Acer Aspire iDea 510

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Acer Aspire iDea 510
  • Acer Aspire iDea 510
  • Acer Aspire iDea 510
  • Acer Aspire iDea 510

Pros

  • Set-top box form factor, Has a lot of connectivity, Quiet operation, Free IceGuide subscription (1 year)

Cons

  • Some small hiccups during the display setup

Bottom Line

The Acer Aspire iDea 510 makes a set-top box out of a computer, without losing many of the perks of a PC. It's reasonably easy to set up and it worked with a number of test displays. It performed well enough in our performance tests for a media centre, and it did it quietly, too.

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It's still baffling that some media centre PCs come in tower-cases with PC-centric features rather than set-top box features. That's why the Acer Aspire iDea 510 is so appealing. It still has all the benefits of a PC and it can be used like a PC, but it looks and feels like a set-top box, so it's perfect for the lounge-room. Simply put, if you're after a media centre PC that looks better in an entertainment unit next to a TV than on a computer table next to a mouse and a monitor, this is a great choice.

In a black chassis with silver trimmings, the Acer Aspire iDea 510 looks chic, and uses a set-top box, or DVD player-style form-factor. At the front and rear, it's oozing with ports, covering just about every port imaginable. We tested it using the Grundig GLCD4600HD TV as well as a 20in Samsung SyncMaster 205BW LCD monitor and found it a pleasant device to work with. It also performed reasonably well in our benchmark tests.

The system

The system is built using notebook technology, as this helps maintain a low heat level and subsequently lowers the noise level, which is a key feature for any good media centre. Installed are an Intel Core 2 Duo T5500 1.66GHz CPU, 1GB of DDR2 RAM and a GeForce Go MXM 7600 with HDMI, all of which are notebook components. A 3.5in 7200rpm, 500GB hard drive is also present (this isn't a notebook component), which will store a great deal of media before getting full. The slot-loading DVD drive that's installed will also burn to write-once and re-writable DVDs, just in case the 500GB hard drive gets cramped with TV recordings or music files.

When we say the unit is "oozing with ports", we are referring to the following: coaxial and optical digital audio-out, 7.1-channel analogue audio-out, stereo 3.5mm audio-out, composite video-out, S-Video-out, Component-out (analogue high-definition), DVI, HDMI, FireWire, two USB 2.0 ports, two sets of S-Video inputs, a gigabit Ethernet port, Wi-Fi 802.11g, a dual digital TV-tuner (DVB-T/DVB-S/DVB-C) and an FM tuner. There are also a couple of IR blaster ports that can be used to extended the remote control's access (in case the iDea is placed inside a cupboard out of a remote control's line-of-site, for example). All of those ports are just on the rear panel.

On the front you'll find another set of composite AV inputs and an S-Video port, two more USB ports and a set of 63mm plugs for headphones and a microphone. Also found on the front panel are a second FireWire port and a media card reader supporting CF types I/II, MD, MMC,SD, MS, MS-Pro and xD cards. It's a lot to take in, but that's a good thing.

All of this means that just about any TV, monitor, handy-cam or digital camera, VCR or gaming console, will be able to connect to this device, as well as many other consumer-electronics device. It means that you can connect this device to your cable or satellite TV box, listen to FM radio on it, or download TV episodes and movies from the Internet. The supplied keyboard (with a built-in touchpad instead of a mouse) will also allow you to comfortably surf the Internet. The iDea 510 can be easily connected to the Internet via a wireless router or an Ethernet connection to a modem.

Setup

Setting up the system is reasonably easy. Some initial speed-bumps caused us a few problems, but this is to be expected with any computer, or audio system for that matter. Initially we hooked up the Acer Aspire iDea 510 to the GLCD4600HD using as many ports as we could. The GLCD4600HD matches the input/output support of the iDea 510 port for port, except for DVI, which is primarily a connection type used for computer monitors. The iDea 510 defaulted to using the HDMI output, which was a good start, since this is the best possible connection for audio and video quality on a TV, if it's available.

