ECS EZ-Buddie 2 £1200
1st Jan 2005 | 00:00
Media PCs are arriving thick and fast
Not simply a buzz word anymore, media PCs are becoming strong contenders for living room space, even though, at present, it's hard to envisage them replacing existing kit. This is partly due to the fact that no matter how good the individual PC components are, they can't quite reach the heights of quality stand-alones. Also, no matter how hard we try, mentally computers are still confined to the office.
One reason for this is the reliance on Windows-based software. It's more fiddly to set up and use in comparison to its most complicated entertainment electronics counterparts.
It also has, regardless of Microsoft's assurance, an uncanny ability to crash unexpectedly; you don't have to call a software engineer every six months to fix your DVD recorder and would certainly never consider having to re-install the system yourself.
ECS, with its EZ-Buddie 2, has tackled this problem head on. Although much of the functionality of the machine is accessible through its Windows XP Home operating system, it also has a proprietary Linux-based software engine.
Once accessed through a different front-placed 'on' button to the main power switch it allows you to play MP3s, CDs and DVDs without having to wade through anything that resembles a software desktop.
Another neat feature is an FM radio that works irrespective of whether the PC is on or off. And it is this primarily that indicates the care that's been taken with the case design. First and foremost, the whole package (which also includes two 10W speakers and a 17in TFT monitor - sadly only 4:3) looks and works like a mini hi-fi or entertainment system.
It's cute, although perhaps in a kids' bedroom kind of way. A large array of buttons and glowing dials exemplifies this. One bonus is a constant indication of the processor speed, which can be overclocked with one of the dials - not great unless you know what you're doing, but handy for big software packages that struggle otherwise.
Round the back of the device is a cornucopia of interesting connections. It can get confusing though, as the base unit comes with all the usual PC ins and outs plus the graphics and sound cards add entirely new sets.
There's a lot of repetition and some of them are defunct; it can take trial and error plugging things in different sockets to get the correct results (my tip would be to stick to the bottom two racks wherever possible).
For video purposes there's the usual VGA, coupled with an S-video and DVI out; the latter being the best option for hooking up to a plasma or LCD TV. For sound there's the usual mini-jack output for the packaged speakers plus an SPDIF out to hook it up to an amp for a 5.1 set.
Apart from the DVD/CD boot-up, it's when you get through to Windows itself that there's some issues. Although the machine uses Showshifter rather than Media Center, the rest of the software packaged is sporadic.
There doesn't seem to have been the same care and effort made to integrate the utilities for DVD burning (which I had problems with and ended up installing Nero) or ripping that Moore Innovations took with its rival Medio device.
The inclusion of an analogue TV tuner is bizarre and certainly doesn't help get the most from the PVR functions; a shame considering the 200GB hard drive could fit over 40hrs of highest-quality recordings.
You can, though, plug in a cable, digital or Sky set-top box via the S-video port and link it up with a remote control cable. Unfortunately, the images stored aren't as good as a dedicated HDD recorder. Even at best quality they exhibit some minor noise and lose sharpness during fast movement.
DVD playback is perfect though, especially through DVI, and the processing speed copes with highdefinition video. In fact, speedy PCs are the best way to currently view high-def video in the UK - through Windows Media 9 (or 10) - so that's a bonus.
Also, the two packaged 10W speakers give a well-rounded sound for gaming and bedroom use. For anything else, like movie viewing, you should hook the machine up to a surround setup with Dolby Pro-Logic II and DTS supported.
Although there's something mildly confused about the EZ-Buddie 2, in total I'm impressed by it. While it looks cool on the outside, has more options than the low-calorie hot chocolate shelf in Sainsbury's and performs better than a lot of machines twice its size (and price), it's not the complete 'media centre'.
You will have to be au fait with PCs already to get it to work the way you want. You may also want to add other, more smoothly integrated software, and that will put a lot of non-PC geeks off.