Alienware Hangar18 HD Entertainment Center
You’ve seen me write in these pages about the allure of the Microsoft Windows Vista operating system for PC, with its integrated Media Center application for serious next-generation living rooms. And you probably have one or more techy friends who extol the virtues of their multimedia PC, with its countless hours of stored music and video, TV recording, and the benefits of Internet access. But beyond custom-building your own rig or buying a traditional tower to stand next to your stylish A/V rack, how can you introduce a home-theater-friendly computer to your HDTV? Several manufacturers offer PCs with a form factor in the realm of traditional consumer electronics, namely a horizontal box with a remote control and a front-panel readout. The release of Alienware’s first such machine, the DHS-321, kicked off an evolution from that “digital home system” to their new high-definition entertainment center, code-named Hangar18.
Shopping for the Hangar18 via Alienware’s Website is a fairly simple affair. There are three basic tiers, depending upon your needs and budget. The entry-level box offers 720p video output via an NVIDIA graphics card; or you can step up to full 1080p, all the way to an included Blu-ray disc burner to take full advantage of the HD output. (Ironically, all Hangar18s run Windows Vista Home Premium, even though Microsoft is in the HD DVD camp.) Along the way, you can customize with additional TV tuners, up to 2 terabytes of hard-disk-drive storage space, and faster CPUs. All come standard with internal 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, Gigabit Ethernet, and a dual NTSC/ATSC tuner. Similar to a home-theater-in-a-box, a customized 1,000-watt five-channel amplifier is built into this single chassis. Therefore, you can wire speakers directly out of the rear panel. There’s also a subwoofer output. You can also utilize the newest audio codecs and pass the raw signal through to a receiver in a number of different ways. Also in the carton is a generous complement of cabling and adapters, plus a wireless keyboard and a Gyration-enabled wireless remote that can serve as a mouse-like pointer, once you develop the knack. The machine they built for my review was definitely toward the higher end of the Hangar18 spectrum, with an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+ processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and the maximum available data storage.
Speaker hookups aside, there are many audio and video connections around back—with an important caveat. The 1080p video bitstream is so mighty that Alienware strongly advises you to use a dedicated graphics card to handle it, not the one integrated into the motherboard. As a matter of fact, the separate component video, VGA, and HDMI ports nearby are disabled upon delivery. You can activate them later if you so choose; but for the highest-quality signal, it’s better to attach the DVI-to-HDMI adapter to the dedicated card (in my case, an ATI). Thanks to that ATI card, this Hangar18 can actually pass video and audio through the DVI-HDMI dongle. When I was finally ready to boot the system, I was impressed by the startup speed, as the BIOS has been pared down in consideration of these specific designs.
Although Alienware doesn’t provide an antenna, the digital and analog TV hookups are just about foolproof and quick to tune in via Media Center. IR blasters can control external satellite boxes. A series of straightforward questions guides you through the setup of outboard gear. Press one button on the original device’s remote, and the Hangar18 identifies it; the Hangar18 is smart enough to know what’s currently connected or not. As is typical for Media Center, you can only modify image centering and sizing—which I’m persnickety about—via the controls of the TV itself, along with other adjustments listed in the Media Center menus. Fan noise was remarkably low. I only noticed it when I was right in front of the machine; and even then, it tended to blend into my home theater’s myriad of hums and buzzes. Much of the air that the Hangar18 discharged out of its grilles was actually cool, despite all of the work going on inside. But Alienware isn’t kidding when they tell you to keep those vents clear. When I set the unit on my carpet for a day, the chassis got extremely hot. You’d do better to park it on a hard surface with circulation all around.
“E.T.: Call Me!”
Surely, one of the unspoken expectations with a premium machine such as the Hangar18 is a measure of elegance: a superior ease of use versus less powerful, less targeted products. But it wasn’t long until I initiated the first of several phone conversations with the technical support team, starting with a relatively minor hard-drive issue that prevented me from booting altogether. That hurdle cleared, I spent a great deal of time navigating Media Center and enjoying its many features, thanks in large part to the excellent Gyration remote control. However, when I first tried to play a Blu-ray disc, the Hangar18 gave me repeated error messages about missing drivers and no suggestions on how to solve the problem. Several hours and a reboot later, only the FBI warning would play. Then it would play the movie, but it either zoomed in too far on the image or horizontally stretched it, reminding me of a fun-house mirror. A similar fate awaited DVD playback, but only after the device informed me that my Region 1 discs were incompatible. So, I had to switch the DVD player application’s geographic setting to “U.S. & Canada” from “U.S. & Canada.” It didn’t make sense, but it worked. Other times, the screen would blink for a bit or tease me with a quick clip of a movie before cutting back to nothingness.
None of my technical difficulties were insurmountable, and to their credit, Alienware appears to employ some of the smartest, friendliest, most patient representatives I’ve ever spoken to. These are folks who take customer concerns quite seriously. Ultimately, the video quality was good but not great. A significant amount of video noise was present, even in what should have been high-def movies. Musically, the Hangar18 was a real joy. It ripped a CD at 24X even while the disc was playing, and it displays useful data, like the artist name and track title on the front-panel LED. Of course, if the TV is on when you’re listening to music, Media Center provides even more information, plus cover art.
Alienware built their reputation on performance laptops and desktops for gamers. The company has designed high-end PCs that use the latest in third-party motherboards, processors, and cards. And they have brought that same approach to the world of home theater. Alienware has crafted a unique hardware and software configuration that takes full advantage of Windows Vista’s high-definition entertainment app-
lications, without requiring a lot of guesswork by the consumer. Inspired touches like a volume knob and hidden front-panel inputs bring the preconfigured HTPC category to a new level, and it worked seamlessly from day one, if not always smoothly.
A high-definition video PC for the living room, with available 1080p and Blu-ray
Exceptional connectivity and control
PC roots, while pedigreed, don’t always take hold in the living room