VidaBox, a company specializing in Media Center PCs (Aka HTPC), goes after the college crowd with their RoomMate Media Center PC, a system with a tiny footprint and a nice presentation. The VidaBox RoomMate starts at $1,549 and comes in two colors, white and black. VidaBox claims the RoomMate has essentially all of the same power features of its larger siblings, but of course in a smaller size. We have heard this claim before, so let’s find out how the RoomMate is different.
Features and Design
There are a lot of Media Center PC manufacturers out there, from large companies like Dell or Gateway to the small boutiques like VoodooPC. Every once in a while a system will peak our interest. Case in point is the VidaBox RoomMate Media Center PC. After checking out the Vidabox website, there are a couple things that draw us to the RoomMate. First of all, this is a very clean looking system. Available in both black and white, we like that the DVD tray matches the case in color and design, and that the front panel connections are hidden by covers. The paintjob looks very high quality and does not scratch easily. The Kensington keyboard and mouse also matches the white RoomMate, although we fear that Vidabox chose this brand of keyboard and mouse more for its aesthetics rather than for overall quality; we would have preferred a Logitech or Microsoft combination. Vidabox also shipped our sample unit with a Microsoft Media Center remote control. The remote control is basically the same one you get with any other system; it lacks the prestigious styling the system has, but works well nonetheless.
The Vidabox RoomMate comes in White and Black
There are two covers on the front of the RoomMate system, one on the left side which hides the media card reader, and one located on the bottom that hides a digital optical input, headphone and microphone inputs, 2 USB ports and 2 FireWire ports. The back of the system reveals 2 more USB ports, a FireWire port, S-Video output, printer port audio connections, 2 PS2 ports and 2 TV tuner cards. Each TV tuner card provides an ISF (Imaging Science Foundation) certified NTSC tuner. The system does not come with an HDTV tuner.
Two covers hide the systems input connections
Sorry no DVI or Digital Audio outputs
Vidabox gives you three different pre-configured options to choose from when purchasing the RoomMate PC. Their standard configuration, priced from $1549, comes with an Intel Pentium M 735 1.7GHz CPU, 1GB of memory (2x512mb) and a 250 GB hard drive. The middle tier configuration is VidaBox’s “Premium” system which bumps the CPU up to an Intel Core Duo T2400 CPU, 2GB of system RAM (2x1GB) and a larger 500GB hard drive. The Premium system starts at $2299. The last option to choose from is the “Limited Edition” which includes an Intel Core Duo T2600 CPU and a 750GB hard drive for $2699 ($400 more). All three versions use the same Gigabyte motherboard including the same onboard ALC880 7.1 audio chipset. Unless hard drive space is really important to you, we would recommend the Standard edition, maybe the Premium if you have extra money to throw at it. Vidabox uses some proprietary screws to hold the case on, so it might be hard for you to upgrade the system on your own. If you are used to building your own systems, then you can always upgrade the components yourself, provided that you find a way to open the case.
Vidabox ships with the RoomMate system with all of the necessary cables to get the system up and running. This includes RCA audio and video Y adapter cables, coaxial cables, 2-way splitter for the two TV tuner cards, and in infrared receiver box.
Vidabox provides a 1-year transferable warranty with all of their Media Center PCs – just make sure to register the system with them. All accessories get a 90-day warranty.
Setup and Use
It’s not uncommon to get a fancy Media Center PC and then have the manufacturer reference the Microsoft website as a means for setup steps rather than printing a comprehensive manual. Fortunately Vidabox ships 5 separate manuals, each specializing in a certain part of the setup process. You get one that addresses the software setup and configuration, another for hardware installation, a quick hardware installation guide, a separate troubleshooting guide, and then a larger comprehensive user’s guide; talk about impressive. But let’s get real; the better you explain the setup and installation process, the less likely you are to have people calling you for help. Smart move.
