Optima, one of Australia's biggest providers of business and government PCs, is one of the first vendors off the mark to present a system running the new Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. Perhaps it's because of Optima's legacy in the business computing market, but the MyPC is a fairly conservative approach to a Media Center PC.
Media Center is quite unlike any other Microsoft desktop operating system in that it's not intended to be used in the office or the study, but in the living room alongside your television. Nor is Media Center supposed to be limited to the traditional keyboard and mouse interface, with a remote control and a streamlined front end replacing the customary Windows desktop.
However, even with this fairly radical change in role and application, Media Center is still Windows at heart, and as such it's really no surprise that PC manufacturers have taken time to adapt. This can be seen with the Optima MyPC Media Center, which looks and functions a lot more like a home desktop than a part of your home theatre system.
Apparently Optima is currently developing a new chassis for its Media Center PCs which looks more like a tabletop DVD player than a PC. This would be a welcome move, especially when compared to the towering case of the MyPC. Even the silver and black styling will not make the MyPC fit in with the aesthetics of just about any living room.
The truly unfortunate part is that most of the large case is filled with nothing but air. The internal components amount to less than half the space inside the case, so it would have been very possible to build the same system in a much smaller chassis.
Given this, the case itself is well designed, with toolless access and front-mounted USB and audio in/out ports. Its fans are also thankfully quiet, although the hard disk does have an audible crunch when active.
In terms of the 'out of box experience', the Optima unfortunately falls short. There is a fold out quick setup guide, although it's for a generic Optima PC, and will leave non-experts in the dark, especially when it comes to hooking the MyPC up in your living room. Arguably this is fairly academic, though, as the MyPC seems quite unable to function in the living room anyway, which takes us to its features.
As a PC, the MyPC is well equipped, if a little lacking in flair. The power plant is a respectable 3GHz Pentium 4 coupled to an Intel 915 motherboard with 1GB of dual channel memory. A 120GB SATA hard drive and multi-format DVD burner handle the storage, although you'll find Media Center recalcitrant by design when it comes to burning recorded TV to disc.
The Optima-branded 15-inch TFT screen is an impressive example of where LCD technology has reached today. It has a wide viewing angle, decent response time and is tremendously bright. However, the brightness comes at the cost of contrast, and even the OSD controls could not help in finding a balance between the two.
Even though it's only 15 inches in size (equivalent to about a 38cm television), it's a good thing the screen is decent, as that's what you're stuck using. One area the MyPC falls down embarrassingly is in connectivity. As a Media Center, it should be at home in the living room, and should be amply equipped for that environment. At the very least it should have composite and/or S-Video output, if not component. Unfortunately the MyPC lacks all these options, and only provides the VGA output of the on-board Intel 915 graphics chip.
Sound is also restricted to the provided Altec Lansing 5.1 speakers, as you'll only find PC 3.5mm jacks on the MyPC. No RCA, optical or SPDIF connectors in sight, so you can forget hooking it up to your hi-fi without using fiddly adapters. The speakers themselves are also passable in their traditional environment of a small room or study, but are quite inadequate in a larger space such as a reasonably sized living room.
One nice addition is a wireless keyboard and mouse, albeit full-sized versions, so while they're usable from a distance from your lounge, they're far too large to surreptitiously hide. These Microsoft versions are also designed for desktop ranges, so performance is fickle at the '10 foot' range at which the Media Center is expected to operate. Thankfully the Microsoft remote control can handle all Media Center tasks.
The Pentium 4 along with a gig of dual channel DDR provide plenty of computing thrust for the MyPC. It managed to comfortably handle the SYSmark2004 benchmark tests, and posted an impressive overall score of 175.
This should mean the MyPC is able to handle anything Media Center can throw at it, or even conventional computing tasks such as image editing, Internet applications and limited gaming. The latter is held back, though, by the integrated Intel 915 graphics, which will serve for 2D games but will fall well short when it comes to 3D gaming.
As a PC, the Optima MyPC is well rounded and has a decent specification, although as a Media Center it falls well short of the mark. A Media Center should be easy to set up straight out of the box, should have a variety of audio and video outputs to handle a range of complementary appliances, along with a small wireless keyboard and mouse. Technically a Media Center doesn't need a display or speakers in most cases, and if speakers are to be provided, they should not be ones designed for the study.
This leads us to conclude that the MyPC is intended as a PC for the study, and just adds some nifty Media Center functionality to the picture. In this environment it would manage well, although we fail to see the point of using Media Center in this capacity.
If you're looking for a Media Center for the living room so you can enjoy the TV, DVD, music, slideshow and Internet features, then it's definitely worth waiting to see what the next generation of PCs from Optima and other vendors have to offer.
Tim Dean writes for ZDNet Australia's sister site, CNET.com.au. Read more consumer technology stories from CNET.com.au here.
Optima MyPC MCE PC
Phone: 1300 132 237
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