4 of the best Windows 7 media PCs
26th Feb 2010 | 10:59
From all-in-ones to laptops
Windows 7 Media PCs
Many of us now use our laptops or desktop PCs to watch and record live TV or to catch up with programmes we have missed through online services such as BBC iPlayer or 4oD.
Microsoft's recently launched Windows 7 operating system comes bundled with a much-improved version of Windows Media Center.
It offers compatibility with both terrestrial and satellite signals (including DVB-S2) and full support for MHEG-5, giving users access to the interactive services off ered by Freeview and Freesat.
Add to this a version of Sky's online Sky Player, off ering channels and programmes on a buy, rent or subscribe basis.
Windows 7 Media Center's setup wizard is very user-friendly, helping you to get the best settings to work with your TV tuner(s), display and audio configuration. It's never been easier to organise your TV recordings and media libraries on your local hard drive, removable drives or other PCs on your network.
So it's a perfect time to consider investing in a decent all-in-one PC or laptop to enhance your viewing experience in the bedroom, study or even – with some of the bigger hi-def screen models now merging – to consider replacing your TV in the lounge with a PC.
Manufacturers are starting to sell all-in-one 'net-top' style PCs with Freeview decoders built in, bundled with TV-style remote controls and impressive new tech such as touchscreen control, Blu-ray drives and lots more.
We tested three all-in-ones from MSI, Packard Bell and Asus and one laptop from Toshiba, all of which are in the £600-£800 price range.
PC Freeview HD tuners have yet to appear, but Freeview SD tuners can be picked up for as little as £20.
For this test we were using Asus' latest USB 2.0 Express TV Stick (costing £55) with the Asus and Toshiba machines, which handily doubles up as a 4GB USB storage stick as well, so you can save a bunch of recordings elsewhere.
Asus Eeetop PC ET22
Asus Eeetop PC ET22
The latest EeeTop ET2203T is a real looker, with a striking black-on-silver design.
It also has a really decent spec, including a full HD touchscreen and a Blu-ray drive.
It's the machine that's the least like a traditional computer out of the four machines here and, as such, it would work well in any room in the home.
Put simply, it looks more like a very modern TV as opposed to a PC that is also trying to be a TV. Its 'frameless' 21.6in crystal-clear display, which segues into the piano-black bezel, does attract fingerprints because the touchscreen capability of the PC works so well.
As with the Toshiba laptop, providing you keep a screen cleaner nearby this is not going to become more than a minor bother. Perhaps the most immediate difference between the Asus EeeTop and the MSI Wind Top and Packard Bell all-in-one is the fact that Asus' designers have paid attention to every detail, down to the impressive design of the wireless mouse and keyboard that ship with the machine.
There's no need for additional USB dongles to make the peripherals sync with the PC. It all works out of the box. Nothing about this package feels cheap. The 1,920 x 1,080 resolution screen is perfect for full HD TV and movie viewing, with integrated 3W SRS stereo speakers that will work well in most lounges or bedrooms.
On the downside, there is no TV tuner built in and the EeeTop doesn't come with a TV-style remote control. But after a few hours of using the machine such things pale into insignificance.
After a quick Google search we soon found a range of free TV remote and wireless touchpad apps for our iPhone that actually worked better than the devices shipped with the Packard Bell and MSI PCs.
It lack the ability to use several fingers at once but the touchscreen is easily the best of the bunch we tested and the tray-loading Blu-ray drive behind the EeeTop's right bezel tops off the whole package for us.
MSI Wind Top AE2220
MSI Wind Top AE2220
The AE2220 features an Nvidia Ion-powered graphics chip and 2.2GHz Intel Core 2 Duo T6600 processor, both neatly contained behind the back of a 21.5-inch widescreen monitor. It has a hybrid analogue and digital terrestrial tuner built in and the 16:9 LCD widescreen display offers full HD (1080p) resolution and pseudo-5.1-channel SRS Premium Sound.
The machine's 4GB of DDR2 system memory means that it is quick and responsive, and its 640GB hard drive is enough to store a decent number of recordings.
You can opt for either a white or black bezel, which is in turn wrapped around by a transparent frame, giving the PC a pretty distinctive look. We particularly liked the simple and well-positioned operating buttons running down the right-hand side of the screen.
Round the back are a D-Sub VGA and an HDMI 1.3 input (the latter ideal for HD receivers,
perhaps). With six USB 2.0 ports (two down the side and four hidden at the back) you are also unlikely to run out of places to plug in your gadgets.
Touchscreens are becoming an increasingly important feature on Windows 7-powered PCs and the multi-touch capability of MSI's net-top is shown off perfectly by the MSITouch3D software. We soon found ourselves ditching the cheap-looking wireless keyboard and mouse that ship with the machine and instead relied on a combination of touchscreen with the Media Center remote control.
Freeview pictures look good but the portable aerial bundled with the tuner proved ineffective at finding channels, leading us to use a rooftop antenna.
