With the iDea500, Acer has taken a couple of major steps in the right direction to making media centre PCs more accessible to regular buyers. First and foremost they have ditched the PC tower for a case not unlike a set-top box. The second thing that makes this unit more appealing, particularly to people looking for an all-in-one solution, is the option of coupling it with a 37-inch AT3720B LCD TV.
Even though it now looks like a normal DVD player, there's a lot more riding under the hood of this Aspire iDea500. It uses an Intel Core Duo T2300 1.66GHz notebook CPU with Viiv technology, which allows this unit to run cooler and quieter, but doesn't impact too heavily on performance.
While a media centre of this nature may not find itself tasked with heavy duty usage, it will still need to encode music and video, play media, access the Internet and keep itself clean with antivirus software, which all use system resources. We put it through some performance tests and it held up quite well. We also encoded a full music CD to 192Kbps MP3 files, which took 4min 38sec to complete; a fairly speedy but not outstanding result.
The audio outputs in 7.1 channels and can be connected using anything from analogue cables to coaxial or optical (to slink). There's also a media card reader that supports CF (CF-I&CF-II)/MD as well as SD/MMC/MS/MS-Pro and of course there's a DVD re-writable drive with dual-layer burning capabilities.
Two hybrid digital/analogue TV-tuners have been installed using a pass through system to allow users to watch one TV channel while recording another. We recorded footage from a High Definition TV channel and played it back in Windows Media Center's (MCE) player, but also in Windows Media Player, and did so with a number of computers, each producing a clear image with no audio synchronisation problems. Time lapse recording worked smoothly and again there were no evident audio synchronisation problems. Rewinding the recording was fast and it quickly picked up the new location when play was resumed.
There's also an input for analogue radio. The 250GB installed hard drive is the maximum storage that comes with the current model and there's no room inside for a second hard drive.
A display on the face of the unit gives you all the necessary information including lapse time, track, title and chapter information that a standard DVD or CD player might, but can also be programmed to display things like RSS feeds or the weather.
The PC itself has plenty of connectivity and will work with many TVs. We used the HDMI output with the Acer AT3720B TV, but S-Video, DVI, composite and component connections are also available. There's also USB 2.0 and FireWire and a host of network connection options like Gigabit LAN and 802.11 b/g wireless.
A rarely seen feature is the IR Blaster which grants you control over other infrared devices, such as an amplifier, via this media centre box. One useful function of the IR Blaster is allowing remote access to devices behind cupboard doors, so you don't have to keep cabinet doors open to adjust your volume. Both the PC and the TV are HDCP compliant, meaning there shouldn't be any compatibility issues if the user upgrades to a High Definition (HD) Blu-ray or HD-DVD player, or optical drive.