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How we test Media Centre PCs

Here's how we test media centre PCs.

How we Test Media Centre PCs

Application performance

Core system performance is measured using WorldBench 6. This customised test suite runs several desktop Windows applications with real-world workloads, mimicking how PCs are used on a daily basis. See also: Group test: What's the best media centre PC?

These workloads include tasks such as editing documents and images, compressing files, browsing the web and encoding video. Some tasks are then run simultaneously to form an additional test of the PC’s multitasking capabilities.

In total, eight applications are used: Adobe Photoshop Creative Suite 2.0, AutoDesk 3ds Max 8.0, Firefox 2.0, Microsoft Office 2003, Microsoft Windows Media Encoder 9.0, Nero 7.0 Ultra Edition, Roxio ViewWave Movie Creator 1.5 and WinZip Computing WinZip 10.0.
Results from 10 individual tests are combined and weighted to produce a numerical score relative to a baseline PC.

Our baseline configuration runs a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo E6600 processor, 2GB of DDR2 RAM, an nVidia GeForce 7900 GS graphics card, twin Western Digital Caviar WD3200KS hard drives in a striped Raid array, and Windows Vista Home Premium 32bit. This PC scored 100 points in WorldBench 6.

Transcoding performance

Because you’ll often be working with more than one video file format, we set each PC the task of converting a batch of 1080p Mpeg4 video clips for use on the iPad 2 and recorded how long it took to complete. We used CyberLink’s MediaEspresso software.

This software is able to make use of hardware-accelerated decoding and encoding built into graphic cards and CPUs with integrated graphics-processing capabilities. These techniques can often shorten conversion times by a factor of 10. Multiple CPU threads are also fully exploited, allowing quad-core CPUs to shine when compared to dual-core versions.

Gaming performance

As entertainment centres plugged into your TV, media PCs might be used to play games. Power and noise requirements usually prohibit the use of the best graphics cards, so we tested each PC running Crysis at 720p, ‘Low’ and ‘Medium’ quality settings.

Overclocking

We allow overclocked systems to be submitted only for our dedicated gaming PC reviews. All other components are run at stock speeds, with the exception of factory-overclocked graphics cards designed and sold at boosted speeds. We do, however, allow underclocking for the purposes of reducing power consumption.

Subjective assessment

We also pay close attention to the physical characteristics of each PC, its noise output and its build quality, delving inside the case and taking note of the quality of components used, cabling and airflow. Good-quality peripherals are also important, and where they are supplied we note the ergonomics of the keyboard and mouse. A media PC also needs a remote control and, preferably, a keyboard that can be operated from the sofa.

Support

Differences in warranty terms can impact our scoring. Long warranties are sought after, but we also look at the terms and conditions – specifically, whether faulty systems must be returned to the vendor at your own cost and if both parts and labour are included. Ensure the vendor offers full software support and preferably a home installation for more complex systems

Conclusion

Media-centre PCs are available to suit most needs and budgets. A low-end system should set you back around £500, provide a dual channel TV tuner and cope perfectly well with recording and playing back all sorts of multimedia content, including HD video and Blu-ray.
If you wish to retain compatibility with standard PC components and keep costs down, you can opt for a standard horizontal-format ATX-sized system case.

Palicomp’s Alpha Media Blaze is just such a system, but beware that this PC offers few of the ergonomic features we would expect from a good Media-centre. Aribico’s 5300-HD offers a similar case format but with far superior build-quality. It also offers much better performance in both application and graphics performance, making it suitable for gaming as well as multimedia and general purpose use.

Breabo’s Perseus also comes in a large-format chassis, but makes good use of the size by adding physical media controls such as a volume knob as well as an attractive illuminated LCD display which lets you use the system for Audio without turning on your screen.

All of these systems however use fans to cool their internal components and are therefore not completely silent. Casing air to flow through the case also drags dust into the system which will at some point require cleaning to ensure trouble-free operation.
The best Media-centre PCs are able to function more like multimedia appliances than traditional PCs and will make no noise of their own other than where moving parts cannot be avoided, such as spinning Blu-ray drives.

Chillblast, Quiet PC and Tranquil PC have all submitted entirely silent systems. They use external power supplies, rather like those used by laptops, which require no cooling fans and employ aluminium system cases utilising heatpipe technology to transfer heat to the outside of the case where it can be dissipated passively. Tranquil PC’s Media One goes a step further by avoiding using any air vents, thereby all but eliminating any concerns over dust buildup.

Those PCs using low-power processors also fare much better when left running for extended periods, requiring less cooling and costing you less money.

If you want to watch Freeview HD, make sure you choose a PC with a DVB-T2 tuner as many do not.

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