Even though Windows Media Center Edition has highlighted the home theatre PC concept, media PCs have actually been around for quite a while. Some time back in the dark ages a company called Olivetti tried to produce a media type PC, but as hardware at the time wasn’t quite up to it, Olivetti discontinued this range of PCs shortly after it was introduced.
Several applications capable of media playback have been available for some time, but complete systems aimed at home entertainment have only started to appear in numbers recently. As a hardware vendor MSI was one of the first companies to launch a complete solution in 2003 that offered a package that could work with multiple types of media using an affordable software package.
This was the dawn of MSI’s MEGA PC and the Systemax Encore 3107 is using the MEGA 180 as its base. You can of course purchase the MEGA 180 on its own as a barebone unit, which means that you have to fit the CPU, memory, hard drive and optical drive plus any add-in cards on your own. But personally I would much rather go with the pre-assembled approach as the MEGA PCs are quite quirky to assemble, since there’s very limited space inside the case and quite a lot of cables that have to be fitted neatly for optimal airflow.
Purchasing a pre-built machine like the Encore 3107 saves all the building hassle and Systemax has put together a quality package at a very good price. The MEGA 180 barebone chassis comes with an nForce2 based motherboard and Systemax has fitted a 2800+ AMD Athlon XP processor and 512MB of PC3200 DDR SDRAM to the mix. This makes it a reasonable spec PC without driving up the price too much.
You also get a 160GB Samsung hard drive and an eight-speed Sony DVD writer, that can handle both DVD + and – R/RW media. Not content with the integrated graphics of the nForce2 chipset, Systemax has also installed a GeForce 5700 graphics card from MSI and although this is hardly cutting edge, it provides acceptable gaming performance. Finally there is an MSI TV tuner card, that comes supplied with a remote control.
Integrated on the motherboard are a radio tuner and a mini PCI slot to which a wireless network card has been fitted. It’s a shame that it’s only 802.11b, as with 802.11g it would have been possible to stream video from a server elsewhere in your home.
The front of the MEGA 180 is dominated by a large LCD display that shows all kinds of information depending on what mode the PC is in. In Hi-Fi mode, this is with the PC switched off, the LCD display shows the current CD track playing or the radio station you’re tuned in to. It also displays the sound mode setting and doubles as a basic spectrum analyser. When the PC is powered off, the LCD displays the current time. In Windows it is dependant on what application you’re using, but it can display CPU temperature and fan speed or again information about what CD track or radio station you’re listening to. If you’re not listening to a CD or a radio station, the display will show text such as DVD or TV.
Below the LCD display is a multi-format card reader that can be used with all popular memory cards bar XD and Magic Gate MemoryStick. At the very base of the front is a small flap, which is opened by pressing a button on the right hand side. This reveals two USB 2.0 ports, six and four-pin FireWire connectors, optical S/PDIF in and headphone and mic sockets.
Around the back you’ll find a further two USB 2.0 ports, two PS/2 ports, an Ethernet connector, optical S/PDIF out, three audio ports that allow for 5.1-channel output, a printer port and a modem socket. There is also a connector for the radio aerial, and thankfully there is an aerial supplied in the box. Also, as there is a graphics card fitted there are two redundant D-SUB connectors and an S-Video connector.