summary The $1,987 Zeus PC Thunder Vibe makes some progress in the quest to merge your PC and your home-entertainment stack by integrating preboot CD-player and FM-radio functions into its small-form-factor case. Unfortunately, that's about the only innovative feature in this mainstream media PC. Home-media enthusiasts can find better deals from Shuttle and other vendors, and Zeus's "everything and the kitchen sink" approach to the media-control software ends up only confusing matters. You can do quite a lot with this system--both as a PC and as an entertainment device--but it takes entirely too much trouble to figure out how. The Zeus PC Thunder Vibe uses MSI's Mega PC 180 case, which is a misnomer for this small-form-factor case. The compact, attractive, black-and-blue aluminum case has several buttons and dials that make the system look more like a stereo than a PC. In fact, it can operate independently of Windows. Press the HiFi button on the front panel, and--thanks to Linux InstantOn technology--you can play CDs and listen to the radio without having to wait for Windows to load.
Press the HiFi button on the top left corner of the front panel to turn on the pre-Windows radio and CD player.
Hit the power button on the front panel, and the system boots up like any other Windows-based PC. For watching TV and performing DVR functions, Zeus serves up not one but two apps, each with its own remote. You have your choice of MSI's Media Center Deluxe III (MCD), an update to MCD II (which we first saw last fall in the Zeus Thunder DV) and ATI's MultiMedia Center software, which came bundled with the our test system's ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro graphics card. Unfortunately, each app has its limitations, resulting in a needlessly complex system.
Although MCD III offers an improved interface compared with that of its predecessor, its thin remote is terrible, requiring entirely too much pressure to register a key press. ATI's MultiMedia Center software is more useful, if for no other reason than because the remote control is much easier to use. But it can't control radio and CD-player functions when the PC is powered down.
Regardless of which suite you decide to use, both ATI's and MSI's media suites give you a one-stop shop for playing your media files and recording live TV. As we've seen with digital-video recording software in the past, neither suite will integrate with encoded set-top cable-TV boxes, making automated recording virtually impossible unless you have a direct cable-TV input. You also won't be able to use either of the included remotes to change channels on a set-top box--Zeus doesn't include an IR Blaster for redirecting the signal, an unfortunate omission.
Along the bottom edge of the front of the system, a panel slides down with the touch of a button to reveal two FireWire, dual USB 2.0, digital audio-in, and standard audio ports. The Thunder Vibe also features a six-in-one flash card reader, just beneath the flip-down door that hides the multiformat DVD-recordable drive. Around back, there's a standard legacy port array, plus an additional S/PDIF connector, and two USB 2.0 ports You'll also find S-Video, composite video, and a number of other A/V connectors on a dongle that connects to the ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro card. Three thumbscrews pop off to release the case cover, should you wish to access the system interior. A single available PCI slot represents the only unoccupied internal slot or bay.
Our Zeus PC Thunder Vibe test system featured an allotment of mainstream parts that get let it get the job done as both an entertainment device and a PC, although it accomplishes neither without some hurdles. An online configurator lets you customize the Thunder Vibe to fit your performance demands and your budget; our $1,987 review unit arrived with an Athlon XP 3000+ processor, 1GB of PC2700 memory, a 120GB IDE hard drive, and a 128MB ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro TV tuner/graphics card. This midrange All-In-Wonder is a good choice for an entertainment PC, but Zeus overprices it at $273. For a card that normally retails for $199 and is almost a year old, that's quite a markup.
ATI's All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro is not a bad graphics card, but you can find it at retail for $100 less than Zeus PC charges.
An 8X Sony DVD+/-RW drive and a 17-inch Samsung SyncMaster 173LCD round out the Thunder Vibe's video components. Clear enough for general use, the Samsung LCD also handles DVD playback quite well. The television image appeared blocky, but that had more to do with the signal from the All-In-Wonder card, which has always been less than ideal. We received no speakers with this unit, but you can add up to a 5.1 kit when you buy from Zeus PC online.
The Thunder Vibe comes preloaded with Windows XP Pro and some multimedia software, including Pinnacle Studio 8.0 and Pinnacle Hollywood FX packages for video editing. True to its entertainment focus, the Thunder Vibe doesn't ship with a productivity app, and Zeus doesn't offer any such option on its online configurator.
