If you aren't ready to put a Windows OS at the center of your home theater, you don't need a glitzy, rack-mounted model such as the Alienware DHS-2. (The PowerSpec MCE 410 fits this description as well, but for the price, we'd happily place it on our desk.) While it may not fit in a designer living room, the MiniBox 939AX provides live-TV and video-recording capabilities on your desktop. Keep your TiVo attached to your TV and home theater and think of the Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 (MCE 2005) as a bonus on the PC.
The MiniBox 939AX is a small-form-factor PC, though a rather boxy one at 8.0 by 10.5 by 12.6 inches (HWD). It serves up some geek chic with its glossy black front, matte-silver cladding, and blue neon lights. Below the lone optical drive sits a handy media-card reader along with a couple of USB 2.0 ports, a six-pin (powered) FireWire port, and headphone and microphone jacks. Integrated 5.1 audio ports can be found around back, with four additional USB 2.0 ports and another six-pin FireWire connector.
Removing a single thumbscrew in the rear allows you to take off the top panel, providing access to the optical drive stationed on top. This drive sits in a flip-up cage that pops out to allow you into the system's interior below. Although it's tight in there, you'll still find acceptable access to the x16 PCI Express graphics slot, three PCI slots, and four DIMM slots.
Polywell's bare-bones approach does shave some money off the price. Configured as it was for our testing, the unit came in at $1,327 (as of April 2005), including a 17-inch LCD. Our system also featured a 2.0GHz Athlon 64 3200+ processor, 512MB of RAM, a 200GB hard drive, and a double-layer DVD burner. You could complain about our test system's onboard Radeon Xpress X200 graphics and sound, but Polywell gives you plenty of upgrade options, if you're willing to spend more for them. For example, you can choose from a whole host of PCI Express graphics cards.
The MiniBox 939AX is in the same price range as the Sony VAIO RB38G and the WinBook PowerSpec MCE 410, but it trailed both systems on our application and 3D gaming benchmarks. The MiniBox 939AX was 8 percent slower than the PowerSpec 410 on the SysMark 2004 Internet-content-creation test, which we attribute to the MiniBox's AMD Athlon 64 3200+ not keeping pace with its Intel counterpart, plus the fact that the Polywell's integrated graphics borrow resources from the system memory. On our Unreal Tournament 2003 test, the MiniBox 939AX's frame rates were predictably lower than those of systems with discrete graphics cards. Today's games will bring the MiniBox 939AX to its knees, but you'll still be able to run 2D graphics--TV, DVDs, videos, photos--associated with Media Center PCs.
The 17-inch Hyundai LCD that Polywell bundled with our test system is too small for watching TV or movies from your couch. But it does give you the opportunity, for instance, to watch TV in a window on your screen while you work or surf the Web. Likewise, the bundled Creative SBS560 5.1 speakers provide enough audio for a bedroom or a dorm room, but they won't fill a larger room. The two peripherals that will allow you to unchain yourself from your desk are the excellent Logitech Cordless Desktop Optical keyboard and mouse.