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The Acer Aspire e650 is a powerful, feature-rich media centre, but
we're still not convinced that Viiv is mature enough for mass adoption.
The Acer Aspire e650 rode the first wave of Intel Viiv certified machines to Australian shores. It's the second one we've tested (we looked at the NEC PowerMate DL H7204 back in July), but the situation hasn't changed much since our first opinions on Viiv were given -- it's still very much early days for the standard.
Design As with the H7204, the e650's design doesn't make any significant departures from your typical desktop PC tower. While the e650 is certainly attractive by PC standards -- disc drives are hidden by silver covers and there's an illuminated "Aspire" logo just below these -- we find it difficult to fathom the logic behind using a tower form factor for a system that's designed to nestle next to consumer electronics components in the living room.
Another curious design element is the front door, which slides down to reveal a card reader, two USB ports, headphone/microphone jacks and a floppy disc drive. Functionally, this feature is very handy as you're not forced to reach around to the back of the machine when plugging in external devices on an ad-hoc basis. However, its design is poor, as it's awkward and doesn't slide smoothly.
Features Being a Viiv-certified computer, the e650 can form a network with other Viiv components such as Digital Media Adaptors (DMAs), set-top boxes and wireless routers. Unfortunately, the only Viiv-certified component available in Australia that isn't a PC is the Xbox 360, which acts as a DMA and enables users to wirelessly stream content from their PC to a TV. Of course, Viiv-certification isn't a necessity, but Intel won't guarantee that uncertified devices can be manipulated and configured entirely with a remote control from the couch.
Intel promises that a vast array of Viiv-certified devices will be available by the end of the year, with Netgear and Linksys leading the charge with new DMA and router products. Buffalo and D-Link have also thrown their weight behind the Viiv specification.
Like all Viiv offerings, the e650 uses the Microsoft Windows Media Center Edition operating system, and this coupled with the bundled remote control means it can be operated comfortably from your couch. There's also a wireless keyboard and optical mouse should you feel the need to input data or play games.
Under the hood you've got the choice of an Intel Pentium D dual-core processor or a regular Pentium 4. We'd recommend the dual-core offering if you plan on multitasking -- for example, playing audio/video files while recording live TV. You can also equip the e650 with up to 4GB of DDR2 memory, but 1GB is plenty for most users.
While Intel's criteria doesn't specify that Viiv machines must include a TV tuner card, Acer realises that the main appeal of a media centre PC is the ability to view and record TV. It has therefore included not one but two digital TV tuners, so you're able to watch one channel while simultaneously recording another.
Unlike on some early model media centre machines, users won't have to put up with poor quality, tinny sound with the e650, as the unit includes an SPDIF digital audio output for connection to a home theatre sound system. Small stereo speakers are bundled with the system, but you might as well keep them in their packaging, as they're nowhere near powerful enough for a living room environment.
Graphics card options include an ATI Radeon X550, X600SE, X1300 or X1600 Pro. If you're looking at doing any serious gaming, we'd certainly recommend equipping the machine with the latter, as the X550 and X600SE won't be able to run the latest titles at an adequate speed.
The PC can be purchased with or without a display. Acer gives users the option of bundling up to a 24" widescreen LCD, or one of three LCD TVs -- 26", 32" or 37". Connecting these external displays is facilitated by the DVI, VGA or S-Video ports. There's no HDMI, component or composite video outputs.
Your storage needs are catered for by up to a 400GB hard drive, as well as a 16x dual-layer DVD writer. This should be plenty for even the most avid recorder, and when you run out of space the DVD writer enables easy disc backups.
Notable connectivity options include a Firewire port, 9-in-1 card reader, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.
Performance Our particular review machine came equipped with a 2.8GHz Pentium D processor, 2GB of DDR2-667 memory, an ATI Radeon X1300 graphics chip and a 300GB hard drive. The dual-core processor and large amount of memory allows for multiple intensive applications to be running concurrently without significant slow-down. Further, the large hard drive means you should be able to go for at least a month without deleting old TV recordings or backing up data to external media.
Aside from the ability to network with other Viiv-certified devices, the other big drawcard for Viiv is the availability of loads of content streamed through the Internet. All sorts of goodies are available, including short video clips (news, music, TV shows), audio downloads, and text formatted to be easily read three metres away from your couch.
When we first looked at Viiv back in July, a major complaint we had was that there wasn't enough local content. Fortunately, Intel has since been working to rectify the issue, and there are now a number of Australian content providers that can be accessed through Viiv -- Bigpond's GameArena, MP3.com.au (for downloading free music from emerging/independent artists) and ChannelGo.com.au (paid-for downloads of commercial music). Internet news services such as Reuters can also be accessed through Viiv, and the list of available providers is updated on-the-fly over the Internet.
It's great to see Intel fleshing out Viiv, but we still find the online content service to be slow-loading and unacceptably buggy. For example, during testing a coding error rendered the GameArena service virtually unusable.