- Review Price: £1174.00
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.
The graphics card offers D-SUB, DVI and S-Video output options, while the TV tuner card adds S-Video and composite video input. All in all there are plenty of connectivity options which make this a well featured media style PC.
But there is more to the Encore 3107 than just the MEGA 180, as Systemax supplies a 17in widescreen Iiyama ProLite C171WT TFT monitor with built in TV tuner. You might wonder why Systemax has supplied a TV/monitor, but as you can use the TV tuner in the PC for recording programmes to the hard drive, you can still watch a second programme through the tuner in the display. But the Iiyama monitor looks suspiciously familiar and it is actually a re-badged Relisys RLT1720. Everything from the layout of the OSD to the remote control is identical apart from the Iiyama branding, which is a little bit of a disappointment.
However, this display is still a better than the type of monitor you’d normally get with a PC at this price point, but the image quality isn’t the best in the world and the low stand makes it awkward to position. That said, it is much better as a TV and apart from the tacky remote control it does quite a good job.
As well as the remote control with the monitor there is a second one controlling the MEGA 180’s various functions. Unfortunately, this one is even worse – it’s flat with plastic blisters, just like the ones that were trendy in the mid 80’s. The Mega remote is not very comfortable to hold and as there is no way of feeling your way through the buttons it’s easy to press the wrong one by mistake if you don’t look carefully.
A media PC wouldn’t be much good without speakers and Systemax includes a set of 5.1-channel Videologic ZXR-550s, but they won’t blow your socks off. Finally there is a wireless keyboard and optical mouse set from Logitech.
But what sets the Encore 3107 apart from your average PC is the Media Center Deluxe III software that ships with the MEGA 180 barebone. It is somewhat similar in use to Windows XP Media Center Edition, although you could in principle use it with any PC as long as you can live without the remote control. It mimics Windows XP MCE in terms of its blue user interface and the way many of the menus look, but it is not as well integrated and some of the applications feel like they have just been stuck in for good measure.
Unfortunately, you can playback neither video or audio without booting into Windows, but hopefully this is something that will be looked at in future models.
Systemax ships the Encore 3107 with a copy of Ability Office 2003 and a three-year on-site warranty, which again proves that sometimes it is better to buy a pre-assembled machine, rather than putting it together yourself. A warranty such as this is worth quite a lot if something goes wrong with the machine, since you don’t have to send it away to have it repaired. It also covers all the components for three years, which is longer than some of the manufacturer warranties on the components.
The Encore 3107 performed much as expected, it’s not the fastest PC around, but it will perform the tasks it is designed to do well enough. It’s a shame that it is not a more capable gaming PC, but as long as you don’t intend to play the very latest games it will manage.
Overall the Encore 3107 is an interesting package that offers much of the functionality of a Windows XP Media Center Edition PC at an attractive price. Some things could be improved upon though, such as the poor system remote control. That said, if you’re after a jack of all trades PC that doesn’t take up too much space and looks reasonably stylish you could do far worse than the Encore 3107 – just bear in mind its limitations.
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Systemax has made the most out of MSI’s MEGA 180 and created a decent media PC. It’s not perfect, but it is a step in the right direct and the price makes it a good alternative to a Media Center Edition PC.
Score in detail
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