While it’s well known for making everything from motherboards to notebooks, Asus isn’t a name we often see associated with full-blown PCs. The Asteio, though, is an ambitious attempt at a dedicated media PC; something few have managed with great success.
Given that PC makers in this sector are upping the ante in terms of looks, initial impressions are disappointing — the fascia is obviously plastic and, while it’s clearly well built, it doesn’t exude style. Switching it on is more encouraging, as it’s almost completely silent. Close up, you’ll hear a low hum from its two fans, but move away or start watching TV and it will soon disappear.
It’s compliant with Intel’s Viiv platform — not terribly significant in itself as yet, but it does mean it comes with Intel’s Quick Resume drivers. Switch into Media Center’s Away Mode and you can still stream media or record TV, but it will consume much less power.
There’s a Core 2 Duo E6300 inside. It sits at the bottom of the range, but is still amply powerful, as evidenced by the overall score of 0.98 in our benchmarks. The 1GB of RAM is sensible, particularly if you upgrade the Asteio to Vista.
This version of the Asteio also sports a discrete graphics card, in the form of an Nvidia GeForce 7600 GS. It’s another excellent balance between performance and price. It has sufficient clout for most of the existing 3D games at good resolutions, and even the latest titles if you dial down the settings a little.
If you’re outputting to an HD-ready TV, there’s good news in the form of a generous selection of AV outputs. The most noteworthy is an HDMI port, which will output both video (up to 1080p) and audio to the latest HD-compatible panels. There’s also composite, component and DVI — plus you can output D-SUB and scart (non-RGB) via an adaptor. High-definition digital audio comes from optical and coaxial S/PDIF.
In a refreshing change from many of the media-centre PCs we’ve seen of late, there’s a dual DVB-T tuner installed as standard, so you can record one channel while watching another, in true PVR style. That’s slightly stymied by the lack of storage — 250GB is fine if you’re just creating documents, but put a music, video or photo collection on it and there won’t be much room for recorded TV — a shame given the relatively low price of storage these days. You could always replace the disk yourself, though, and we’re also encouraged by the eSATA port on the back (joined by another on the front). Removable storage comes in the form of a dual-layer DVD writer, covering all major formats (including DVD-RAM), and there’s a 13-in-1 card reader hidden under the drop-down flap at the front.
WLAN is built in, and there’s Gigabit Ethernet at the back. There’s also a built-in RF receiver for the smart and comfortable wireless keyboard, which has a handy integrated trackpad. A compact and solid infrared MCE remote is also included, but it uses watch batteries, making it a touch impractical.
Asus is taking part in Microsoft’s Express Upgrade offer, so you’ll be eligible for an upgrade to Windows Vista Home Premium Edition for a nominal admin charge. We’d highly recommend doing so, too, as the Media Center interface in Vista is a vast improvement and simply makes a Windows media-centre PC a more practical option; so much so that if you’re not confident installing the upgrade yourself, you should consider waiting for the Asteio to ship with it as standard.
This is an undeniably well-executed system. Aside from the slightly meagre storage, it ticks all the right boxes on paper, and offers impressive flexibility and power. Beyond that, our only real criticism is that it doesn’t have the satisfying visual appeal that would make it a must-have. But at this price, it represents great value — for $70 less than Pioneer’s DreamVision, you’re getting a far superior Core 2 Duo processor, plus a modicum of 3D power. As such, we have no hesitation in placing it on the A-List.