Already have an HDTV display and surround sound? Now all your living room needs is a home-theater PC--a system that combines DVR capabilities, DVD playback, and media library management into a single, living-room-friendly box. That's the S1Digital Media Center Platinum HDTV Edition (MCP for short) in a nutshell. Designed to fit right into your entertainment center, the MCP uses Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 to deliver multituner TV recording, including over-the-air HDTV. It also comes with a multimedia keyboard for couch potatoes, a graphics card that can handle moderate gaming chores, and several handy Media Center extras. At $2,499, the MCP costs $500 more than the similarly configured HP z555, but it doesn't come close to the $5,000-plus price tags of other high-end Media Center PCs we've tested.
The S1Digital Media Center Platinum comes in black or a silver metallic finish. It's a big box, about the size of a 200-disc CD changer, but it's no wider than a standard stereo component, so it should fit into your A/V setup without a problem. However, you may have trouble seeing the front-face LED status screen from your couch; it's mounted so far behind the bezel, the screen is impossible to read unless you have a straight-on view.
A spring-loaded metal door on the case front hides a media card reader, two USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port, and headphone and microphone jacks. Unfortunately, the latter aren't labeled, nor are the myriad of ports on the rear of the system, though S1Digital does supply a handy diagram that identifies everything. Another page illustrates various speaker hookup configurations. The company doesn't supply speakers or monitors--the idea being that you'll integrate the system with your existing display and sound setup.
Most users should find the core specs--a Pentium 4 640 CPU, 1GB of RAM, and a 320GB hard drive--more than sufficient. The Media Center Platinum also includes a middle-of-the-road Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT graphics card and the obligatory dual-layer DVD burner. The only upgrade options when ordering the system directly from the vendor's Web site are the choice of a silver or black case and an optional second 360GB hard drive. S1Digital will, however, customize a system for you on request.
The Media Center Platinum's performance matched that of our other high-end Media Centers: the Creature Scylla S301, which has a 2.4GHz Athlon 64 3800+, and the Niveus Denali, powered by a 3.2GHz Pentium 4 540. All three systems scored virtually identically on CNET Labs' SysMark 2004 benchmarks. On 3D gaming tests, the Media Center Platinum's GeForce 6600 GT card turned in a very playable 59.1 frames per second in our 1,024x768 Half-Life 2 tests, 5 percent faster than the ultraexpensive Niveus Denali, which uses the same graphics card, but 10 percent slower than the Creature Scylla S301 and the gaming-oriented Dell XPS 600, both of which have a Nvidia GeForce 7800 GTX card for added graphics muscle.
In our less formal DVR tests, we found we could record one TV channel and watch another without so much as a hiccup in service. And TV quality was definitely above average, thanks to the high-quality Hauppauge PVR-500MCE tuner card. A TV signal can be input via S-Video, coaxial, or composite RCA cables from your set-top box. Video outputs are standard--DVI, VGA, component, and S-Video. We would have liked to have seen a set of standard component outputs; instead, a proprietary component dongle is supplied. The single HDTV tuner is a DVICO Fusion 5, but you'll have to supply your own HD antenna to pull in a signal. Audio options include S/PDIF and 7.1 analog outputs, FM coax line in, and two sets of stereo RCA inputs.