We had no problem hooking up our RoomMate test system using the provided Quick Hardware Guide. If you are using a set-top box provided by your satellite or cable company, then you will want to attach the two included IR blasters to make the RoomMate system compatible. It looks ugly having all of these cables dangling everywhere, but until you start to see more Cable Card compatible Media Center PCs there is just no way around it. Make sure that you use the S-Video inputs first when connecting your set top box, then the RCA inputs or coaxial inputs as a last resort. If you have regular analog cable, then simply plug the coaxial cable running from the wall into the back of the RoomMate system. Use the cable splitter so that you can use both of the TV tuners. This will allow you to watch one program while you record another at the same time.
If you decide to keep the standard keyboard and mouse, we recommend using the USB to PS2 adapters and utilize the PS2 ports on the back of the system. This will free up the two USB ports on the back so you can use them for your IR receiver. The RoomMate does come with both Digital Optical and Digital Coaxial inputs, but only the Digital Coaxial input is on the back; the Digital Optical input is on the front hidden behind one of the covers. This is a pain because most receivers out there come with the Digital Optical connection rather than the Digital Coaxial and if you want to utilize the Digital Optical input, you are forced to open the front cover and run a cable around to the back – it’s not a pretty site. Another caveat is that the RoomMate only comes with analog VGA and S-Video output; we would have preferred DVI output. The nice folks at Vidabox explained that you can not really tell the difference between analog VGA and DVI outputs, but we disagree. When you are putting an image on a large 32-inch TV or larger, every little bit counts, especially when you are feeding video in from your wall to the set-top box, into the Media Center PC and then into your PC; degradation is going to happen.
The included keyboard, mouse and remote control
If you are going to use the RoomMate at your desk as a PC first and a DVR secondly, then you will find the included mouse and keyboard work just fine. Like we mentioned earlier, we would have preferred a Logitech or Microsoft keyboard instead of the Kensington. If you plan on hooking the RoomMate up to your home theater system, we would recommend purchasing Vidabox’s wireless keyboard w/integrated trackball so you can surf the web or watch TV wirelessly.
Vidabox uses Windows Media Center Edition 2005 software which works great and is easy to setup. Make sure to set aside 30 minutes or more to get your system setup for use. The onscreen guide is very simple to follow and provides steps for troubleshooting any issues.
Operating the RoomMate in a Home Theater setting proved to be very enjoyable. The system is very quiet with only the occasional spin-up from the DVD drive. It also runs very cool and should do fine in a media rack with proper ventilation.
The RoomMate runs fast and we experienced little to no lag when switching between TV and music modes. The included remote also works well. We would still recommend upgrading the system to 2GB of memory for the best performance though. The $750 cost to jump up to the Premium version of the system seems rather steep. You do get a Dual Core CPU and twice the memory which will help speed up the performance of the system dramatically, but we only recommend you spend the extra cash if you will be using this system heavily for both PC and multi-media functions.
Screenshots of Media Center Edition 2005
For everyday use, the RoomMate does a pretty good job, it handles most applications without a hitch, and the Dual Core processor is a lot faster than the Pentium M of course, so if you do plan on doing Photoshop work, we recommend the Premium version.
For games, the RoomMate of course struggles. With its integrated video, the system is really not meant for this type of use. If games are important, you should look at one of the other Vidabox systems out there.
The Vidabox RoomMate really earns its stay when being used in a setting that takes advantage of its small size. A dorm room, bedroom, study, home theater or kitchen really seems to make the most sense. If you are looking for a hardcore Media Center PC and one preferably with DVI output and HDTV capabilities, then check out the other systems provided by Vidabox. As it stands, the RoomMate really does a lot considering its small size; the only real improvement we would recommend is adding DVI (HDCP compatible) output to the system – because it really is a big deal. And at the premium price point that Vidabox is demanding, an HDTV solution should not have been out of the picture either. In either case, the Vidabox RoomMate is definitely one of the most attractive systems out there, both in looks and performance.
• Very quiet operation
• Appealing design
• Comes with all of the necessary cables
• Detailed instruction manuals
• No DVI output
• Lacks an HDTV tuner
• Digital Optical output is on the front only