Good hardware and software combine to make this a choice for home theatre beginners.
The launch of Windows Media Center edition showed that home theatre PCs are here to stay. With the Encore 3102, Systemax uses the MSI Mega 180 barebones and its own brand of software to deliver its own entertainment PC.
It's built using a miniature case. The front is dominated by a large, colourful LCD. There is a large volume dial with a couple of function keys, memory card reader slots and basic controls for the DVD drive. Two USB2 ports, two Firewire and audio ports remove any need to scrabble around the back of this system, which is very important if it is going to be installed next to the television.
The back has everything that you might need for a home theatre computer. There are dual monitor outputs, S-video, PS/2, two USB2 ports, parallel, modem, S/PDIF and the standard audio outputs. The TV card also has S-video and composite inputs.
Inside, things are crowded but not overly so. An MSI motherboard based on the Nforce2 chipset provides the core for this system, with an AMD Athlon XP 2800+ providing the raw power. 512MB of Ram backs this up and gives Windows enough room to breathe.
Systemax has decided to use the dual-channel aspect of this chipset, which means more power now but greater cost if you decide to upgrade in the future.
The onboard Nvidia Geforce4 MX graphics are used. This provided adequate performance in our tests, although it will struggle to play the latest demanding games. However, there is a spare AGP slot if you fancy upgrading.
Storage is handled by a 120GB Samsung hard disk. As there are bigger devices in the market, this is a little small, especially once you start to record lots of video. There is no compromise with the Sony DWU18A DVD +/- RW. Finally, a TV card takes up the only PCI slot in the machine.
The widescreen TFT is excellent for this computer. It offers much in the way of connectivity and has a TV input, so it is possible to record one channel and watch another. There are also composite and component connectors, so you can connect any existing equipment you may have.
Booting the computer should take you straight into MSI's home theatre software. The styling is very similar to Windows Media Center, but there are some important differences. The feel is much cleaner and all the starting options are visible, rather than the scrolling menu of Media Center.
Setting up is easy, although our PC did crash once while searching for channels. However, there is more to this computer than the Windows Software.
It is quite a capable home entertainment system on its own. From the power off mode, it can play DVDs, CDs, TV and radio. It can also act as a Personal Video Recorder. This makes impulse recording a viable option as you don't have to wait for Windows to load. If you want to edit or view these videos in Windows, they are recorded as mpeg2.
The remote control operates for both of these modes and the Encore is intelligent enough to recognise whether it is in Windows or not. The remote control is very thin and, at times, it was hard to be sure if a button had been pressed, as there can be a slight delay before anything happens.
Unfortunately, the Encore was unable to fully complete Sysmark 2004, although the scores of 310 in Internet content creation and 156 in office productivity indicate sufficient power for anything you might want to do. With a high score in media handling this is a very attractive computer for recording and editing television programs.
Contact: Systemax 08707 297 369
Pros: Software; memory.Cons:Hard disk could be bigger.Verdict:An excellent combination of hardware and software, the Encore succeeds where Windows Media Center edition fails.
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