We often feel a pang of disappointment as the latest media centre PC comes out of its box. Shoehorning a computer into a chassis the size of a hi-fi component isn’t easy, and the results are often frustratingly compromised. But Intel’s Core 2 processors have been a shot in the arm for the living-room PC: an inexpensive, cool-running powerhouse of a chip is just what it’s been waiting for. Based around Intel’s Viiv platform, a Merom Core 2 Duo sits at its heart. While that’s technically a notebook part, it’s quite at home in a system like this.
Also included is a GeForce Go 7600 graphics chip and with average framerates of 30fps in both our Far Cry and Call of Duty 2 test at 1024 x 768, you’ll be able to play current games on it too.
First impressions are good. For a start, the iDea 510 is about the size of a DVD player, and at only 71mm high it’s also perfectly proportioned to fit into a standard hi-fi rack. All of the heat is dissipated through the sides, which means you needn’t worry about stacking other AV devices on top of it either. The front of the system is sleek and slim, with a selection of transport buttons for controlling playback, and an LCD that shows meaningful information – what’s playing if you’re using the MCE interface, for example, or the time and date if not.
Acer’s attention to detail is obvious: the flap on the front whirrs down smoothly, revealing a pair of USB ports, S-Video, composite and RCA audio in ports, as well as a pair of 1/4in audio jacks, all format media card reader and mini FireWire port. The slot-loading DVD writer, able to write to dual layer and DVD-RAM, is another elegant and practical touch.
The iDea should fit in happily with any hardware you already have. The backplane has an impressively comprehensive range of video and audio options: component, composite and S-Video are present, while individual analogue RCA ports for eight-channel audio are grouped together on the rear, or you can use the coaxial or optical S/PDIF outputs. There’s also an HDMI port, and it supports HDCP too, ensuring the iDea will play encrypted high-definition content. There’s even a useful plug-in for the MCE interface that specifies which of the video inputs to use.
There’s no shortage of PC-based ports either, with four USB 2 ports, plus FireWire and mini-FireWire, all sensibly located around the chassis. You also get Gigabit Ethernet, as well as a Broadcom 802.11b/g card, with a screw-on WLAN antenna on the back of the system.
Inside, the notebook motherboard is a beautifully simple piece of design. All the internal components are neatly spaced out, and the system remains slim thanks to the TV tuner and WLAN card sitting in mini-PCI slots, while the RAM is spread across a pair of 1GB SODIMMs. The TV card is a DVB-T twin tuner so you can watch and record two channels simultaneously. With a single antenna input socket, it’s a much tidier option than most media centres manage.
The only fully fledged desktop component is the Seagate hard disk. With notebook drives both much more expensive and limited in capacity, it makes sense, and a 500GB capacity is a decent offering – note, though, additional storage must be added externally.
There’s little in the way of custom cooling, with the CPU and PSU cooled by small 50mm fans. Under heavy load, the PSU fan soon speeds up, leaving the iDea periodically noisy enough to create an audible whoosh in an otherwise quiet room. It’s easily drowned out during TV and music playback, though, and day-to-day use will rarely cause it to kick in – just be sure to leave it well ventilated. Otherwise, the iDea emits a very low-level hum that’s unlikely to be annoying.
The iDea doesn’t come with a mouse, instead building a trackpad onto the right-hand side of the keyboard. It’s an RF unit, which means you still have control over the system even if you don’t have line-of-sight to the receiver; this, in keeping with the tight integration of the rest of the system, is built in. The keyboard is solid in use on a desk and comfortable to use on the sofa too.
Aside from the poor warranty, there’s practically nothing to dislike. There’s ample power to cope with serving out video and audio to other devices, as well as recording and playing it back. With enough features to ensure it can easily become part of a complex home-entertainment setup, the iDea is a brilliant consumer device. It won’t look out of place in a modern hi-fi setup and is a great example of a piece of technology that simply works. However, it’s just too expensive to compete with Asus’ slightly-chunkier Asteio. That offers similar features for several hundred dollars less. But if you want the diminutive size, this is great.