AOpen XC Cube AV P3.4 Media PC review
This smart small-form-factor chassis with excellent media capabilities is let down by an unattractive screen, but you can buy it separately and then choose your own display.
Creating a media centre PC from an SFF (small-form-factor) chassis makes some sense. After all, who wants an overbearing and unsightly beige tower cluttering up their living room? AOpen partner PC Nextday supplies this system, built from the AV version of AOpen's XC Cube chassis. It lacks the component look of Elonex's Labs-winning Artisan LX, but the black casing and blue vacuum fluorescent display nonetheless lend the chassis an attractive look.
Under the XC Cube's skin you'll see that both memory slots are full, but with a 1GB stick of PC3200 SDRAM in each slot you're not going to need to empty them for an upgrade. The Hitachi SATA hard disk should also last you a while, since it's a 400GB device. If you do start to fill it with space-hungry recorded video files, you can reclaim some room by burning content to DVD, using the BenQ dual-format, dual-layer DVD writer. And, sandwiched between the two drives, there's also a 7-in-1 card reader.
To cool the XC Cube, air is drawn in from the left side of the case and expelled from the right. On its way to the processor it has to pass around the TV/FM tuner card installed in the motherboard's sole PCI slot. Near the middle of the system a single, variable-speed fan is mounted to the side of the CPU's copper heatsink, and it pushes air through the cooling fins and straight out the right side of the case. The fan does become noisy in short bursts when the system is pushed hard, but under normal running as a media PC it's unlikely that you'll hear it.
The AV version of the XC Cube includes a TV/FM tuner with remote control. There's also an AGP slot, but it isn't used in this configuration, as AOpen tells us it wouldn't be supported by the instant-on mode (InstantON), which uses a Linux core. Instead, the system relies on using integrated graphics from Intel's 865G chipset. If games are an essential part of your entertainment needs, then this system isn't for you.
Aside from that, there's little this PC won't handle, as sitting underneath the heatsink is a 3.4GHz Pentium 4 Prescott CPU, complete with Hyper-Threading. Coupled with the 2GB of RAM, this system has more than enough power for its intended role. The multimedia portion of our application benchmarks was boosted by a strong result in the video-encoding tests, which will be useful when handling both TV-generated video and any footage imported via the card's S-Video input or the system's three FireWire ports.
Two different interfaces are provided for accessing media, and both come from InterVideo. InstantON, the Linux interface, can be controlled with buttons on the fascia or by the system's remote control. It isn't exactly instant, taking about 26 seconds to boot to TV, radio, DVD or the CD/MP3 player, and the onscreen controls look a bit clunky, but it's quicker than booting to Windows and has a full range of functions. It can also play MP3s directly from the hard disk, provided they're stored in a folder called MP3 in the root Windows directory.
InterVideo's Home Theater is the alternative media interface. It's more sophisticated and better looking, offering similar style and capabilities to Windows XP Media Center Edition. It offers PVR (personal video recorder), music visualisations and picture slide shows, in addition to the features supported by InstantON. But, of course, you have to wait for Windows to boot before you can start using it.
Although Home Theatre looks good onscreen, it struggles to overcome the aesthetically disappointing monitor. The AOC 19in TFT display has great horizontal viewing angles but it doesn't match the smart SFF case, and with no S-Video output the XC Cube can't be plugged into a TV screen instead. The monitor is 1,280 x 1,024 rather than widescreen, with a four-port USB hub and two 2W speakers built in. Edifier's R501 speaker set is the more natural choice for audio, and we found it quite capable for movies and games (although setting it up correctly for 5.1 sound is fiddly, requiring adjustment in three separate places), but we wouldn't want to listen to music on this set. We did enjoy using the wireless keyboard and mouse though.