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Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme - Pentium Extreme Edition 955 3.46 GHz - 19 TFT review: Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme - Pentium Extreme Edition 955 3.46 GHz - 19 TFT

Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme - Pentium Extreme Edition 955 3.46 GHz - 19 TFT

Rick Broida Senior Editor
Rick Broida is the author of numerous books and thousands of reviews, features and blog posts. He writes CNET's popular Cheapskate blog and co-hosts Protocol 1: A Travelers Podcast (about the TV show Travelers). He lives in Michigan, where he previously owned two escape rooms (chronicled in the ebook "I Was a Middle-Aged Zombie").
Rick Broida
10 min read
Review summary
There's no question that the $3,941 Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme is a very powerful computer. It uses Intel's fastest CPU and a respectable graphics card and offers plenty of memory and storage space. It did well on our tests against other Viiv systems, and it even stacked up favorably against some high-end gaming PCs. The problem is that we have a hard time justifying that much performance for a system that's designed for the relatively forgiving tasks of living-room media playback. And just because it adheres to Intel's new Viiv home-theater PC standard doesn't mean that it's all that special. If you're a gamer or otherwise need that much power, you can get more bang for your buck from an AMD-based configuration such as a Velocity Micro system. We also can't ignore the new Intel-based Mac Minis. You can buy one of those and a competitive gaming PC and still spend less than you would on this Polywell system. Designed with home theaters in mind, the Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme's black, component-style metal case is on the large side, about the size of a 200-disc CD changer. You may need to adjust some shelving on your A/V rack to fit it, but its smooth, seamless-looking front-end should help ease the nerves of anyone who's against the idea of having a computer in their living room.
Still, we have a few gripes about this case. We wish it had a front-panel status window, for one. The Alienware DHS 2 Media Center, has a digital display that shows channel, song, and other context-specific information, especially important if you don't want your television or another display on while you're simply listening to music. The Poly 975 also lacks front-mounted playback controls for those times when the remote goes missing. Even worse, there's no media reader for feeding it cards from your digital camera, and Polywell doesn't give you the option to add one--a huge oversight for a self-proclaimed Media Center PC. At least Polywell paid attention to sound-dampening, as the system makes little noise. Thankfully, Polywell offers a variety of cases for this system, a mix between home theater-style cases and standard midtowers.
On the plus side, the Poly 975MCE-Extreme has four front-accessible USB 2.0 ports, along with FireWire, headphone, and microphone ports--all closeted behind a small spring-loaded door. We were also surprised to find three PCI Express slots inside the case, two of which are still vacant. One's an x16 graphics slot--meaning you could actually install a second graphics card to create an SLI powerhouse--the other is an x4 slot, which remains hard to find a good use for. We have questions about the utility of SLI for a home-theater system, especially because the component-style case doesn't lend itself well to gaming. The one remaining standard PCI slot is partially blocked by wires, though with some careful nudging you could get a card in there, and since the system has no dedicated sound card, we think that's an obvious choice. Amazingly, the case can accommodate two additional hard drives--in case the existing four aren't sufficient.
Finally, while component-style cases aren't an outright problem, we have particular concern for Polywell's pairing of this case with this configuration. Polywell obviously tried to make a hybrid gaming/home-theater system. Our opinion is that the days where a configuration like this makes sense are gone, and good riddance. For $1,300, you can get a Mac Mini Core Duo with the added external TV tuner that will handle virtually all of your home-theater chores. Then for another $2,000 to $2,800, you can buy a ready-made, SLI-ready Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge Dual X from Best Buy that will give you identical or better 3D gaming performance. If you're space-constrained, then perhaps the all-in-one model is for you, but if you have the room, we'd recommend two systems that each do one job well for the price, rather than one system that overachieves at one task while underperforming on another. As we stated in the design section, our main confusion with this system lies with the high-end part inside the living-room-friendly case. The Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme includes a number of high-performance parts that set this system far apart from the other Viiv systems we've reviewed. Chief among the premium components is the dual-core Pentium Extreme Edition 955 processor, which alone represents $957 of the system's cost. Sure it's fast, but AMD's high-end dual-core chip, the Athlon 64 FX-60 is faster. The Intel chip sits on an Intel 975XB motherboard and is accompanied by 1GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM. This core should provide you with enough power to accomplish any basic task (as its benchmark scores prove), but it's also arguably overkill. We've seen the $799 Apple Mac Mini Core Duo in action, and it handled HD decoding fine, at least at 1080i. Unless you're a gamer, you don't need this much power. If you are gaming, we recommend neither an Intel CPU, nor playing on your television, which this component-style case is suited to.