Zeus PC Thunder Vibe's average performance--a score of 143 on SysMark 2004--is appropriate given its mainstream configuration. Using an older AMD Athlon XP 3000+ processor and 333MHz memory, the Thunder Vibe can't compete with higher-end systems, but it still has enough power to run multimedia applications. Although AMD rates the 2.17GHz Athlon XP 3000+ to perform on a par with its 3.0GHz competition, the Thunder Vibe's SysMark scores trail 3.0GHz and 2.8GHz Pentium 4-based systems by a healthy margin. Still, in our testing, the Thunder Vibe had no problem handling its intended multimedia tasks of playing movies, displaying digital photos and TV programs, and recording TV.
To measure application performance, CNET Labs uses BAPCo's SysMark 2004, an industry-standard benchmark. Using off-the-shelf applications, SysMark measures a desktop's performance using office-productivity applications (such as Microsoft Office and McAfee VirusScan) and Internet-content-creation applications (such as Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia Dreamweaver).
3D graphics and gaming performance
With ATI's All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro, the Zeus PC Thunder Vibe performed well on our low-end test, but it struggled with our high-end test. Its score of 112.5 frames per second (fps) on our 1,024x768 Unreal Tournament means that at low resolutions, you'll be able to play today's 3D titles. You'll run into trouble, however, with the demanding games that are due out later this year, especially if you try to play them with higher detail settings. Unreal Tournament 2003 isn't a very demanding game compared with some more recent titles, and as the Thunder Vibe's 18.3fps score suggests on our high-end 1,600x1,200 test, gameplay wasn't that smooth. If you're realistic about the fact that the Thunder Vibe is a mainstream system and can handle only mainstream applications, you shouldn't be disappointed.
3D gaming performance (in fps) (Longer bars indicate better performance)
Note: * Denotes system does not support this resolution
To measure 3D gaming performance, CNET Labs uses Epic Games' Unreal Tournament 2003, widely used as an industry-standard benchmark. We use Unreal to measure a desktop's performance with the DirectX 8.0 (DX8) interface at a 32-bit color depth and at a resolution of 1,024x768 and 1,600x1,200. Antialiasing and anisotropic filtering are disabled during our 1,024x768 tests and are set to 4X and 8X, respectively, during our 1,600x1,200 tests. At this color depth and these resolutions, Unreal is an excellent means of comparing the performance of low-end to high-end graphics subsystems. We report the results of Unreal's Flyby-Antalus test in frames per second (fps).
Performance analysis written by CNET Labs technician David Gussman.
Find out more about how we test desktop systems.
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Windows XP Home; 2.8GHz Intel P4; Intel 865PE chipset; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; 128MB Nvidia GeForce FX 5200; WDC WD1200JB-00FUA0 1200GB 7,200rpm
Systemax Ascent 64
Windows XP Home; 2.0GHz AMD Athlon 64 3000+; Via K8T800 chipset; 256MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; 64MB ATI Radeon 7000; Samsung SP1203N 120GB 7,200rpm
Zeus PC Thunder Vibe
Windows XP Professional; 2.17GHz AMD Athlon XP 3000+; Nvidia Nforce-2; 1,024MB DDR SDRAM 333MHz; 128MB ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro; WDC WD1200JB-00FUA0 120GB 7,200rpm
Zeus PC backs the Thunder Vibe with a standard three-year parts-and-labor warranty; the customer is responsible for shipping defective hardware to the company for repair. Zeus doesn't offer any warranty upgrades or onsite repair, but it does provide toll-free technical phone support, available Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET. More impressive, our call to tech support was picked up on the first ring.
Zeus's bare-bones Web site leaves much to be desired. There's a helpful forum where you can post questions for support staff, but you'll find no tutorials, FAQs, or driver download pages. Printed documentation is sparse, and there's no electronic version of the manual on the hard drive, which is all the more disappointing given the complexity of the system. At least Zeus includes the graphics card manual, which is useful given that the All-In-Wonder 9600 Pro includes several adapters and inputs and outputs for various audio and video standards.