PC Club is known for their brick and mortar stores rather than having a large online presence, but that could be changing. With more than 40 stores in 5 Western States, you might have seen one while you were out and about. Their website has an extensive catalog list including complete desktop PC’s. Their new Enpower Xpress EN-MX1 Media Center PC has made its way into our labs and we get a chance to see what a $900 custom built PC gets you versus your typical large chain store system or online etailer like Dell.
*Update 4/4/06 – The case that ships with this system is not manufacturered by Acer. We apologize for any inconveniences this may have caused.
Design and Features
When we first received our evaluation system and opened the box, we were able to immediately tell what type of Media Center PC this was going to be. This is not a system that you want with your home theater components; this is a system that will act as a PC first and a Media Center hub second. Think college dorm room, or computer room here, not the home theater room. Housed in an Aspire MATX chassis, this 14″L x 9″H cube has plexi-glass windows on both of the sides and the top of the system. So when it is turned on, you can see a blue glow emanating from within. Now home theater PC builders are probably cringing at this design (and we are too) for a couple reasons. First of all, you really do not want a bright blue light reflecting off of your monitor or TV. Don’t pretend it’s a Philips Ambilight product, and put this machine as far away from your screen as possible if you can. Secondly, Plexiglas windows do not do a good job dampening sound, so be prepared for that. So what kind of Media Center PC does $900 dollars get you? Let’s find out.
Our system came in a stock configuration identical to what you would get from the PC Club website this includes an AMD Athlon 64 X2 3800 Dual Core RT processor, 512MB of DDR400 memory, a Gigabyte GA-K8N51GMF motherboard with integrated GeForce 6100 graphics, a Lite-on 16×16 Dual Layer DVD writer, 7200RPM 200GB hard drive, Hauppauge WinTV-PVR 150MCE TV tuner card with radio FM tuner, 13-in1 media card reader a remote control, Microsoft’s Windows Media Center Edition 2005, and CA Etrust Anti-virus and anti-spyware software, Nero 6 and the drivers for the system. You also get a keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is nothing special and lacks any sort of shortcut keys.
Internet Mouse and “Turbo” keyboard and the remote control
On the appearance side, the system isn’t that bad. Ours came in a blue and black case, but other colors are available such as red, green, yellow, or silver. The black DVD writer blends in well, as does the media card reader, so everything looks relatively clean. There are audio, USB and FireWire ports on the front of the system for easy access. On the back you get 5 USB ports, more audio ports, Ethernet, parallel port and FireWire ports. There is a handle on the front of the system, but it’s only rated for 40lbs, so becareful what you pack into this system!
Yes, thats a handle on the front, becareful when you use it!
As far as accessories, PC Club gives you the option to choose from a number of Microsoft or Logitech keyboards and mice, but at an extra cost. Otherwise they give you a very cheap “Internet Mouse” (does this thing go on the web? Haha no) and a plain old keyboard without any multimedia hot keys on it whatsoever, not exactly what you we were hoping for from a Media Center PC. Luckily, PC Club includes a standard MCE remote control which you will definitely need. On the software side, the only thing that comes pre-installed is CA’s eTRUST EZ Anti-Virus and Anti-Spyware 2005 software with a 1 year license. We actually prefer that nothing comes preinstalled so this is a welcome change. If you were hoping for Microsoft Works or trial software, this is not the system for you. The motherboard box comes with the drivers for the motherboard (which includes graphics, sound) and the TV Tuner card.
PC Club gives you a 1 year warranty which includes phone support, parts and labor.
Notice the Windows registration key on the top of the system
Setup and Use
Our review system came packaged in a large box that says PC Club on the side. Once that box was opened, we were presented with a couple smaller boxes, one that was clearly marked for the motherboard and another marked for a computer chassis, the Acer Aspire. It was within the Acer box that we found the PC Club Enpower Media Center Xpress EN-MX1 system. A static bag from the motherboard contained the driver CD’s and the instruction manual. PC Club gives you a basic brochure which explains how to connect your keyboard, mouse, monitor and power to their system. You will have to use the Windows Media Center Edition manual and Hauppauge Win TV-PVR 150MCE manual to figure out how to actually use this system. We would have preferred an all-in-one manual from PC Club that explained everything rather than trying to piece things together from the separate pieces.
