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Some things will always be the same. Public transport will make you late; UK summers will always be rubbish; Shuttle will forever release tiny desktop PCs that look like toasters. That last one isn't such a bad thing, though. The XPC G5 6801M makes for a very good Media Center PC that plays both Blu-ray and HD DVD movies, plus digital television, as well as the odd game.
The Shuttle XPC G5 6801M is available now and starts at around £825.
Shuttle doesn't pull any surprises with the physical design of the G5 6801M. It's based on the XPC Barebone SN68SG2 chassis, which looks pretty much like every other Shuttle we've seen -- toaster-ish. The most interesting thing about the system is the visual status panel that sits half way down the front panel. It may look like an LCD, but it's actually a VFD -- a vacuum fluorescent display, which shows system status messages.
Physically, the unit is commendable. It's not as intrusive as traditional ATX chassis, and it's small enough for you to install it in a number of unusual places. Be warned, though, it may look out of place when sat next to your existing AV equipment.
The G5 6801M can be configured with a range of components via the Shuttle Web site, which insists on using Euro pricing. We've converted the prices to pounds at the current exchange rate, with rate and prices taken at the time of writing. The entry-level system uses an Athlon 64 4200+ CPU, but for an extra £28 you can get a slightly quicker 5200+, or for £56 more, a 6000+ CPU. Speed freaks would be best off going for as fast a CPU as they can afford, particularly if you're interested in hardcore multimedia multitasking, such as recording TV while watching an HD Movie.
It's worth remembering that the faster your CPU, the hotter it'll run and the more noise it'll make. That's not something you want when you're watching a movie, so we'd recommend spending any extra money on more or faster memory. The default configuration ships with 2GB of DDR2 667MHz memory, but for an extra £4, you can get 2GB of faster 800MHz memory. Don't bother with the 4GB of DDR2 667MHz memory at £26 extra -- the PC ships with the 32-bit version of Windows Vista Home Premium, which only recognises 3GB. Anything above that is a waste of money.
Arguably the most important upgrade in a Media Center PC is the hard drive. The G5 6801M ships with a 320GB disk as standard, but with that amount, other Media Center owners will laugh at you. An extra £13 buys you a 400GB drive, which isn't bad, but if you do that, you may as well spend £16 on a 500GB drive instead. Things start to get more expensive if you buy the £62 750GB drive or the £72 1TB drive -- but you'll be the envy of your file-sharing friends.
We're all aware that HD DVD is a dead format.
If you were silly enough to invest in it, don't worry -- you can still
enjoy your movies via the G5 6801M's hybrid optical drive, which also
plays Blu-ray. If regular telly is all you're after, then the bundled
DVB-T Freeview TV tuner should be right up your street. We recommend
you spend either an extra 79p on the model with an FM tuner, or better
still an extra £6 on the model with Freeview as well as analogue TV --
in case digital reception at your home is dodgy.
HD movies traditionally demand a decent graphics card to play smoothly. The trouble with those is they make a lot of noise, which isn't a desirable characteristic in a home cinema PC. Luckily, the G5 6801M uses a graphics card designed specifically with this environment in mind -- an ATI Radeon HD 3450. Not only is it fairly quick, but it also doesn't generate much heat or noise.
The G5 6801M comes with Vista Home Premium edition, as we've already discussed. It also comes with a choice of movie playback software. The standard package includes the two-channel version of PowerDVD 7.3 Ultra -- which lets you play audio in stereo. If you have surround-sound speakers you might be better off spending an extra £35 on the 7.1-channel version of the software. An infrared remote control is included as standard.
The G5 6801M offers fairly average performance. The Athlon 64 X2 4200+ in our review sample achieved a PCMark 2005 score of 5,902, which isn't going to worry an Alienware or Dell XPS any time soon. Don't be put off, though. This score, plus our own anecdotal tests indicate the machine is perfectly fit for purpose -- playing media with no hassle.
The G5 6801M isn't very impressive graphically. The ATI Radeon HD 3450 racked up 1,720 in 3DMark 2006, showing it's fast enough to play the odd game, so long as you don't crank the screen resolution up too high.
The amount of noise the G5 6801M produces can best be described as fairly low. It's nowhere near silent -- few PCs are -- but it shouldn't annoy you while you're watching a flick. The noise will be quite noticeable if you sleep with the machine in your bedroom, but generally-speaking, it's pretty quiet.
The G5 6801M is decent all-round machine, which fares best in a home cinema environment. We like the fact it supports both HD DVD and Blu-ray, plus has a TV tuner, and is fairly quiet in operation. Its boxy looks means it might not look so at home in a living room, so if that's a concern, we'd recommend looking into the far more attractive Asus A33.
Edited by Shannon Doubleday