The DHS-2 Media Center comes in an attractive silver case with black trim that looks at home with other A/V componentry and measures only 4 inches high. A small digital display in the upper-right corner provides time, date, and system info. A flip-down door along the bottom hides front-mounted inputs (audio and video, FireWire, and two USB 2.0 are among them) and a 7-in-1 multimedia-card reader.
Our test system uses a 3.0GHz Intel Pentium 4 530 processor (at the time of this writing, a free upgrade from the 2.8GHz CPU) and 512MB of RAM, and it includes a 160GB hard drive, built-in wireless Ethernet, and a multiformat, double-layer DVD burner. You may want more storage space than the single hard drive it offers, but otherwise, for the purpose of using the DHS-2 Media Center for passive home entertainment, we expect that this configuration will serve you well. A low-end 128MB ATI Radeon X300 PCI Express graphics card and integrated audio are unfortunately the DHS-2 Media Center's only multimedia subsystem options, not that we would recommend spending more for a high-end graphics card to play PC games from your coffee table.
It's plain that Alienware doesn't encourage home tinkering; the case is screwed shut with two Phillips screws and two torque screws. With torque wrench in hand, we opened the box and found a customized motherboard layout with two riser cards. One card provides three PCI slots, two of which are occupied by cards that provide the rear-panel audio connectors. The third slot is unoccupied but useless because it doesn't have an accompanying bracket slot on the back of the case. The other riser card connects to the motherboard's x16 PCI Express slot so that you can use more than just a half-height card inside the slim case. You could perhaps upgrade the graphics card, but there is limited clearance behind the PCI Express slot, so it would need to be a short one. It would also need to draw enough power from the slot itself; there are no free connectors from the power supply.
We don't fault Alienware for making this type of PC a fairly static design. Ideally, it's supposed to be stacked up on top of your A/V gear and left alone. Alienware has configured the DHS-2 with two TV tuners (and at the time of this writing, the company was offering the second one as a free upgrade), which allows you to record one show while simultaneously watching another, at least in theory. Support for multiple tuners is a new feature of Media Center Edition 2005 PCs, but taking advantage of the dual-tuning capability is cumbersome for many, because you'll need two signal sources (two cable boxes, for example), unless you're one of the relatively few who has an unscrambled cable signal and can bypass a cable box altogether. All multimedia PCs suffer from this problem; scrambled signals render the channel-guide software useless and make using bundled remote controls dependent on inelegant IR blasters. Don't blame Alienware, blame FCC regulations. Once plug-and-play TV technology becomes prevalent, the idea of a media PC may be a more fully realized concept.
The included Gyration wireless RF keyboard and mouse work at distances of up to 30 feet, allowing for comfortable operation from the couch. (We recommend a very big display if you want to see a Word document or a Web page from that distance.) The mouse features gyroscopic motion-sensing technology that allows you to use it away from the desktop, more like a standard remote control. These components work well for channel surfing and menu navigation, and even light Web browsing wouldn't be a problem, but they obviously don't lend themselves to playing PC games.