Microsoft's assault on the living room has been more of a trickle than a stampede, but manufacturers are slowly catching on to the fact that determination is not enough -- this is a battle of stealth. Make your Media Center PC look like a DVD player and you've got a much better chance of getting through the door and into the TV cabinet. While the innards of the Artisan aren't much different from those of any other Media Center PC, Elonex has made a respectable effort to dress the Artisan for the occassion.
This Media Center looks like a VCR -- albeit a VCR from the 1980s -- and it felt immediately at home under our TV. It's the ideal Media Center PC for anyone who doesn't want a PC violently crowbarred into their living space. It's not exactly a relaxing piece of design -- the black gloss of Darth Vader's helmet comes to mind -- and it demands some tinkering before working properly. But nevertheless, the Artisan sparkles in a club that has few endearing members.
The Artisan's nondescript cardboard package disgorges the system unit -- a heavy 430x440x110mm metal box -- plus a remote control and wires. From the front, the Artisan does a convincing impression of a home appliance, but the rear is a mass of connections. Although confusing at first glance, you do get the benefit of an enormous range of input and output options, all of which are clearly labelled and colour-coded.
The Artisan may resemble a VCR, but it takes up significantly more room than its venerable predecessor. If you have a smaller television stand you may want to check that there is enough room to store the Artisan plus any cables protruding from its back (the entire unit can take up as much as half a metre from face to cable trail). If there's not enough room in your current setup you'll have to factor a different stand into the cost.
Most functions on the Artisan are accessed through the generic Media Center remote control Microsoft provides with Windows XP Media Center Edition. This means that the control panels on the front of the Artisan are a sparse affair. Two flip-down panels conceal the Artisan's only built-in controls. One panel contains fast-forward, rewind and play; the other a range of memory card readers.
The keyboard bundled with the Artisan is solid, but not especially luxurious. It sits comfortably enough on the lap, but the human lap has never been the ideal place to type from. For basic Web navigation it's tolerable, but type for any extended length of time and you'll want to use a table to rest on. Our review model didn't come with a mouse, so you'll have to purchase one separately or use the remote control.
We've never been fans of tray-loading CD drives in living-room appliances -- there's too much risk of a child snapping off the tray -- but Elonex has chosen to install one in the Artisan. The tray itself is slightly flimsy, as are most CD drive trays, and we'd like to see Elonex introduce a slot loader in its next revision of the design.
Designed principally as a replacement for your home VCR, DVD player and surround-sound system, the Artisan is well equipped for the task. Before you buy it you'll have to consider whether you want it to cooperate with your Sky Digibox. The Artisan comes in two versions, the LX and the LXD. The LX model features an FM radio and analogue TV tuner that's compatible with the Sky Digibox. The LXD features DVB-T radio and digital receivers for Freeview.
The LXD version is our recommendation because it can receive Freeview. If you have Sky and you choose the LX version of the Artisan, you'll have to connect it up to your Sky box in a kludgy way. You'll sacrifice a lot of the usefulness of dual tuners because your Sky Digibox output will appear on one fixed channel and the sound will be mono (unless you use an external device called a Universal Modulator). To us, this seems like a lot of hassle for very little reward.
Because the Artisan is equipped with two tuners, you can record one programme while watching a different one. All the standard Media Center PC functions are here as well, including the ability to pause live TV and access sophisticated programme scheduling information to preset recording.
Video output is supplied through coaxial, VGA, S-video or DVI outputs, which essentially means that if you have a screen, the Artisan can display video on it. Watching DVDs on a DVI connection is still a rare treat in the living room, and you'll definitely get the best performance if your television can accept this type of connection. As a general rule with Media Center PCs, VGA is good, but S-video is depressingly muddy -- steer clear of it.
Sound is taken care of by a Dolby Digital 7.1-channel surround-sound system that provides substantial clout when linked up to a decent amplification system. If your living room is only equipped with a two-channel system (stereo) then you can use the line-level out audio phono connectors. Alternatively, there are Digital Optical and Digital Coaxial (SPDIF) connections for the more refined audiophile.
DVD playback and recording is done via standard-fare Windows applications. The internal drive is a DVD±R/RW burner which can produce discs that are ready for playback on any normal DVD player. You can also burn audio CDs. Other data storage options include memory cards, the internal hard disk or an external USB or FireWire drive.
A DVB-T radio receiver is built into the LXD version of the Artisan. The Artisan is also Wi-Fi equipped and will home in on available networks and give you the option to join them via the standard Windows control panels.
Our review model came with a Pentium 4 530 processor, 512MB of memory and a 200Gb hard disk. This is more than adequate for PVR tasks and entry-level gaming. The Artisan's 128MB ATI Radeon X300 graphics card is a respectable workhorse and the Artisan is HDTV-ready.
Thanks to some carefully considered heat sinks and cooling routes, the Artisan is very quiet. In the past, we've heavily criticised Media Center PCs for their excessive operating noise, as it can become very irritating to have the constant whirring of a fan in your living room. VCRs were quiet and Microsoft would love to replace them with Media Centers, so it's a promising sign that these machines are getting closer to silent.
Setting up the Artisan wasn't trivial, but certainly easier than the experience we've had with some other Media Centers. Video readily displayed from the S-video, VGA and DVI outputs without any persistent problems. Windows is not ideally suited to switching monitors and resolutions on the fly, but Elonex has made some wise component choices that make this relatively painless. We got the machine hooked up to our TV just a few minutes after prising it out of the box.
Once plugged in, the Artisan boots Windows and will scan for available channels when you launch the Media Center application. Provided you have your television aerial plugged into the rear of the Artisan, it takes a few minutes for the software to detect available channels. Programme guide information is downloaded via the Internet and relied on us plugging in an Ethernet cable to take the Artisan online via our local network.
PVR functionality on the Artisan matches what we've seen on other Media Centers. Navigating through the slick interface with the bundled remote control is straightforward and the software displays future television programmes on a friendly looking timetable. Clicking a programme once will record one instance of that programme; clicking it twice will make the Artisan record every edition of that programme, until you disable the option with a third click. We quickly stocked up a few hours of EastEnders.
Once a Media Center is up and running, the look and feel of the software is generic. Microsoft programs the software for almost all media PCs, so you would expect a consistent user experience. What sets the Artisan slightly above many of its competitors is the tight integration between this generic software and the hardware. Because of a good choice of components and in spite of Windows XP Media Center Edition's temperamental behaviour with some video outputs, the Artisan pulls through. We still find it difficult to recommend these power-hungry PVRs with huge enthusiasm, but if you're a keen hobbyist on the more relaxed side of hardcore, this is an easier PVR PC to set up than many.
Edited by Mary Lojkine
Additional editing by Nick Hide