The first batch of PCs were unwieldy, unattractive and noisy things that were in no way suitable for use in the living room. Today, the situation is less bleak, thanks in no small part to devices like the Asus A33.
This Media Center PC seems to have all the boxes checked: it's designed for the living room, it's good looking, it's fairly quiet, and most interestingly, it comes with a built in 300W amplifier that with the right set of speakers should get you an ASBO in no time at all. It's available at the end of March for a price of around £1,015.
The A33 is one of the best-looking PCs on the market -- Media Center or otherwise. Reason being, it looks nothing like a computer. It resembles a DVD player first and foremost, but doffs its cap towards component hi-fi systems, thanks to the enormous volume knob on the far right side.
The biggest indication that it's a PC is the Windows Vista sticker on the left. Remove this, and the only remaining clue is the SideShow-style display on the far left side. This 64mm (2.5-inch) auxillary screen works in conjunction with your main TV, displaying information on volume, bass and treble levels.
Here we see the auxiliary screen in action. It quickly gives you at-a-glance information about sound modes
Other nice touches include a slot-loading DVD drive, which can be noisy when inserting or ejecting discs, but the absence of a tray helps keep the front of the chassis very clean. Below the drive bay, there's a flip-down panel that secludes a host of input-output ports. There are USB, 4-pin Firewire, composite video, a 6.35mm headphone jack, and a memory card that accepts most popular formats.
Nerds will need a change of underwear once they take a look at the rear of the A33 because it's home to a gazillion ports. It looks more like the control deck of a Airbus A380 than a PC, but that's a good thing, honestly. It has component, composite, S-Video and HDMI video output ports, but no DVI or D-Sub video output -- which only highlights its purpose as an under-the-telly PC.
Audio ports are in abundance, also. There are six discrete audio channel ports linked to the internal 300W amplifier, so you can connect your existing speakers and subwoofer directly to the system without using an external amplifier. If you don't have existing speakers, we'd advise you to get a set of high-performance passive speakers to really make the most of it.
Asus' decision to divert power to external speakers as well as to the internal components is commendable, but it lends itself to all sorts of heat issues. Thankfully, the A33 appears to be well ventilated. It sits on raised struts, which allow air to flow through the system. There are also vents at the rear, and at the top of the chassis, so as long as you don't place another object on top of it or obscure any vents, it won't burn your home to a crisp.
Asus has taken the less trendy option of using an AMD chipset and CPU in its A33 Media Center PC. In this case it's the AMD 690 chipset and the X2 4000 CPU. The latter is a dual-core model clocked at 2.1GHz, which isn't so fast that it needs loads of noisy cooling, but isn't so slow that it will cause your media to judder or skip. In combination with the monstrous 4GB of RAM, it makes a good foundation for a PC of this ilk.
The A33 suffers the same graphical limitations as any Media Center PC in that it uses a low-end graphics card. Again, a high-end GPU would require more cooling from a fan or cooling assembly that generates more noise, so it's understandable, if a tad regrettable, that Asus has opted for an ATI Radeon Xpress 1250. As a result, the A33 isn't capable of playing demanding games, and it's recommended video playback mode is only 1080i or 720p.
All the best Media Center PCs come with a TV tuner, and the A33 is no exception. It uses two hybrid tuners that can either display analogue or digital broadcasts. This is great because you can run them in analogue mode if your home aerial isn't good enough to receive digital Freeview TV. What's more, Media Center will let you watch one channel while you record three others simultaneously.
As discussed, the A33 has a number of video output options. The one
that will prove most popular is probably HDMI. It has just a single
HDMI port, which is compatible with the HDMI 1.2 standard and,
according to Asus, supports audio over HDMI -- although we couldn't get
this feature to work.
Storage on the A33 is modest, but acceptable given the machine's relatively low price point. It comes with a 500GB hard drive, which is capable of storing a few hundred hours of video. To give you an idea, Media Center can record DVD quality video at a rate of approximately 1GB per hour.
The A33's trump card is its integrated power amplifier. Asus initially planned to release a 500W amp, but this has since been reduced to 300W in the final version of the A33. Despite the slight reduction, the A33 is still able to drive six separate audio channels -- two front channels, two rear channels, a centre channel and a subwoofer -- without the need for a separate amplifier.
This is great for anyone that wants more choice when deciding what speakers to go for. No longer do you have to resort to dedicated PC speakers such as those from Creative or others, because you can now buy a set of passive high-end speakers and connect them directly to the PC.
One thing we weren't too pleased about was the accompanying remote control. It includes most of the buttons you'll need for day to day Media Center activities, and it has an integrated scroll wheel and selector buttons that lets you move the mouse cursor around the screen, but it's very unresponsive. Often, the cursor judders around the screen like it's in the throes of a fit, and just when you think you've got it lined up over your icon, and hit a selector button, it leaps away to another part of the screen.
Thankfully the A33 also comes with a wireless keyboard that has a built in mouse trackpad -- like you'd find on a laptop. This works a lot better, but it's not something you want to grab every time you want to change the TV channel.
Like most Media Center PCs, the A33 has some out-of-the-box issues. Users will have to make sure they set the correct screen resolution and that their TV actually supports one of the resolutions its graphcis card is capable of. Once you've done this, you might want to change the font sizes: it's hard to read on-screen text from 3 metres away, even on a big TV. Finally, you'll need to make sure you disable the screen saver or automatic standby mode so the PC doesn't fall asleep in the middle of your movie.
The A33 ran well during our test period and did not present many problems. The 4GB of memory helped it launch even huge video files quickly, and the frame rate of high definition video remained stable for the vast majority of the time. You can expect the odd stutter if you ask the PC to multitask while you watch HD video, but that's to be expected. It scored 4,076 in PCMark05, which is about what we'd expect from this particular configuration..
We didn't expect much in the way of graphics performance, and we didn't get it. The ATI card inside the A33 clocked up a very modest 2,096 in 3DMark06, meaning it'll run basic 3D games at modest resolutions, but keel over if you try to run newer titles such as BioShock. The upshot of the middle of the road processing performance is the fact there's not much noise from the PC. It's by no means silent, but the hum it emits shouldn't annoy you.
The A33 is a very good example of a Media Center PC. It's doesn't have all the bells and whistles possible in a PC of this type, and will need some tweaking to get the most out of it, but it looks great and the built-in amp gives users flexibility.
Edited by Jason Jenkins
Additional editing by Shannon Doubleday