There are a couple things that raised red flags for us on the hardware configuration. We would have probably spent the money differently, and you might tend to agree or disagree. A low voltage processor like an Intel Celeron D or AMD Turion would help keep the fan noise to a minimum and free up some money to put into a little better video card, at least one with DVI output. Maybe spend that money on a multimedia keyboard and mouse instead of the generic ones they give you with the system. The GeForce 6100 isn’t a bad graphics chip, but because it only has analog VGA output on it, definitely not what you want to see if you have a nice plasma or LCD television. If you have the money, you might want to upgrade the video card and add your own to the system.
Once we had everything laid out and installed, we fired up the system and proceeded to go through the Windows setup prompts to get onto the desktop. It took us about 5 minutes of looking through the documentation before we figured out the operating system key code is listed on the system itself as a small sticker. You will probably want to write down your key code for future reference so you do not need to get on your hands and knees trying to get it off the system. Once we got onto our desktop we got down to business.
Our system was relatively quiet, but it was clear that things could have been a lot quieter too. The CPU fan for instance was very audible during movie playback, as was the DVD drive as it spun up and down. The Aspire case itself is pretty nice with a large 120mm fan in the back which itself was pretty silent during out testing. We definitely could have gone without the case lights which just proved to be a nuisance while watching movies.
The lights stood out while watching a movie
The included remote control worked well, but ours came with the batteries installed, so we are not sure just how much life is left; and it proved that the system had been used before it was shipped to us (which is a GOOD thing). Of course they test the system before it ships out, but new batteries would have been nice.
The Media Center part of the operating system worked without a hitch and did not throw us any surprises. This is a pretty no-frills setup so we did not really expect anything extraordinary. The integrated graphics and sound chip are really meant for a large PC monitor and computer speakers, not a home theater setup. If you want to go hi-fi with this system, do yourself a favor and buy a better graphics chip and soundcard. Or better yet, buy a different system altogether.
On the gaming front, the Xpress EN-MX1 will play most games with lower resolution settings, think 1024×768 or 1280×1024 with no anti-aliasing and you get the picture. The integrated NVIDIA GeForce 6100 GPU is a lot better than what comes on most motherboards, and supports higher resolutions like 1900×1220, but the lack of a DVI output kills it for us. We still like the Gigabyte GA-K8N51GMF-9 motherboard it comes on though and like that the system supports any standalone PCI-Express video card should you want to add your own later on.
There is no doubt that you are getting a decent value in the Empower system, but also keep in mind that you get what you pay for. In our opinion, the money could have been spent in a better fashion with more focus on making a quieter system that includes a better graphics chip, preferably with DVI output.
PC Club told us when they sent the system that it would be ideal for a dorm room, or for the average family. There was no promise of an audiophile type system here, so we really cannot dock them too much for over-promising and under-delivering. Because of its form factor, the Empower is really a PC that doubles as a media hub, rather than a system you want sitting with your home theater components.
The Xpress EN-MX1 really feels like it is a system built by your local PC shop using the same parts you could pick up, rather than a mass produced system from the likes of Dell or Gateway. This is both good and bad. Good because the system is upgradeable, and if there is ever a problem you can just take it to your local PC Club (if one is nearby). The bad is that this system feels like it lacks that “new car” smell and polish, it feels pieced together. Give us a nice complete, full manual that explains things, not a static bag with a bunch of CD’s and manuals thrown in.
With that being said, you have to ask yourself if a $900 dollar media center PC is what you want. Remember that you will have to make compromises with this system. The good thing is that it’s upgradeable so you will be able to add your own parts in the future and make this the system you really want it to be.
– Completely upgradeable
– Uses store bought parts, non-proprietary
– Relatively good looking
– Well built
– Lacks a lot of polish
– Poor choice of parts
– Lacks DVI output
– Lights are annoying during movie playback
– Generic keyboard and mouse
– Multiple manuals
– Remote control came with batteries installed