Polywell MiniBox2 939NP review: Polywell MiniBox2 939NP

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The Good AMD Athlon X2 processor; large hard drives; price includes speakers and display; dual optical drives.

The Bad Limited A/V outputs; somewhat noisy for a Media Center system; integrated graphics.

The Bottom Line The Polywell MiniBox2 939NP Media Center PC earns points for its dual-core processor and capacious storage, but home-theater enthusiasts will require more A/V input and output choices.

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6.5 Overall

Polywell MiniBox2 939NP

You can take a number of paths when jumping into the world of Media Center PCs. You could pair component-style box with your A/V receiver, or if your home-theater cabinet is full, you could stick a traditional desktop chassis in a closet or an office and access its contents via a Media Center extender. There's also the option of a small-form-factor (SFF) case, which you can hide (or display proudly) among your living-room components. We've seen SFF Media Center PCs from Shuttle and Polywell that have attempted--with mixed results--to squeeze a fully functional Media Center PC into a tiny case. Polywell's latest effort is the MiniBox2 939NP, a $1,899 SFF Media Center PC that offers a dual-core AMD processor, a surprising amount of storage, and decent room for upgrades. Despite its use of the integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 graphics chipset, it provides the muscle needed for its intended multimedia use.

Like the first MiniBox PC we reviewed earlier this year, the MiniBox2 939NP's mini-ATX case is larger than your typical SFF PC and measures 13 inches high, 11 inches wide, and 16.8 inches deep. Even with its added dimensions, you'll find the maneuvering tight. Two optical drives, a double-layer DVD burner, a CD-RW drive, and two vertically mounted hard drives are crammed in, along with a TV tuner card and a 500-watt power supply. Getting to the two free RAM slots seems impossible through the thicket of somewhat untidy wires inside the case. To be fair, no one ever said fitting 500GB of storage, two optical drives, and a TV tuner into an SFF case would be easy.

It's a feat to pack so many features into a small case, but it also causes a problem with acoustics, an important consideration if the system is going to be a member of future movie nights in your home. Three sizable fans are needed to cool the dense electronics, and they generate more noise than we would have liked. Overall, the MiniBox2 939NP was considerably louder than other living room PCs we've tested, such as the Niveus Denali and the S1Digital Media Center, but no more so than the average desktop.

We found the Polywell MiniBox2 939NP too noisy for a cramped New York City apartment, and we banished it to our home office closet. Using a Media Center extender, we were easily able to view the PC's content on our living-room TV, but since Media Center extenders are fairly picky about the kind of video files they'll play, most users will want to hook the system up directly to their home-theater setups. For example, we were unable to play AVI or VOB files, which prevented us from accessing our centralized movie collection without connecting the PC directly to our home theater. Unfortunately, the MiniBox2 939NP lacks many of the A/V connections we've seen on some of the high-end entertainment PCs we've looked at. Video output options are limited to DVI and VGA ports, no S-Video or component outs. Audio outputs are basic onboard 5.1 sound, but we would like to see discrete stereo RCA outs. Most home-theater TVs have DVI inputs, but users of older analog sets might be out of luck.

A dual-core Athlon 64 X2 3800+ CPU powers the Polywell MiniBox2 939NP, and the chip is an excellent choice for a multitasking multimedia machine, where the PC is called on to play or record media files while performing other tasks. In CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 benchmarks, it easily beat Dell's compact XPS 200 Media Center, which uses a dual-core Pentium D 830, by 23 percent. Shuttle's XPC 8300mc small-form-factor Media Center with a single-core Pentium 4 530 was 34 percent slower. These results should come as no surprise if you've read our CPU prizefight feature.

The integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 graphics aren't going to push many polygons in the latest 3D games. We were able to get playable frame rates in older titles at a moderate resolution, but a Media Center system such as this is clearly not designed with gamers in mind. Image quality from the dual-tuner TV tuner card was acceptable, displaying the same soft image quality you'd get from any PC TV tuner.

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