Home Media Centre HMCSD 160

PCs using Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition for inte­grated TV and multimedia capabilities are set for prime time, but this small form factor Home Media Centre (HMC) offers welcome competition.

Developed and constructed in Australia, it's more of a set-top appliance than an everyday PC. It runs Linux, has a tailored open source interface and outputs to a TV or monitor via RCA, S-Video or VGA.

The HMC is not exactly a powerhouse in the specs department (2.4GHz Celeron processor, 265MB RAM) but does what it's designed for well. It's available with an 80, 160 or 250GB hard disk (320 and 500GB models are in the works) and also features a standard definition (SD) digital TV tuner card.

Software is pre-loaded, so set up mostly involves hooking up a TV or monitor and aerial (cables supplied), but you will need a network or ADSL connection to access online content such as a live Electronic Program Guide (EPG) or weather forecasts.

The non-tech-savvy should find the clean interface easy to use via the bundled remote control. Images from a digital camera can be uploaded easily and managed with little fuss. When watching video files (MPEG-1,2,4, DivX, Xvid and AVI) or DVD (multi-region and Dolby Surround Sound are supported), information is retrieved from the Internet Movie database (www.imdb.com). However, you can't copy files directly from CD/DVD to the unit: the videos must be added from another PC system via a network. Digital images can also be quickly set up in a mini-slideshow - handy if you happen to have the relatives around.

When serving as a mini-jukebox, music playback and CD ripping (to MP3 or OGG) is quite easy. You can create playlists, rate individual songs and even combine visualisations with your music.

During testing we had a little trouble accessing the Internet through a firewall here in the Test Centre, but once hooked up to an ADSL connection that minor issue disappeared. EPGs can be accessed for free to air TV, Foxtel, Optus and Austar (analog and digital). They provide a wealth of up-to-date information, including running times and episode plot descriptions. You can even program the software to find and record your favourite shows automatically. Although the HMC won't cut out commercial breaks, the ability to pause (time shift) live TV is a bonus: missing crucial moments could be a thing of the past.

D1 supports the HMC by making free feature-enhancing software updates available for download. Internet radio will be the first, followed by Internet browsing. D1 also has plans for a high-definition (HDTV) digital set-top box HMC with a more lounge room friendly horizontal chassis. In all, the ability to record TV, time shift and manage digital files is a godsend for the unorganised and really struck a chord with this reviewer.

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