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Gateway Media Center XL Review

Highs

  • Good overall performance

Rating

Our Score 7
User Score 6

Lows

  • No surround sound setup
  • confusing software configuration
...more fit and polish would have made this system more intuitive to consumers new to the Media Center idea.

Summary

Gateway’s Media Center XL is representative of a system new to this genre. While performance is above average, more fit and polish would have made this system more intuitive to consumers new to the Media Center idea. The fact that there are two separate programs for writing both CD-R and DVD-R media as well as two separate DVD player programs means that there will just be that much more confusion to the end user. The design of the Gateway Media Center XL matches the rest of Gateway’s desktop computer line and other than the remote control; there is nothing that distinguishes the Media Center XL from the rest. Those who decide to purchase the Media Center XL should be more than happy, but make sure to do some research first as there may be features on other brand Media Center PC’s which you may find more attractive.

Introduction

Gateway’s Media Center XL is a valiant attempt to leave a distinguishable mark in a new emerging PC niche geared towards audio and video enthusiasts. Unfortunately, the Media Center XL slightly misses the target.  We had high hopes for this system knowing that Gateway has always been on the cutting edge when it comes to merging your home PC with your home theater. In the mid-nineties, Gateway introduced the Destination series computers complete with a 32″ or 36″ television which was the first of its kind.

The Media Center PC is a relatively old idea that only recently has been receiving standardized form through Microsoft’s new Windows XP Media Center Edition operating system. The whole concept behind the Media Center PC is that you can use your computer for both general computer and television operating/recording functions. Microsoft’s Media Center operating system has the abilities to view and record live television (much like a Tivo DVR recorder), play music and DVD movies as well as import and manage pictures from your digital camera. A wireless infrared remote control is even included to help you operate your new system.

Features

The Gateway Media Center XL takes the whole concept behind the Media Center PC and adds enhancements such as a DVD-RAM/-R drive, a 4-in-1 media card reader and USB 2.0/FireWire ports located on the front of the computer case. Driving this system is an Intel 2.4 GHz Hyper threading CPU with an 800 MHz FSB, 512 MB of 400 MHz DDR SDRAM, an 80GB Hard drive, Sound Blaster Audigy 2 with FireWire ports, Boston Acoustics BA745 speakers with subwoofer, 128MB Nvidia GeForce 4 MX440G graphics cards and a PCI TV Tuner card with PVR capabilities. To top off the system, Gateway gives you the option of either a 15″ or 17″ LCD display or a 42″ Plasma monitor. The keyboard and mouse although not wireless, offer a plethora of hot keys to help enhance the media center experience.

The base software packages on the Media Center XL include Easy CD Creator 5, Microsoft Works Suite 2003, Quicken 2002 and Norton’s Antivirus. The software packages can be upgraded to include different flavors of Windows XP, and Office XP.

Performance

Our Gateway Media Center XL system outpaced both the Sony PCV-W20 and the HP Media Center Pc’s in all of the benchmarking categories. This is due to the Media Center XL’s 128 MB video card and faster 400Mhz DDR SDRAM. The Gateway Media Center XL holds its own against other commercial system builders such as HP, but drags behind some of the specialty builders like Alienware. Performance overall, is above average and buyers will be more than happy with the way their Media Center XL runs.

System Configurations:

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

HP Media Center PC
Windows XP Media Center Edition; 2.66GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; Nvidia GeForce4 MX 420 64MB; Seagate ST3120023A 120GB 7,200rpm


Sony VAIO PCV-W20

Windows XP Home Edition; 1.8GHz Intel P4; 512MB DDR SDRAM 266MHz; SiS integrated 32MB graphics; Samsung Spin Point SV0602H 60GB ATA 100 5400 RPM HDD

Design

The Gateway Media Center XL PC comes in a silver mid-tower case with black accents. There is an easy to open front cover which flips down to hide the front drive bays on the system. The DVD-ROM, DVD-R writer, floppy drive and media card reader all feature matching black faceplates which adds to the overall aesthetic appeal of the system. The FPD1730 17″ LCD display is housed in a silver casing on the front of the display with a black cover on the back.