Along that same line of thinking, many home-theater PCs come with low-end graphics cards, giving you enough power for TV and movie playback but only the bare minimum for games. The Polywell tries to please everyone here as well, stocking a 256MB GeForce 7800GT card--a card commonly found in high-end gaming systems. This upgrade is a bit easier to understand than the Extreme Edition CPU, since the Nvidia card will help improve video quality, and it should also be robust enough to handle Windows Vista's Aero Glass effects, should you decide to upgrade later this year. The Poly 975 also comes with an Nvidia dual-TV-tuner card that can record up to two shows at once, even while you're watching a third show. All that's missing from the mix is an over-the-air (ATSC) HDTV tuner, but Polywell doesn't offer one.
A pair of Sony drives--one a double-layer DVD burner, the other a DVD/CD-RW combo--covers all the optical-storage and movie-watching bases. An onboard Intel audio chip provides 7.1-channel Dolby sound, which is fine, but at this price a discrete sound card is mandatory. Polywell offers several, but it'll cost you extra.
For hard drives, Polywell deploys two fast drives--10,000rpm, 74GB Western Digital Raptors--on a RAID-0 controller, then divides them into unequal partitions: a 30GB C: drive for Windows and system files, and a 118GB E: drive for games and applications. The third and fourth drives, 250GB each, reside on a standard Serial ATA controller and are intended for data storage, backup, and whatever. This is an excellent setup, one that lends itself equally well to performance and easy backups. There's just one problem: Polywell forget to configure the Media Center OS to store TV programs on one of the big drives. Out of the box, it's set to record to the 30GB partition, meaning you'll quickly run out of space. Fortunately, this is easily remedied, but Polywell shouldn't leave it to the user to do so.
Our review unit came with a fabulous 19-inch Hyundai L90D+ LCD. It features both analog and digital (DVI) inputs, a height-adjustable base, and a game- and movie-friendly 8-millisecond response time. It can even rotate 90 degrees for desktop publishing and the like, though you'll have to install the necessary pivot software yourself. In informal testing, we found the L90D+'s images to be razor-sharp and suitably vibrant, with maybe a hint less color saturation than we'd prefer. But games and action-filled movies exhibited no apparent ghosting or blurring, making this a great screen for its intended applications. If, like us, you think a 19-inch display is a mismatch for a component-style case, Polywell also offers a range of monitors, up to and including a 50-inch Samsung plasma HDTV that will set you back only another $30,500 or so.
Like the bundled 19-inch LCD, the included speakers are fine for a desktop or even small den environment, but not for a living room. Creative's Inspire P7800 set combines a whopping seven satellites and a subwoofer for 7.1-channel audio goodness, and make no mistake: the system sounds great. It's loud and deep, perfect for games and movies (though perhaps a bit overbearing for music). But this is a relatively low-end package (it retails for $100), and it probably won't satisfy audiophiles who crave features such as THX. What's more, we didn't care for the volume control, a wired dial that not only gets in the way, but also seems to go from soft to ear-splitting with the slightest touch.
Microsoft's Bluetooth-enabled Keyboard Elite and IntelliMouse Explorer make for easier couch-potato computing than IR components that require line-of-sight connections. However, we had no end of trouble getting them working. The instructions (if you can get to them; they're on the computer) are almost comical: You're supposed to navigate into the Add Devices menu, then pair and add the mouse and keyboard. But that's a little hard to do...without a working mouse and keyboard! At the very least, you'll need to plug in your own wired mouse just to get the components working properly.
The keyboard itself is a big, comfy, button-rich affair with a wonderful built-in wrist rest, but it's not specifically designed for Windows Media Center (unlike Microsoft's Media Center Keyboard, which Polywell mysteriously doesn't offer), so it can't take the place of the included remote--another strike against making the Poly 975MCE-Extreme your living-room PC.
On the software side, Polywell delivers a couple of great games, Call of Duty 2 and King Kong, and half a dozen little-known ones (including Chaos League, Temple of Time, and Savage). The multimedia selections aren't terribly impressive: CyberLink's PowerDVD, Power Director 3DE (the latest version is 5) and MediaShow 2 SE (also an outdated version); and NTI DVD-Maker 7. Notably absent is any kind of antivirus software, which feels simply lazy. Thanks to its high-end Intel processor, the Polywell Poly 975-MCE-Extreme achieves admirable SysMark 2004 scores, although you can also see how it's outclassed by a system using AMD's Athlon 64 FX-60 chip. Both are dual-core CPUs, although there are still plenty of single core-oriented applications out there, which SysMark 2004 represents nicely.
The ABS Ultimate M6 Sniper is a $4,799 PC, but most of that price falls to the ABS's expensive SLI graphics cards. The rest of the ABS system is nearly identical to the Polywell's. But the Polywell's overall SysMark rating is 15 percent slower than the ABS system's. The only other Viiv system we've reviewed that approaches the Poly 875's performance is the Dell XPS 400, which had an overall SysMark score that was 16 percent slower than the Polywell's. In other words, the Polywell is plenty fast enough for day-to-day tasks, and you should have no problem doing whatever you want with it, but its performance places it squarely between the gaming-oriented ABS and the more mainstream Dell XPS 400.
Application performance  (Longer bars indicate better performance)
BAPCo SysMark 2004 rating  
SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation rating  
SysMark 2004 office-productivity rating  

