This was the desktop computer I purchased and I like it!

The HP Media Center PC delivers a convergence computing experience that’s smart and seamless on the outside but rather lightweight underneath. Probable causes: Microsoft’s attractive yet immature multimedia OS and some hardware design decisions that run counter to the needs of the Media Center’s target audience–dorm-room denizens and other space-constrained technophiles. While falling a tad short as both a top-drawer PC and a true media hub, the Media Center PC does give you top-notch application performance along with the ability to watch, record, and archive TV. If you can overlook its flaws, this system will conveniently and competently replace components–TV, DVD player, TiVo, and stereo–for which you have no room.

Design

The abundance of drives, buttons, and indicators on the front of the HP Media Center PC keeps it from looking as featureless as recent HP Pavilion systems, while maintaining a modern, streamlined design. Rather than the Pavilion’s matte-gray plastic, the Media Center complements the gunmetal gray chassis with a shiny, black plastic front panel.

Feature-rich yet streamlined design.

Calling all removable media types.

Below its pair of optical drives sits the Media Center PC’s row of mode buttons, which control Windows XP Media Center (MCE) functions, a bay full of flash-media readers, and a floppy drive. Unfortunately, the power switch and the mode switches are lit by blindingly bright, blue LEDs guaranteed to keep anyone sharing a room with the PC up all night–especially with the Media Center in standby mode, when it blinks like a film-noir motel sign. The company hides the front USB 2.0 and FireWire ports behind a flip-down cover.

Ports aplenty on the back.

On the back, you’ll find one of every connector type you can think of, which can get a bit confusing. Parallel, serial, Ethernet, four more USB 2.0 ports, and a PS/2 mouse and keyboard port for the wired mouse and keyboard–all clearly labeled–come integrated onto the motherboard, while a modem, PVR card (with cable input), and Creative Sound Blaster Audigy sound card take up all three PCI slots. These three PCI cards add S-Video, coaxial, and RCA audio and video jacks, all of which amounts to one crowded back panel.

Additionally, the Media Center comes with a small remote sensor that you can choose to attach onto the front of your cable converter to redirect IR commands to the HP’s USB-based remote-control sensor. This allows you to use the Media Center’s remote control to change channels on your cable box. But when everything’s hooked up, a stunning number of cables cascade not so merrily from the system.

Not a lot of room for expansion.

The case itself opens like a typical Pavilion–you undo two thumbscrews and yank the side off–but HP doesn’t leave a lot of room for upgrades. All of the interior hardware is arranged in an orderly fashion, if a bit cramped, but the PC’s wealth of features doesn’t leave any space in this compact minitower for additional cards or drives.

Features

We tested the HP Media Center 883n, which came equipped with a Klipsch ProMedia 5.1 speaker system and an HP f70 17-inch LCD monitor. HP has yet to announce the details for two additional configurations, but we expect one to include lower-end components such as 2.1 speakers and a smaller display–really more suitable for cramped quarters and student budgets.

All models will come with a PVR card–the hardware that differentiates the Media Center PC from a plain-old PC. With a coaxial cable-TV input and MPEG-2 encoding hardware, this card provides TiVo-like TV-recording capabilities without bogging down the performance of the rest of the system. (Unlike component personal video recorders such as TiVo, it can archive your recorded TV programs to DVD.) TV recordings made in Best mode are of high enough quality to merit archiving to DVD, but professionally encoded retail versions will still look significantly better. That is, any Sopranos DVDs that you rent from Blockbuster will look a heck of a lot better than the episodes you record on your own.

Live or recorded TV plays as a picture-in-picture while you surf the program guide.

These built-in speakers can’t compete with an external set.

Archiving recorded TV is easy enough. It consists of dragging and dropping files onto the HP DVD-Writer DVD200i, unless you want to use one of the supplied programs to create a DVD menu. (The drive itself is a fairly speedy DVD+RW drive.) Microsoft had initially built its MCE OS with copy protection that locked these archived TV recordings on the Media Center, meaning you couldn’t play the DVDs that you burned on a DVD player or another PC. The company has since modified the scheme in response to user complaints. Now, you can legally play your Media Center DVD recordings, with the exception of Macrovision-protected DVDs and pay-per-view videos, on other systems and DVD players. Compatibility issues remain, however: DVDs you create still won’t play in standard DVD players. And you’ll have to wait until Microsoft releases the final version of Windows Media Player 9.0 before you can play TV content that you’ve archived to DVD on PCs other than your Media Center PC.