On the inside of the system you will find very little room in the way of adding more add-in cards to this system as all of the 3 PCI slots are taken. The Media Center XL comes with both a DVD-RAM/-R writer and a DVD-ROM drive which takes up both of the 5″1/4 drive slots. There are no additional cooling features other than the stock case and CPU fans although wiring is pretty clean with plenty of room for air circulation. We would have liked to have seen more than 3 total PCI slots on the motherboard.

The inside of the Media Center XL

While there is good airflow, unfortunately there are only 3 total PCI expansion slots

Setup and Use

Setting up the Media Center XL is very similar to a regular PC in that you answer the questions prompted to you by the operating system upon the initial startup. What sets the Windows Media Center OS apart from the Home Edition, is that you will need to setup the multimedia functions of the system, which will include downloading the interactive television guide, and letting your computer know what type of broadcast connection you have, whether its over the air antennae or cable. Gateway includes an S-Video cable should you decide to hook the Media Center XL to your television, although no audio cables are included.

Recording live TV is relatively easy; simply press the record button while watching television. You can then fast forward or rewind your recording on the fly. If you want to record your show to DVD, there is no simple way to do this as the feature is not built into the operating system.

When it comes to DVD playback and recording, the Media Center XL is full of confusion. The DVD-RAM/-R drive is capable of reading –R/RW,+R/RW, and RAM media which is great, but it can only write to –R/RW media, not RAM media at all. Windows recognizes the drive under the hardware profile as a DVD RAM drive only, so make sure to read Gateway’s manual before recording any DVD’s.

There are two separate installations of Roxio’s software on the Media Center XL system, Easy CD Creator 5 and Movie Creator Lite. Gateway should have opted to include Easy CD and DVD Creator 5 basic instead of two separate writing programs as it only adds to the confusion. There are also two DVD playback programs, WinDVD and the built in DVD player used in the Media Center Edition operating system itself.

The 4-in1 media card reader is a nice addition to this system and works without a hitch. Simply add your card into the appropriate slot and the computer will treat it like any other removable media. Most if not all Media Center based systems come with a media card reader.

Setup and Use Continued…

Audio and video playback on the Media Center XL is a little disappointing. First of all the basic setup comes with the Boston Acoustic BA745 Speakers w/ Subwoofer which are a pair of stereo speakers, there is no surround sound setup, although for more money you can certainly purchase better speakers. And while the included remote control works well for navigating within the video/audio playback features of the operating system, a wireless keyboard and mouse would have been a wise addition for regular computer functions. Without a wireless keyboard and mass, when you are watching a program from your sofa and decide you want to surf the net, you are forced to get up and sit in front of the computer system to use it.

The FPD1730 17″ LCD flat panel display included in our system is nothing short of fabulous. It sports a 1280×1024 at 60 Hz native screen resolution and plays 3D games surprisingly well with little ghosting effects. We are not sure what the contrast ratio is, but our guess would put it around 500:1 as DVD video playback on the 17″ LCD display held deep blacks and vibrant colors. FPD1730 17″ LCD display can be purchased separately from the system for $449 dollars which is consistent with other brand 17″ LCD monitors matching the FPD1730’s specifications. Unfortunately with a price like this, you are limited to only analog VGA inputs, but it is a trade-off worth having. Hardcore gamers will want to opt for a CRT based traditional monitor instead.

Our Gateway Media Center XL system outpaced both the Sony PCV-W20 and the HP Media Center Pc’s in all of the benchmarking categories. This is due to the Media Center XL’s 128 MB video card and faster 333 Mhz DDR SDRAM. The Gateway Media Center XL holds its own against other commercial system builders such as HP, but drags behind some of the specialty builders like Alienware. Performance overall, is above average and buyers will be more than happy with the way their Media Center XL runs. Click on the performance tab to see how the Media Center XL stacks up in our system tests.

Conclusion

Gateway’s Media Center XL is representative of a system new to this genre. While performance is above average, more fit and polish would have made this system more intuitive to consumers new to the Media Center idea. The fact that there are two separate programs for writing both CD-R and DVD-R media as well as two separate DVD player programs means that there will just be that much more confusion to the end user. The design of the Gateway Media Center XL matches the rest of Gateway’s desktop computer line and other than the remote control; there is nothing that distinguishes the Media Center XL from the rest. Those who decide to purchase the Media Center XL should be more than happy, but make sure to do some research first as there may be features on other brand Media Center PC’s which you may find more attractive.

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