We had to change the colour format of the HDMI output in the TV settings of the NVIDIA graphics control panel and it was necessary to tell Windows Vista to output audio via the digital-out, rather than the standard analogue audio-out jack of a PC. The system comes with some default resolution shortcuts, which are meant to adjust the resolution instantly. However, these didn't work on our test TV (which has a native resolution of 1366x768) and we set the screen's resolution up manually. Once this was set we were ready to roll.

We also tried using the Component (analogue high-definition), composite and DVI outputs. We were able to get a signal on the TV, but we couldn't get the graphics card to output the correct resolution for our TV using this connection, which resulted in a poor, unwatchable image on our test TV. However, during this test we connected the audio using an optical (TOSlink) cable, which worked as well as the HDMI did.

We tested the system using its composite connection, too, but a composite output only offers a low quality image and we don't recommend using it for a large TV such as the GLCD4600HD. However, it would probably be fine on a smaller, standard-definition TV. We also connected the Acer Aspire iDea 510 to a Samsung SyncMaster 205BW 20in widescreen monitor using the DVI output, which worked perfectly first time. Unlike the TV, the monitor has no speakers, so we simply connected some PC speakers to the 3.5mm audio jack on the media centre.

Test results

We ran a number of tests on the Acer Aspire iDea 510. First was our benchmark software, WorldBench 6, which gauges the system's ability to run certain commonly used applications and tasks under the Windows Vista environment. In this test the iDea 510 scored a total of 68. This is a reasonable score, which suggests that the iDea 510 can handle a good deal of multi-tasking, as well as standard office applications and a little photo or movie editing.

The TV-tuner works well. It's a dual digital TV tuner, meaning you can record one station while watching another, while the time-shifting feature allows you to pause live TV. The TV signal was clear and the audio synchronised with the video without any issues throughout our tests. A remote control allows easy navigation of the Windows Vista Home Premium media centre software and for channel-surfing live TV. The unit also comes with a free subscription to IceGuide, an online TV guide that makes it easy to record and view scheduled programs, for one year.

We encoded 53 minutes worth of WAV files to 192Kbps MP3 files to see how fast this system is at encoding music. Although we use WAV files stored on the hard drive, this test gives an indication of how fast the media centre's CPU can compress music files so that they can be more efficiently stored on the hard drive and accessed any time. This test took the iDea 510 175 seconds. This isn't very speedy, and it will take slightly longer when the files are encoded directly from a CD, but it's acceptable, as long as your CD library isn't too large.

We also did a hard drive speed test. This test involves 4.12GB of data being copied from one place on the hard drive to another. It took the Acer Aspire iDea 510 230 seconds to complete this task, which is about 17.9MB a second. Again this is not a very speedy result. The speed of a hard drive can affect the time it takes to transfer files or even load programs. The iDea's case is slim, so there isn't room for a second hard drive. This means that a RAID 0 array can't be installed, which can improve the speed of data transfers by using two hard drives simultaneously.

Functionality

With the remote, the wireless keyboard/touchpad and a set of controls on the face of the unit, we found it quite easy to move around the PC and media centre features of this device. All the ports are clearly labelled and easy to access. The system comes with every cable that's required to make a connection from any of its ports, including an HDMI cable, digital audio cables and more. There's little else needed beyond plugging it all in and, once the initial setup is over, this system is a breeze to use.

Inside the unit, only three tiny fans hum along to keep the air flowing. Air is sucked in from one side of the chassis and is blown out of the other. Subsequently, it runs quietly, unlike tower PC-style media centres. A panel on the face of the unit displays the time and music or DVD track information (if played through Windows Media Center).

All up, the Acer Aspire iDea 510 makes a set-top box out of a computer, without losing many of the perks of a PC. It's reasonably easy to set up and it worked with a number of test displays. It performed well enough in our performance tests for a media centre, and it did it quietly, too.

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