Acer might not be an immediately familiar name, but as Europe's third-largest vendor of domestic PCs, the company is in a good position to make a splash in the nascent media centre PC market. Yet the Acer Aspire iDea 500 looks less like a PC than any other media centre I've seen. So what's going on?
I won't rehash the concept of the media centre PC again - it will be familiar to most readers - but basically it's Microsoft's attempt to dominate the entertainment market by inserting its customised entertainment software into carefully specified multi-media PCs. You can play DVDs and CDs, manage audio, video and still image files, and access the net on an MC PC; and behind the user-friendly graphic interface lurk all the functions of a standard computer.
Yet an element of potential customers must still be put off by the sheer computeriness of the media centre concept. So Acer has designed one which looks as little like a PC as possible - in fact, when I got it I thought I'd opened the wrong box. With desktop shape and discreet controls, the Aspire iDea 500 looks like nothing more than a premium-price DVD player. Slot it under your TV and slide its keyboard on top and you would never know it was a PC.
The front features a slot-loading disc drive, a line of transport controls, and a cluster of cursor keys. Under a rather fragile-looking flap are phono auxiliary AV inputs, S-video inputs, and headphone output. Even the DVD-R/RW and DTS logos on the front are reassuringly AV-ish. Yet under the fl ap there are also two USB inputs, a microphone input, a Firewire input, and two memory card slots which between them support seven formats - so images from your camcorder or still digital camera can be displayed easily.
Around the back, ports are both IT and AV: there are two USBs, Firewire, and LAN ports, plus two Scarts, two IR Blaster sockets, HDMI, DVI, component video, composite video, and S-video outs, RF In/Thru, 7.1-channel analogue audio outputs, and coaxial and optical digital audio outputs. Finally, there's a connector for a stubby wireless networking aerial.
While many PCs suggest a pile of components loosely cobbled together, which will require constant disassembly and upgrading, the Acer is solidly screwed together and positively discourages internal inspection. The message is that this is an integrated system which doesn't need interference from computer geeks.
The impression is emphasised by the fact that this PC comes without a mouse. True, there's a wireless keyboard, with dedicated Internet and Media function controls and a cursor control touchpad; but, for most media centre functions, you will be able to use the remote control. The large, clear frontpanel display means that you can enjoy music functions without having to switch on a monitor; just treat the Acer like a CD player.
A large bundle of connecting cables is provided so you shouldn't have any trouble connecting to your chosen monitor/TV, amp/speakers and additional sources. Fire it all up, and you can start exploring the Acer's potential.
The first thing you will notice is that the system runs quietly; low power consumption electronics give it a particularly low noise floor of just 23 dBA when idle (28 dBA with a heavy load), making it almost inaudible in the home environment.
Processing power comes from an Intel Dual Core T2300 processor running Intel Viiv compliant chipsets. Hard drive storage capacity is 250Gb, and standard memory is 1024 MB. The drive is a DVD-dual type, and there are two hybrid mini-PCI TV tuner cards for simultaneous viewing and recording of digital and analogue off-air TV signals.
The latest version of Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 is pre-installed; other software supplied includes Symantec Norton Internet Security 2006, Adobe Acrobat Reader V7.0, NTI CD Maker Gold, and Power DVD 6.0. Annoyingly, there doesn't seem to be a straightforward way to get around the unit's setting to DVD Region 2.
The system supports Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS sound for movies, and Dolby Digital Live and DTS Connect sound formats for games. Games performance isn't particularly convincing, as the graphics card doesn't have enough horse power to handle anything cutting-edge; it works smoothly with Quake 3, but don't expect miracles with the likes of Prey.
DVD playback doesn't disappoint; using HDMI output with a Pioneer plasma display, 720p resolution offered a solid picture with confident colour handling. There was some smearing on fast action, and upscaling to 1080p caused too much obvious artefacting to be worthwhile.
Sound performance is dependent on the system you connect it to, but the range of connections and options available means that there should be an acceptable solution for everyone, whether you want to listen to MP3 files, CDs or DVD movie soundtracks.
Overall I like the Acer a lot, and I think you will too if you want the advantages of a media centre PC with fewer of the drawbacks. Other manufacturers should take note. Chris Jenkins