The Polywell's 3D scores are more troubling, and it's here where you need to remember that Polywell tried to make the Poly 975MCE-Extreme a hybrid system. By giving its system a single 256MB GeForce 7800 GT card, Polywell can claim some gaming capability. On Doom 3 at 1,024x768, its PC had a time of 99 frames per second (fps). That's plenty quick for mainstream gaming. The problem is that it's a $3,900 PC. We can forgive that to a certain extent considering it's loaded with Media Center PC-specific hardware, but when you look at the 3D scores of the $1,999 Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge Dual X T1300 and see that they're basically identical, you have to start wondering about the two-PC scenario we outlined in the design section.

Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
System configurations:
ABS Ultimate M6 Sniper
Windows XP Professional SP2; 2.6GHz AMD Athlon 64 FX-60; Nvidia Nforce4 SLI X16 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; two 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX (SLI); two Western Digital WD946D 74GB 10,000rpm Serial ATA, one Seagate 500GB Serial ATA; integrated Nvidia Nforce4 Serial ATA RAID Controller (RAID 0)
Dell XPS 400
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.2GHz Intel Pentium D 940; Intel 945P chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 6800 (PCIe); (2) Maxtor, 250GB, 7,200rpm, SATA; integrated Intel (RAID 1)
iBuyPower Viiv-350
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 2.8GHz Intel Pentium D 820; Intel 945G chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 667MHz; 128MB ATI X300 (PCIe); Seagate, 160GB, 7,200rpm, SATA
Polywell Poly 975MCE-E
Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005; 3.46GHz Intel Pentium Extreme Edition 955; Intel 975X chipset; 1,024MB DDR2 SDRAM 533MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GT (PCIe); (2) WDC WD740GD-00FLC0, 74GB, 10,000rpm, SATA, (2) Maxtor 7Y250M0, 250GB, 7,200rpm, SATA; Integrated Silicon SiL3114 SoftRAID5 (RAID 0)
Velocity Micro Gamer's Edge Dual T1300
Windows XP Home SP2; 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 3800+; Nvidia Nforce4 chipset; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 256MB Nvidia GeForce 7800GT (PCIe); WDC WD2500JD-00HBB0 250GB 7,200rpm Serial ATA Novices, take note: Polywell provides manuals only for certain components-nothing pertaining to the system as a whole. The only "setup guide" is a one-page diagram of the system that identifies the various parts and ports. There's nothing pertaining to A/V connections or setting up the problematic Bluetooth mouse and keyboard.
The Poly does include a generous warranty-three years for parts, five years for labor-and toll-free phone support (8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. M-F, PT), though you have to purchase a warranty upgrade if you want 24/7 service or onsite service, both of which are provided through a third-party company. The prices are reasonable: $75 per year (up to three years) for onsite and 24/7 service, $35 per year for 24/7 alone. At Polywell's Web site we found a decent support section, including an option for live chat with a tech-always a plus.

Polywell Poly 975MCE-Extreme - Pentium Extreme Edition 955 3.46 GHz - 19 TFT

Score Breakdown

Design 5Features 5Performance 7Support 6