- Review Price: £1199.00
Windows Media Center is upon us, and it is an XP revision chock-a-block with multimedia features that challenges manufacturers to design the next evolutionary step for the PC. To produce a machine that will sit comfortably alongside your TV, video, Hi-Fi and satellite box is no mean feat. And whether it is a full blown Media Center PC like the Elonex eXentia or a non-MCE AV PC like the Hi-Grade Xperian, the response we have seen so far has been pretty encouraging. Until now.
You see, I have a problem with Packard Bell’s take on the Media Center PC. It’s like no effort has been made, either that or Packard Bell has just plain missed the point. I’m not sure which.
After all, isn’t the entire reason for producing a Microsoft Media Center based PC to design something to show off multimedia? Now, whether that is by creating a sexy machine like the Elonex eXentia that could make a 42in Sony Flat screen blush or simply putting out a refined desktop PC with a high quality screen and boom-bastic sound, I don’t mind. But what Packard Bell has done is put out a desktop PC with a small 15in flat screen, onboard sound and packaged it with two small golf ball-esque speakers with no separate subwoofer. This system couldn’t wake the cat, let alone the neighbours.
Designing a Media Center system should be the easiest, most fun job that a PC manufacturer can have. It doesn’t have to be the world’s fastest PC and, since this is a new product development, no one expects it to be bargain basement. But what Packard Bell has done with the MC6112 is compromise in all the wrong areas and, the Media Center software aside, put together a PC with specifications you could probably match trawling the Internet with a budget of £800.
So, breaking it down what have we got? A 2.6GHz P4 with 512MB of RAM, a 120GB hard drive, and a Radeon 9200 graphics card. For a price of £1200, this is nothing exceptional and I can’t say that I’m a fan of what it has been boxed in either. For my money, there is no worse surface than the shiny, bright white of the MC6112 when it comes to picking up bumps, scuffs and general soiling while the case itself features no reset button and conceals the drive bays behind rickety plastic doors, one of which had already broken on my review model when I received it. At least you do get a DVD writer, but the Pioneer 106D is a basic drive with only four-speed DVD-R and +R, 2.4-speed DVD+RW, two-speed DVD-RW, 16-speed CD-R and 10-speed CD-RW. In fact, this drive is about to be phased out by Pioneer in favour of the eight-speed DVR107.
The input devices are also disappointing to say the least. Packard Bell provides no more than a corded PS/2 keyboard and mouse, and while the keyboard is functional enough, the mouse is an old two button ball version. This is a shame a machine like this, which cries out for cordless and optical input peripherals.
The other major input device that comes with the MC6112 is the Media Center remote control. Packard Bell has provided an unmodified version of the standard Microsoft remote which is a little disappointing and there is no built in IR receiver in the case. Instead, the IR receiver is a separate ugly wired black block, which clashes horribly with Packard Bell’s chosen white finish.
And yet beyond all these little problems, the death of the MC6112 is in how badly designed it was for its primary purpose of presenting multimedia. First, the 15in flat screen is too small for prolonged TV and DVD viewing and it’s only capable of a maximum resolution of 1,024 x 768 anyway. Secondly, and most unforgivable, the screen only receives a composite video signal, which is the oldest and worst quality video signal still available, and there is not even an S-Video out port on the graphics card. S-Video should be taken for granted on most PCs and is an absolute must for any Media Center machine. To leave it out is quite stunning, and even if you decide to connect the machine to a large screen TV, the composite video signal will make for a disappointing viewing experience.
There is also no video input of any kind either, meaning you can’t hook up your Media Center PC to a VCR to transfer old home movies. A digital camcorder could be connected through the FireWire port, but this is still the most limited multimedia PC I have seen.
With the built-in TV tuner you can watch TV, but also pause it and continue later. This is because the hard drive will buffer the TV signal so that it will continue recording the programme when you start watching it again. The Media Center software will also allow you to use the PC as a video recorder with downloadable electronic programme guides, although you’ll have to connect the MC6112 to the Internet to get the guides.
If I can think of a plus, it’s that the MC6112 is extremely quiet when up and running, verging on silent, but I can immediately cancel this out with another negative because the heart of a Media Center PC relies on broadband, and while it has an Ethernet port like all modern computers, unlike a lot of Multimedia PCs there is no built in wireless. Since most Media Center PCs will be sitting in the living room and broadband connections tend to be in the study or a bedroom, built-in WiFi can be a real bonus.
All of which means that at this stage I am forced to make an important distinction between PC and software because for those of you who have not yet seen a Windows Media Center PC up and running, the MC6112 will look very impressive on first boot and the opportunity to use a remote control with your PC will be immensely appealing. But you must draw the line between the excellent Windows XP Media Center Edition and the hardware that has been built around it. Packard Bell cannot be given credit for the features of the Windows Media Center operating system, only how it has chosen to exploit it, and this is a real let down.
As far as performance goes, the MC6112 refused to run our standard PC benchmarks, although to be fair, raw performance is not what a Media Center PC is all about anyway.
Overall, there is no way I can recommend spending £1,200 on a moderately powered, disappointingly featured PC just because it comes with Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition. Media Center is not available on its own, so this machine will tempt a lot of people, but you can’t get the best out of it with this solution. As Media Center matures we’re likely to see far better implementations than this one from Packard Bell.
Look past the glitz and flash of Media Center and you will see a substandard PC which is very overpriced.
For a full review of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition click here.
Score in detail