The notebook winner this month was a close call. Two units stood out as being at the top of the multimedia field: the Pioneer D47K and the Acer Aspire 1802WSM. Feature-by-feature they were very closely matched, but we chose the Pioneer for several reasons, one of which was its advanced media capabilities.
This notebook was one of several units, including the Acer, which came complete with a full working version of Windows XP Media Center Edition (MCE) 2005. Despite being available in other countries for at least 12 months, this is the first time Australia has had the ability to purchase systems based on it. MCE is easy to use, and the latest version is also quite gorgeous to look at, with some subtle Mac OSX-type warping effects in the various menus. MCE is a lot more powerful than it looks and can easily perform functions such as watching and recording TV.
In keeping with this, the Pioneer notebook came with an external remote receiver and external digital TV tuner. The unit does have an inbuilt, front-mounted IR port, but at the time of writing this was unable to integrate with MCE. Pioneer tells us that at some point this will be rectified, but this is a little bit of a nuisance. This dependence on several external devices does mute its portability somewhat, so if a portable media device is on your shopping list this is something to keep in mind. Even so, it is still a lot more portable and lighter than its competitor the Acer.
Aesthetically, the Pioneer is no beauty queen. The case itself is fairly non-descript, being grey and silver plastic. But its lack of movie-star good looks hides endless capability within. The 17" widescreen LCD is quite decent and enables the unit to accommodate a full-size, responsive keyboard. The inbuilt speakers are quite good as well.
There are 4 USB ports and, peculiarly for this roundup, external COM ports as well - which could be useful if you have legacy peripherals.
The Pioneer has all desktop bases covered. It's a capable media machine thanks to MCE, and due to its beefy Athlon 64 3400+ and best-in-show ATI Mobility 9700 it has more than enough power to cover games and CPU intensive tasks. However, as the Pioneer is based on a just-released OS, the latest available drivers refused to run one of our benchmarks, Doom 3. It would crash after running for 10 seconds or less. This necessitated a bit of … erm … tweaking.
Using the latest available Catalyst drivers we were able to get the game to complete its testing. The problem is that Catalyst drivers won't run on laptops, so most users will have to rely on notebook manufacturers to keep graphics drivers up to date. Thankfully, a utility called DH Mobility Modder enables the staunch of heart to modify desktop drivers to work on a notebook, but this isn't something an ordinary user should have to do There is no uninstall routine, and of course PC Authority takes no responsibility for those who wish to try it for themselves. But it can help to rectify any incompatibilities.
The Pioneer comes shipped with the latest version of Windows Media Center 2005 as standard, which has some nifty picture-in-picture effects.
Despite this, the Pioneer did manage to blitz all the other notebooks (and most of the desktops!) in the games benchmarks. Doom 3 came to a very playable 22.6 fps and, best of all, 3DMark 2001 scored 13033 marks - meaning this PC will make minced meat of most DirectX games. In short, this is an awesome gaming rig.
In PCMark the Pioneer was only narrowly beaten by the Acer but still managed to score a healthy 4347 marks. It shows enough muscle to easily accomplish even heavily CPU intensive tasks like complex 3D rendering and video editing – more than enough for your standard desktop replacement.
The Pioneer is an excellent all-rounder and would make a very good desktop replacement. The only real caveat to this is that the unit requires numerous external devices to get the most from Windows MCE. This means lots of plugging and unplugging cables if you want to move the unit, but hopefully this will be fixed soon. The lack of any multimedia buttons such as 'Play', 'Stop' etc is also a missed opportunity for a multimedia machine of this calibre.
In the end we chose this unit over the Acer because, even though it's a little more expensive, it's a better portable. It features a mobile processor, which means its battery life will be better. Its smaller size and lighter weight also make it more suitable for travelling on the road if need be. Admittedly, at almost four grand, the Pioneer is quite a hefty investment, but if a multimedia monster is what you're after you can't get much better for the money. This is not to take anything away from the Acer, as it is still a very good PC and would also make a sound choice. The Pioneer is simply a better machine.