Gateway FMC-901X Review

Ss far as Media Center PC's go in the mainstream computer market, the Gateway FMC-901X is a serious contender.
Ss far as Media Center PC's go in the mainstream computer market, the Gateway FMC-901X is a serious contender.
Ss far as Media Center PC's go in the mainstream computer market, the Gateway FMC-901X is a serious contender.

Highs

  • Clean system design
  • easy to use
  • powerful components

Lows

  • There is no room for expansion
  • can be loud while watching movies
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Summary

The FMC-901X is a great system for those wanting to try something new. Gateway was the first to incorporate a computer into the home theater with the introduction of their Destination series systems, and the FMC-901X shows how well this genre has evolved. The FMC-901X is a very powerful system capable of playing the best video games, editing home movies and watching television. The system design is clean and attractive and should look good in most home theater setups. Gateway can still improve upon the FMC-901X by adding quieter cooling, integrating WiFi and adding more internal expansion. But as far as Media Center PC’s go in the mainstream computer market, the Gateway FMC-901X is a serious contender.

Update 5/11/04 – The 901X is not currently available on Gateway’s website, so the price listed links to the lower end model. We have not received confirmation if the 901X will be re-introduced at a later date.

Introduction

We have mentioned here on Designtechnica several times before that there are multiple ways to make a home theater or Media Center PC. One way is to take the home theater and incorporate it into the PC and the other way is to take the PC and incorporate it into the home theater. Fortunately Gateway makes two Media Center PC models that address both of these conversions. A couple weeks we reviewed the Gateway 610 Media Center which incorporates a home theater experience into the PC, complete with a 17″ widescreen display and a speaker system. Today we are reviewing the FMC-901X which takes PC functionality and puts it in your home theater. Starting at just $999 the Gateway FMC-901X looks right at home in your home theater audio rack.

Performance

Because Gateway’s FMC-901X uses a full-sized ATX motherboard, it is not dependant on integrated components such as the video card or sound card. This helps the 901X out perform Gateway’s other Media Center PC, the 610 which uses an integrated ATI 9200 Radeon video adapter. CPU performance is nearly identical between the two however.

System Configurations:

Gateway FMC-901X
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 3GHz Intel P4 w/Hyper Threading; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz;  ATI RADEON 9800PRO AGP graphics with 128MB; 250GB Ultra ATA100 7200rpm hard drive

Gateway 610XL
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 3GHz Intel P4 w/Hyper Threading; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Integrated ATI RADEON 9200 AGP graphics with 128MB; 200GB Ultra ATA100 7200rpm hard drive

Gateway Media Center XL

Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 400MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 440G 128MB; Seagate 80GB7,200rpm

Design and Features

The terms Home Theater PC (HTPC) and Media Center PC mean two completely separate things to a lot of tech enthusiasts. Traditionally a Home Theater PC indicates a computer system which you could hook up to your home theater system. This system provided all of the components necessary to watch movies, listen to music and browse the internet. But not just any computer system would do. It had to look like it belonged with the rest of your home theater equipment and it had to be specially designed to be both quiet and upgradeable.

Most computer manufacturers seem to be taking a variant of their desktop PC line and throwing Microsoft Windows Media Center PC Edition on the system, this may fool most people, but true enthusiasts of this niche know better. There are of course a few smaller companies that are making home theater PC’s that fit the part, but due to their company size, are unable to get access to Windows Media Center OS. Enter Gateway computers.

In our very first Gateway Media Center PC review, we completely bashed Gateway for slapping the Media Center OS on a desktop computer and calling it a Media Center PC. The system was very much unrefined, and a lot of the components simply did not work well together. Things have changed since then and as if Gateway magically listened to what we recommended, they have created the FMC-901X.

The first thing you will notice about the FMC-901X is that it doesn’t look like a PC at all; the system looks just like a large home theater receiver. This is exactly what we had in mind for a system targeting this niche. The case this system is housed in is exactly the same width as the rest of your home theater components and even includes small feet on the bottom of the system. On the front of the system is where you will find controls for powering up the system, navigating the CD player function and the operating system (without the remote control). There is a nice LED display located below the DVD drive tray as well as a flip down front panel. It is behind this flip down control panel where you will find even more system controls, including a 6-in-1 media card reader and FireWire and USB 2.0 inputs which are perfect for hooking up a digital camera or camcorder.

Gateway offers this system is 3 base configurations. The first configuration has the 901 system powered by a 2.6GHz Intel Celeron CPU, 256MB of memory and an 80GB hard drive. The second configuration has the 901 system powered by an Intel Pentium 4 CPU running at 3GHz, 512MB of memory and a 250GB hard drive. You can add Gateway’s Plasma TV to any of these configurations. Inside the FMC-901X is where you will find the sweetest components of all. The video system is powered by an ATI 9800PRO video card with 128MB of memory, and S-Video and DVI outputs. The sound card is a monster and has Dolby Digital 7.1 capabilities including SPDIF digital optical output. The TV tuner has its own card and is not integrated on the motherboard or video card. This is perfect for upgrading this component at a later date, perhaps if you decide to switch over to HDTV completely. Since this system is packed with hardware, there are no PCI slots left over for expansion and there is no integrated WiFi either forcing you to use regular Ethernet to access the internet.

On the external peripheral side, there is the slim and highly attractive remote control which uses a polished aluminum casing, perhaps even anodized aluminum. The remote control is long and slender and has just the perfect weight to give it a very high quality feel. For navigating through the system on the PC side, Gateway includes a Gyration wireless keyboard and mouse. Home theater hobbyists will be very familiar with this brand of mouse and keyboard. Overall the system design of the FMC-901X is well thought out and very attractive. The Gateway gold color chosen for this system may be a turn-off to some people, but it really is not as bad as you might think.

