Sys's bargain- basement media PC
While the $999 Sys MediaMax S2600 earns points for style, we were disappointed by its lackluster performance and low-end components. The flashy home-theater-friendly case and accompanying A/V accessories--including a TV tuner--meet the baseline home-entertainment PC requirements, but the overall performance is hindered by its AMD Sempron 3100+, a substandard CPU that has never performed well in our tests. We don't expect a sub-$1,000 PC to break records, but we feel Sys could have built a stronger system for the price.
The MediaMax S2600's silver nMedia HTPC 100 chassis will look right at home in a stereo rack, and it's quiet enough to coexist with other living-room components. A digital readout on the front of the system is abutted by panels on each side that slide back to reveal multimedia connections: a 7-in-1 flash-card reader on the right and one FireWire port, two USB 2.0 ports, and two audio jacks (headphone and microphone) on the left. The blue-lit LCD panel gives the MediaMax an edgy look but doesn't provide much useful information. Statistics such as fan speed, CPU temperature, and case temperature are useful for high-end, overclocked systems but are hardly needed on this class of desktop. Instead, typical multimedia status information--CD/DVD tracks and titles, elapsed play time, and current TV channel--would make more sense.
Just above the Sys MediaMax S2600's LCD panel sits a lone double-layer DVD burner, which we were glad to see instead of a CD-RW/DVD combo drive (any system with a TV tuner ought to have a DVD burner). Around back, you'll find connections for TV, FM radio, S-Video, and stereo-in RCA jacks--all courtesy of the AVerMedia UltraTV PCI card. This TV-tuner card did an adequate job of processing the signal from our satellite box, but we saw a significant amount of noise and loss of clarity, although no more than with most current PC TV tuners.
An add-in PCI card provides three more FireWire ports on the rear of the Sys MediaMax S2600, and the final PCI slot is occupied by a 56K modem card. With all PCI slots filled, there's no room for expansion unless you start swapping out parts, which is unfortunate since the S2600 could use a high-end sound card. The same goes for drive bays; you get no room for additional storage or optical drives, a situation made worse by the S2600's 80GB hard drive. That's woefully undersized for storing large media files such as recorded TV programs. Integrated connections on the rear include four USB 2.0 ports, a fast Ethernet port, and jacks for six-channel audio--a typical array for any grade of PC.
The Sys MediaMax S2600's bundled 17-inch CTX LCD is capable of a maximum resolution of 1,280x1,024, which is adequate for watching video at your desk but not from your couch across the room. The Altec Lansing two-piece speaker set is barely adequate for playing music, let alone movies. We recommend integrating the MediaMax S2600 into your existing home-theater setup or buying a better set of PC speakers. A compact wireless keyboard, a remote control, and a USB remote sensor are also part of the deal. The keyboard features 16 red multimedia keys for playing movies and music, displaying photos and video clips, and accessing the Web. The keyboard also comes with an integrated mouse pointer, which, once you get used to it, is very convenient if you're parked on the couch.
At the heart of the MediaMax S2600 beats an AMD Sempron 3100+ processor running at 1.8GHz. The system also comes with 512MB of 400MHz DDR memory. We have no qualms about the memory, but the CPU is problematic. The MediaMax S2600 turned in unimpressive scores on our SysMark 2004 benchmark test, finishing second to last out of five recently reviewed sub-$1,000 PCs. You should still be able to accomplish most around-the-house computing tasks, but for the home office or anything beyond Web browsing, word processing, and basic media playing, you can find a better-performing PC for the money.
As a gaming system, no sub-$1,000 system really gets the job done. While we appreciate the S2600's AGP slot for upgrading the PC's video capabilities (if not the 128MB Nvidia FX 5200 AGP video card that comes included), both Nvidia and ATI are beginning to favor the newer PCI Express standard. Your options for an AGP upgrade, while currently strong, may dwindle with newer 3D-card releases. As for the current hardware, on our Unreal Tournament 2003 3D-gaming tests, the Sys MediaMax S2600 showed that it can handle older 3D games when played at lower resolutions, but couldn't complete the more 3D-graphics intensive Half-Life 2 tests. We wouldn't recommend the current configuration for gaming.
Interestingly, our review system came loaded with Windows XP Home Edition rather than (MCE). As of this writing, Sys doesn't offer MCE as an option. Instead, the bundled CyberLink PowerCinema 3.0 software handles media-control duties such as watching TV, scheduling program recordings, playing music from your digital library, creating picture slide shows with background music, and listening to FM radio.