Microsoft's assault on the living room has been more of a trickle than a stampede, but manufacturers are slowly catching on to the fact that determination is not enough -- this is a battle of stealth. Make your Media Center PC look like a DVD player and you've got a much better chance of getting through the door and into the TV cabinet. While the innards of the Artisan aren't much different from those of any other Media Center PC, Elonex has made a respectable effort to dress the Artisan for the occassion.
This Media Center looks like a VCR -- albeit a VCR from the 1980s -- and it felt immediately at home under our TV. It's the ideal Media Center PC for anyone who doesn't want a PC violently crowbarred into their living space. It's not exactly a relaxing piece of design -- the black gloss of Darth Vader's helmet comes to mind -- and it demands some tinkering before working properly. But nevertheless, the Artisan sparkles in a club that has few endearing members.
The Artisan's nondescript cardboard package disgorges the system unit -- a heavy 430x440x110mm metal box -- plus a remote control and wires. From the front, the Artisan does a convincing impression of a home appliance, but the rear is a mass of connections. Although confusing at first glance, you do get the benefit of an enormous range of input and output options, all of which are clearly labelled and colour-coded.
The Artisan may resemble a VCR, but it takes up significantly more room than its venerable predecessor. If you have a smaller television stand you may want to check that there is enough room to store the Artisan plus any cables protruding from its back (the entire unit can take up as much as half a metre from face to cable trail). If there's not enough room in your current setup you'll have to factor a different stand into the cost.
Most functions on the Artisan are accessed through the generic Media Center remote control Microsoft provides with Windows XP Media Center Edition. This means that the control panels on the front of the Artisan are a sparse affair. Two flip-down panels conceal the Artisan's only built-in controls. One panel contains fast-forward, rewind and play; the other a range of memory card readers.
The keyboard bundled with the Artisan is solid, but not especially luxurious. It sits comfortably enough on the lap, but the human lap has never been the ideal place to type from. For basic Web navigation it's tolerable, but type for any extended length of time and you'll want to use a table to rest on. Our review model didn't come with a mouse, so you'll have to purchase one separately or use the remote control.
We've never been fans of tray-loading CD drives in living-room appliances -- there's too much risk of a child snapping off the tray -- but Elonex has chosen to install one in the Artisan. The tray itself is slightly flimsy, as are most CD drive trays, and we'd like to see Elonex introduce a slot loader in its next revision of the design.
Designed principally as a replacement for your home VCR, DVD player and surround-sound system, the Artisan is well equipped for the task. Before you buy it you'll have to consider whether you want it to cooperate with your Sky Digibox. The Artisan comes in two versions, the LX and the LXD. The LX model features an FM radio and analogue TV tuner that's compatible with the Sky Digibox. The LXD features DVB-T radio and digital receivers for Freeview.
The LXD version is our recommendation because it can receive Freeview. If you have Sky and you choose the LX version of the Artisan, you'll have to connect it up to your Sky box in a kludgy way. You'll sacrifice a lot of the usefulness of dual tuners because your Sky Digibox output will appear on one fixed channel and the sound will be mono (unless you use an external device called a Universal Modulator). To us, this seems like a lot of hassle for very little reward.
Because the Artisan is equipped with two tuners, you can record one programme while watching a different one. All the standard Media Center PC functions are here as well, including the ability to pause live TV and access sophisticated programme scheduling information to preset recording.