Setup and Use

When we opened the package and saw just how many parts come with the FMC-901X, we shivered with fear. The FMC-901X comes not only with the remote control, keyboard and mouse, but it also comes with every conceivable cable you can think of. Thankfully the instruction manual Gateway packs with the FMC-901X, is very detailed. You will want to set aside a good two hours to just getting this system setup.

On the video side of our home theater setup we have a 55″ Mitsubishi WS-55819 HDTV, and Dish Networks PVR receiver. On the audio side, we have a Yamaha RV-1105 receiver and Axiom Audio Epic 80 speaker system. Because our television only had the S-Video inputs (the FMC-901X does not support component video) and no DVI input, we used this for our video tests. We chose to use the SPDIF output on the FMC-901X for the audio side.

We have to tell you that using the PC functions of this system on a big screen is very hard on the eyes. Even though the resolution was set at 1024×768 (the max we could put it at). The icons and text on the desktop side were almost too blurry to see. So unless your projection set has VGA, or DVI inputs, we want to warn you that the video quality while browsing the internet is sub par. This is not due to the Gateway system in particular but rather to the test setup which we have here at Designtechnica.

DVR Installation and Testing

A lot of people seem to think that you cannot hook up Microsoft Media Center operating system to satellite, and this simply is not true. Not only does it support satellite, but it can be fairly easy to setup. Gateway includes detailed instructions in the manual as well as an infrared repeater (or blaster as some call it) which you connect to the front of the satellite receiver. Once you go into the Media Center setup menu, the operating system will walk you through setting up the Gateway remote control to make sure it is compatible with your satellite or cable provider. If you have an RF based remote control with your cable/satellite receiver you will have to see if there is a way to switch it over to infrared; if not you will need to purchase a converter. Once we got the remote control synched we proceeded to test the DVR capabilities of this system.

The online channel guide provided with the Media Center OS is very easy on the eyes and simple to setup and use. We were able to get the channel guide to find our Dish Network program guide so both were synched. Setting up the system to record a show works great because you can browse the web, play a video game or watch the show you are recording all at the same time. Our recording showed no playback errors and did not seem to be hindered by the multi-tasking. This may however not be the case on the lower powered Celeron system which has less system memory and does not support Hyper-threading. So if you have experience with this version, please post it in the user review section. The integrated DVR worked flawlessly in our tests and even shut down the system when it finished recording.

Movie Viewing

For our home movie tests we chose the movies Finding Nemo and The Gladiator. There are two ways to watch a movie. The first is by using the Media Center Menu and the second is by using WinDVD which also comes installed on the system. While using the Media Center DVD player, we were able to get The Gladiator to playback in 5.1 Dolby Digital sound, but Finding Nemo refused to switch over to Dolby Digital forcing us to use Dolby Prologic for the audio side. We decided to try this using WinDVD directly and were able to get both movies to use Dolby Digital without any problems. We are not sure what caused this problem in the Media Center DVD player and hopefully this is something that can be fixed and is not permanent. The worst case could be an incompatibility with the hardware Gateway put in the system. If you find out what causes this, please post in our forums for others to find out. Video quality while watching a DVD movie is just as good as a standalone DVD player using the S-video connector. We can only imagine how well it must look using the DVI input. For videophiles, interested in the only the best video signals, there does not appear to be any progressive scan or HDTV capabilities on this system. If you want to output HDTV resolutions to your television, you will need to purchase ATI’s VGA to DVI adapter and install a program called “Powerstrip” in order to get compatible resolutions on your television. Gateway will not support either of these items since they are not packaged with the system. The bright side is that the FMC-901X uses a standard AGP slot for the video card, so you can upgrade the video output should you decide too. The audio quality of this system is pretty fantastic thank to the Creative Labs 7.1 Audigy card.

Is the FMC-901X the System for HTPC Enthusiasts?

While the Gateway FMC-901X may be great for the typical user, there are some things that still need some fine tuning. First of all the processor is probably overkill. At 3GHz the Intel processor will need a lot of cooling. Add to that a large 250GB hard drive and an ATI 9800PRO and you could probably fry an egg on this system. So of course Gateway adds some major fans to keep the system cool. The problem with this is that it also makes the system loud. During our movie tests we could hear the system over the movie in some of the quiet scenes; this is a serious no-no in the HTPC community. Secondly, the blue LED’s on the front of the system are super bright and can be an eye distraction when the lights are turned off. You should be able to modify the system by adding some after market fans to cut down on the noise factor.

Another issue we found with the FMC-901X was the lack of expansion abilities and no integrated WiFi.  Every single PCI slot is taken up in this system. From the 7.1 soundcard to the integrated TV tuner, there simply is no room to add to it. And since there is no integrated WiFi card, you will have to use traditional Ethernet cables to connect this system to the internet. Granted this is not an issue for some people, it could be a deciding factor for others; especially since there is no room to add an internal WiFi card (USB WiFi will of course work though).

HTPC enthusiasts will be very attracted to the case and motherboard Gateway chose to use with this system. Theoretically you can switch out the video card, and sound card and add your own components. Of course this will void your warranty, but the case and motherboard in our opinion are worth it. The Gyration keyboard and mouse are an added touch and work great for this system.

Conclusion

The FMC-901X is a great system for those wanting to try something new. Gateway was the first to incorporate a computer into the home theater with the introduction of their Destination series systems, and the FMC-901X shows how well this genre has evolved. The FMC-901X is a very powerful system capable of playing the best video games, editing home movies and watching television. The system design is clean and attractive and should look good in most home theater setups. Gateway can still improve upon the FMC-901X by adding quieter cooling, integrating WiFi and adding more internal expansion. But as far as Media Center PC’s go in the mainstream computer market, the Gateway FMC-901X is a serious contender.