The name of this Acer Media Center system, the Idea 500, is actually very apt. Despite having been around for some years now, the Media Center platform is still a niche product and are yet to register on the radar of the average consumer. Recently I discovered that PC World is offering a home cinema installation service based on Media Center systems so with that kind of exposure things might change. Right now though, Media Center is still much more likely to be bought by the PC savvy consumer. That said, if you had the Acer Idea 500 under your TV, most people would probably have no idea that it was a PC.
The Idea is one of the sleekest Media Center systems I've seen. It's about the size of an average DVD player though it does have a hint of 80’s VCR about it. This is mainly down to the rather retro two line dot matrix style LCD that displays 'Welcome to the Aspire Idea'.
The DVD drive is a notebook style slot loading affair with an eject button on the left. To the right of this is are Stop, Play, Skip and Record buttons built into the curve of the chassis and there are also some buttons beneath the screen, which looks as if they're for navigating. I say look, because try as I might I couldn’t get any of these buttons to actually do anything on our review sample.
On the far left is a thin plastic strip that divides the top half and a large flap underneath. This strip is the power switch and lights up blue when the machine is powered on. Press it once or hit the power button on the Media Center remote and it starts to flash orange and the Acer will quickly drop into standby. You can also bring the system out of standby by pressing any button on the remote - crucial for that consumer electronics feel. That's Viiv technology in action though there's no corresponding sticker on the box.
Underneath the flap in the lower half you’ll find a wealth of connections split into two halves. There's a card reader for both Compact Flash and another for MemoryStick, SD and xD - which is a very easy way of showing off the snaps on your TV. Next to this is a mini FireWire port.
On the other side there are two USB 2.0 ports, and composite and S-Video inputs along with phono stereo - the only use I can think for this is capturing from an old analogue camcorder, so I guess it’s worthwhile. There are also large phono hi-fi style microphone and headphone sockets.
Looking round the rear you'll find even more generous connectivity. Most notable of these is the HDMI port. This was the first time I've actually used HDMI and I was impressed by the simplicity - one cable and you get picture and sound - job done. The specs lists HDCP support, though we have no way of testing this yet. Next to the HDMI is a DVI port and there's also component, composite, S-Video and SCART in and out - all bases covered. You also get a wide choice for audio output too. There's a 7.1 analogue phono outputs, a coaxial output and an optical. I tested using the HDMI and connected without issue and got as good a picture as I could expect on the very average TV I was using to test with. I also tested over S-Video to a CRT TV. Obviously Media Center doesn't look its best like this but it did work though I've seen steadier S-Video output from a dedicated nVidia 6200.
There also an antenna input and output for the two TV Tuners. These are hybrid, which should mean that you can pick up both analogue and digital signals. I say should as I could not get the Acer to detect any digital TV channels from the office TV connection at all.