Audio quality is excellent. Watching a HD movie with the sound cranked up high still gives out a decent, warm surround sound effect, even in a lounge. The machine is pretty silent, though heated-air exhaust at the top of the screen did get rather hot after long periods of use.
Packard Bell ONETWO M
Packard Bell ONETWO M
Packard Bell's oneTwo M is another all-in-one machine aimed at the budget end of the market.
It is also of two machines in our test that ships with a TV tuner built in (for reception/recording of one Freeview or analogue terrestrial channel at a time).
The portable aerial supplied failed to produce satisfactory results in our test area but you can connect a rooftop alternative. The oneTwo M may well be less than half the price of Apple's latest all-in-one iMac, but is let down by the quality of its design and peripherals.
The 20in screen looks OK from the front. The glossy plastic bezel surrounding the oneTwo M is split by an insert of clear acrylic between the front and back of the PC. There's no Blu-ray drive, but you do get a DVD writer. Five USB ports are included – four on the back of the machine and one on the rear as is a 5-in-1 multimedia card reader.
On the downside, the grey plastic stand on the back of the machine looks quite ugly and proved stiff and difficult to use when we were trying to alter the angle at which the PC was stood on the desk.
This is disappointing compared with the attention to design seen on the Asus and MSI machines. There are no operating buttons on the side of the screen but you do get a decent Windows Media Center remote controlled bundled in with the package.
Powered by an embedded Intel Graphics Media Accelerator and 3GB of DDR2 RAM, the oneTwo M has a 20in touchscreen with a maximum resolution of 1600 x 900 pixels. Again, while this is adequate for watching standard-def video, including Freeview and films, it just does not match the 'full HD' offerings of the other machines in our test.
However, the touchscreen functionality works well. We should also mention that Packard Bell does sell a 23in oneTwo L model with a faster quad core CPU and full HD resolution, although that will set you back around £900.
Toshiba Satellite P500-12D
Toshiba Satellite P500-12D
The glossy black 18.4in Toshiba Satellite P500-12D is the only laptop in our Windows 7 PC test, with a decent enough spec sheet to truly be considered as a media centre PC and one of the best screens we've ever seen on a laptop.
It's 41.5mm thick and weighs 3.93kg, which means that this is not a laptop that you want to carry around with you daily.
And the two-hour maximum battery life isn't going to last you that long, either. That said, the benefit of this machine over the other three all-in-one 'net-tops' in our test is clear.
You can quickly shift this machine around the house – between the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and the study – with little bother. Whether or not you like the glossy styling of Toshiba's casing is really a matter of taste.
In our test we found that both the exterior and the area around the trackpad were both 'fingerprint magnets' and we had to have a box of tissues and bottle of screen cleaner close by to keep the thing looking shiny and new.
Perhaps the other major difference between the P500- 12D and the other PCs in our test is that Toshiba's laptop doesn't have touchscreen control – this being a relatively new technology that has yet to find its niche in the laptop market. Instead, there is a set of touch-sensitive controls set just to the left of the keyboard, including an eco-mode and all of the requisite media and volume controls.
We found these to be adequate for watching TV and movies on the machine, used in conjunction with the multi-touch trackpad (although after a few weeks of familiarising ourselves with touchscreen control, we still felt the urge to use our fingers on the screen on a couple of occasions).
Build quality is excellent. The keys are nice and large and the keyboard feels solid and works well. The Harman Kardon speakers belt out audiophile-quality sound, adding an unexpected level of pleasure that we had not experienced on a laptop – especially when listening to music on Spotify.
Windows 7 Media PCs: Verdict
All four PCs are more than powerful enough to function well as TV replacements, easily managing the job of displaying live high-definition television programmes or movies with no annoying jerkiness or jitter.
It helps that Microsoft's Windows 7 Home Premium is genuinely a massive improvement on Windows Vista in almost every way.
It is faster, much more secure and easier to use and, most important of all, considerably more stable than its predecessor. None of these machines is likely to crash in the middle of recording Doctor Who.
Both the MSI and Packard Bell machines are very similar and neither would look out of place on an office desk or in a bedroom or study. Each benefits from the fact that both have DVB-T receivers built in and decent Media Centercentric remote controls.
But we would recommend using a rooftop aerial with both for Freeview. At a shade under £600, MSI's Wind Top AE2220 PC is our budget recommendation for a keenly priced Windows 7 entertainment machine.
Although the oneTwo M is similarly priced, its lack of a high-definition screen (unless you're prepared to pay extra for the L version), decent peripherals and such bonuses as HDMI input, left it wanting.
It is, of course, difficult to compare desktop PCs with laptops, but we would certainly recommend the Toshiba Satellite P500-12D which – despite its form factor – serves well as a portable entertainment hub
The Asus EeeTop PC ET22 wins out in the end, being a beautifully designed machine that looks nothing like a work PC or a laptop. It fits well in any setting. And, most importantly, it looks and sounds superb. Despite not shipping with a TV tuner and remote control in the box, with a capable tuner added it's still the best all-round media PC here.