhibiting washed-out, overly bright video. Polywell's online configurator lists nearly two dozen monitor choices; at the very least, you should consider upgrading to a 17-inch LCD, which you can do for about $100.
The MiniBox 900VX-2800 also comes with an 8X multiformat DVD burner, an excellent Microsoft wireless mouse and keyboard combo, a Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS sound card, and Creative's 7.1-channel Inspire T7700 speaker system. This decidedly powerful setup is sure to please denizens of small spaces (if they can find room for all 7 satellites).
A WinFast TV tuner card enables the MiniBox 900VX-2800 to accept video input from cable, satellite, VCR, or just about any other source. Unfortunately, the accompanying WinFast PVR software is no TiVo (or MCE, for that matter). It lacks a program guide and requires undue effort just to record a show. The included remote control had no problem changing channels, but pressing its volume and mute buttons had no effect. Power users will definitely want to substitute a DVR program such as SageTV or SnapStream Beyond TV.
As for other software, there's lots: Nero OEM Suite for disc-authoring chores; InterVideo WinDVD 5.0; Ulead Cool 3D SE; DVD MovieFactory 2.5 SE; and VideoStudio 7.0 SE. Except for Nero, most of these are outdated or special-edition--that is, feature-stripped--applications, and therefore they are not particularly valuable.
Novices, take note: Polywell provides manuals for only certain components; we found no documentation pertaining to the system as a whole. The MiniBox 900VX-2800 does include a generous warranty--three years for parts, five years for labor--and toll-free phone support, though you have to purchase a warranty upgrade if you want 24/7 service, which is provided through a third-party company.
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