By Andrew Park
The Good Plenty of power and flexibility, and easy on the ears.
The Bad Mini-tower design is too clunky for the living room.
The Bottom Line A bargain-priced hub for the digital home.
With the arrival last fall of a new version of Microsoft's entertainment-oriented operating system, Windows Media Center 2005, PCs are finally making the leap from productivity and communication tools to all-purpose home hubs. And several of the latest media center machines, like Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) dreamy Digital Entertainment Center z555, are sleek and slender enough to sit in the same room with a plasma TV and leather sofa.
But if style isn't your top concern, you can save a ton of dough by buying a media center that looks more like a traditional PC, such as Gateway's (GTW) 820GM. No one will mistake its chunky mini-tower for a sexy stereo component, even with its snazzy silver paint job. But the 820GM has everything you need to take advantage of Microsoft's (MSFT) best new features. It's also retailing for under $1,100, several hundred dollars less than comparable models from HP, Dell (DELL), and Sony (SNE).
TALLYING THE TAB. Right now, consumers can take advantage of a price war that's unusual for even the cutthroat PC business. Hoping to jump-start media center sales, which have been lackluster since their debut in 2002, Microsoft is allowing PC makers a bit more flexibility in how they offer the operating system. For example, they no longer have to include TV tuners or even remote controls, allowing for bare-bones models that cost just $500.
Of course, the average price of a media center still ends up being much higher. Consumers are paying around $1,300 on average, vs. about half that for a Windows XP PC, according to market researchers at NPD Group.
The reason? To really take advantage of the features that Media Center 2005 offers, such as pausing, rewinding, and recording TV shows, you'll need a separate graphics card with a TV tuner. Dell, for one, doesn't even offer a TV tuner on its sub-$1,000 media centers. You'll also need a hard drive big enough to store all of those shows, another pricey option that adds to the cost. Want to do digital video editing? Better get a DVD burner, yet another way the price gets pretty high pretty fast.
Somehow, Gateway manages to do all of that while keeping the tab reasonable. The 820 GM, which is available at Best Buy and other retailers, sports an Intel (INTC) Pentium 4 530 chip running at 3 gigahertz, plenty fast for entertainment applications. The 1 gigabyte of memory, 128 MB ATI Radeon X300SE graphics card, and 250-gigabyte hard drive are also more than enough for all but hardcore gamers.
HUSH POWER. And it has some nice extras. In addition to a dual-format DVD burner, Gateway throws in a DVD-ROM, making maximum use of optical drive bays built into the PC. The back panel features an array of ports for connecting digital gadgets. On the front, Gateway gives you slots for plugging in eight different kinds of memory cards and a FireWire input for your digital camcorder.
The biggest question mark with the 820GM comes back to its design. Most people don't want a PC in their living room. But to really get your money's worth out of a media center, you'll want to use its elegant and easy-to-use digital video recorder capability -- not an activity for sitting at a desk. Besides, the remote control makes it tailor-made for couch potatoes.
But this Gateway has a nice trade-off. The 820GM is smartly designed to a new specification from Intel known as BTX. The design, which Gateway was the first to adopt, allows a PC to cool itself more efficiently, resulting in fewer fans and much less noise. In fact, you'll barely know it's on. That should make this media center a rising star for enthusiasts of home entertainment.
Park is a correspondent in BusinessWeek's Dallas bureau