While some consumers are looking for a Media Center system that can pull double duty as an everyday PC, others seek a dedicated home-theater system that will rarely display anything other than Microsoft's Media Center front end. VidaBox is one of a handful of PC retailers (Niveus and S1 Digital are two others) who cater to the latter audience, producing systems that are more multimedia appliances than traditional PCs. The $2,897 VidaBox Slim lacks the high-end parts you'd expect at this price but adds media-friendly features, such as component video outputs, dual TV tuners, and S/PDIF audio connections. The lack of configuration options and the hermetically sealed chassis will keep many buyers away, but home-theater buffs looking for a specific feature set will find the VidaBox Slim to be a cheaper alternative than many other dedicated home-theater PCs.
The aluminum case of the VidaBox Slim (a matte black finish is also available) looks like a standard home-theater component or a large cable box. It measures 17 inches wide, 16.5 inches deep, and only 4 inches high. Four USB 2.0 slots are on the front panel, along with a DVD burner. Along the side of the front panel are hidden mic and headphone jacks, plus a single FireWire port.
The A/V connections are what a system like this is all about, and with the VidaBox Slim, we found a lot to like, but there were also a few missing pieces. Besides the usual VGA output, a dongle connection provides S-Video, composite, and component video outputs. We always like it when systems have component video outputs, as many cheaper big-screen LCD or plasma displays lack DVI or HDMI connections and usually have component video inputs as their only high-definition option. To be truly comprehensive, we would have liked to see DVI and HDMI outputs. HDMI is a rarity on PCs at this juncture, seen only on specialty systems such as the Sony VAIO XL1. We expect it to spout up on more PCs as Blu-ray and HD-DVD drives become more widespread, which will require HDMI outputs to play back some forms of copy-protected content.
VidaBox positions the system as a piece of home-theater equipment that happens to run Windows, rather than a desktop PC that happens to include more than your average amount of multimedia features. To that end, the chassis is virtually sealed shut, and opening the case to swap out components or add more RAM (especially annoying, as the Slim included only 1GB of RAM with no option for increasing that) would require some dexterity with an Allen wrench, if you dare to ignore the sticker across the back of the case warning that opening the chassis will void your warranty. We also found that the system BIOS was password-protected, meaning this is not a PC that encourages enthusiast tinkering.
That leaves us with the default specs as our only option: currently an aging AMD Athlon 64 3200+ CPU, 1GB of RAM, integrated Nvidia GeForce 6150 graphics, and a huge 500GB hard drive. The hard drive is one of the few features that you can customize, with storage capacities of up to 1.5TB in a RAID 5 array for an additional $1,299. A VidaBox rep told us that falling component prices could mean that the company will upgrade the CPU to a dual-core Athlon X2 3800+ later this year, but there are no upgrade options right now. A dual-core CPU would help when the system is engaged in two tasks at once--for example, recording a TV program in the background while playing music.
Predictably, the outdated CPU in the VidaBox Slim fell behind other current desktops' in CNET Labs' Multimedia tests. Even the budget-priced eMachines T6536, with an AMD Athlon 3800+ CPU, was notably faster. The VidaBox Slim did manage to best another recent Media Center we've looked at, the small-form-factor HP Pavilion Slimline s7500y, which uses a notebook CPU: the 1.7GHz Intel Pentium M 735. Despite its dated CPU, we didn't run into any performance issues with basic Media Center tasks.
With integrated graphics (and no graphics upgrade options are offered), gaming isn't much of an option on the VidaBox Slim. For an A/V-style system that can handle 3D gaming, we'd look to a system such as the Polywell Poly 975-MCE.
One area where the VidaBox Slim really excels is in packaged accessories. We found a generous helping of A/V cables, connectors and adapters packed in, along with an external USB multimedia card reader and a Media Center remote. The wireless multimedia keyboard is lap-size, for easy couch surfing, but the built-in trackball on the keyboard is your only pointing device--no mouse is included. Two analog TV tuners are built in, but the chance of needing both at the same time is slim, unless you have two cable boxes you want to hook up to the PC.