HP supplements the DVD+RW drive with a run-of-the-mill 48X CD-ROM drive, but we’d prefer a CD-RW instead for speedier CD burning. The internal six-in-one flash reader on the front panel really handles only four distinct formats–CompactFlash (Types I and II), SD/MMC, Sony Memory Stick, and SmartMedia–but most people would need to read a maximum of only two of those formats in the same system. Hence, we’d opt for an external flash reader and a second internal hard drive instead. At 3GB per hour for a best-quality TV recording, an entire season of a single one-hour series (22 shows) would take up more than half of the Media Center’s standard 120GB hard drive.

The rest of the Media Center’s configuration is relatively ho-hum. A 64MB GeForce4 MX 420-based graphics card and Creative Labs Audigy sound card deliver mainstream graphics performance and sound, although the 120GB Seagate hard drive offers ample room to store all those media files. And the 2.66GHz Pentium 4 processor (running on a 533MHz system bus with 512MB of DDR SDRAM) has sufficient power to drive it all. Gamers will be disappointed to find that the MX420 graphics card is the only option on the Media Center; HP offers neither ATI Radeon 9700 Pro- nor Nvidia GeForce4 Ti-level cards.

Use the remote control or keyboard shortcuts to easily access MCE’s features.

HP’s 17-inch f70 LCD is a good size but delivers merely adequate video playback because the MX420 graphics card doesn’t supply a digital connector, which is odd since the f70 supports it. (With a digital connection, playback would look cleaner.) The flat panel also includes unnecessary built-in speakers at the base, with hardwired cables that dangle uselessly down the back when you have standalone speakers attached. More problematic were some issues that we encountered while testing both live TV and DVD playback. Our test DVD paused intermittently–once for so long that we thought the system had crashed. And live TV works well at full-screen, but inexplicably stutters and loses sync with the signal when displayed in a window on the desktop.

MCE shows you the current media playing in the lower left-hand corner–here, music–while you shuffle through other media types, such as pictures.

The matching keyboard provides one-button access to all XP MCE’s multimedia features–including live TV, a program guide, music, pictures, and videos–as well as Internet hot keys and playback controls. Sadly, HP doesn’t offer wireless versions of the keyboard and optical mouse, which would add a level of flexibility essential in small environments. All the system really lacks to be a comprehensive media hub, though, is an AM/FM radio tuner.

Windows XP MCE makes it possible to play DVDs, recorded TV programs, slide shows, and music all within Windows via remote control. We would like the ability to queue up more than one album at a time in a playlist, however, and run a slide show straight off a photo CD. HP also supplies a variety of video-editing and DVD-authoring programs including ArcSoft ShowBiz, ArcSoft FunHouse, ArcSoft PhotoImpression 4.0, Sonic MyDVD, and Stomp RecordNow.

Performance

Application performance

For a PC platform to combine a number of home entertainment technologies into a single design requires a lot of horsepower. Thankfully, the HP Media Center PC has more than enough oomph to deliver the goods. Although the system boasts a 2.66GHz P4 processor and DDR SDRAM system memory, its application performance actually falls right between that of 2.53GHz P4 desktops with DDR SDRAM and 2.53GHz P4 desktops with RDRAM. The performance variation is slight, but it just goes to show how memory architecture can make a difference. The Media Center is a strong performer and should easily run just about any application you choose.

3D graphics and gaming performance

A true home-entertainment platform should include capabilities for powerful 3D gaming. With an Nvidia GeForce4 MX 420-based graphics card under its hood, the Media Center gets you at least halfway there. The system’s 3D graphics performance is capable, especially if you keep your game’s screen resolution setting low, but it lacks the zest of a more powerful graphics engine, such as Nvidia’s GeForce4 Ti series. Most games will play just fine on the Media Center, but high screen resolutions and advanced graphics features will noticeably slow it down.

Service and support

HP offers a disappointing support package. The Media Center comes with one-year parts and labor coverage plus toll-call phone support during West Coast business hours on weekdays only. There’s no onsite service, even as an option, but you can at least upgrade to a three-year package that includes 24/7 toll-free tech support. HP will cover the cost of shipping both ways in the event that you need to return the system for service, and depot service is always available at an authorized repair center.

Do-it-yourselfers have better luck. The HP Web site provides a wealth of self-help options, include online chat with tech-support reps, a personal call-history database, FAQs, and software downloads. In addition to a quick-start poster and detailed, step-by-step setup info, the well-designed documentation also tackles basic troubleshooting and upgrade procedures. Three separate manuals cover the system itself, a handy Windows XP MCE software guide, and essential information for understanding the DVD+RW drive. The documentation doesn’t cover one important setup scenario: the case in which you use a cable modem for broadband. It assumes that you’re either dialing up or on DSL. Nevertheless, we figured it out–by incorporating more splitters than a cheerleading squad.

– by Lori Grunin

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