Dell Dimension 4600C Media Center PC Page 2

Cables are color-coded for easy setup (a big setup poster also helps), and once I typed in my Zip code from the remote and chose my cable system, a comprehensive, ad-free program guide was downloaded. A nice feature is a fast reverse through the 30-minute TV buffer. The original Windows MCE PCs took 5 minutes to reach the beginning of the buffer. But be careful - there's still no warning that you'll dump the buffer if you change channels.

Dell made a poor design choice by making two buttons on the remote red - the color typically used to indicate record. More than once I was bounced from the TV guide as I was about to set it to record a show because I hit the other red button, which brings up My Videos, a menu of your camcorder-transferred titles.

Sonic Solution's PrimeTime software lets you archive shows to DVD+Rs or erasable DVD+RWs - a new MCE capability designed to compete with set top TiVo/DVD recorders. As a test, I set the My TV guide to record a 1-hour episode of the CBS drama Cold Case to the PC's hard drive. (You can't record directly to DVD.) There are four recording qualities, and you need to choose carefully if the goal is to fit more than an hour on a 4.7-GB disc: Fair provides about 180 minutes; Good, 120 minutes; Better, 90 minutes; and Best, 60 minutes. I chose the Good setting, and the next morning I found Cold Case among a list of recorded shows on the hard drive. PrimeTime indicated that it would consume 2.4 GB on DVD. Once I clicked okay on the remote, PrimeTime took 1 hour, 7 minutes to complete the burn and eject the disc.

Cold Case ran without a hitch in my set-top DVD player at home, but the complete program description you get on the hard drive (synopsis, cast list, and so on) is not transferred to disc, only the series and episode title and recording date. PrimeTime arbitrarily sets chapters at 15-minute intervals. If you want to edit out commercials before writing to disc, you'll need to use a program like Sonic's MyDVD Deluxe 5 ($69). I tried this, and it automatically found my recorded TV shows, though I had to leave the MCE interface first.

john mayer
As soon as the Dell scanned John Mayer's Heavier Things CD, it downloaded the cover art and song list from AMG's online database.

Eager to try the My Music option, I placed the John Mayer CD, Heavier Things, in the DVD tray, and within seconds the album cover and track titles appeared onscreen. I used the remote to click Copy and accepted the default to rip the CD as Windows Media Audio files at 128 kilobits per second. Five minutes later the entire album had been transferred to the PC's hard drive.

Perhaps the most futuristic feature with this new version of Media Center is the ability to download hundreds of movies through a broadband connection after typing in your credit-card information. Since I'd already reviewed one of the services whose software is preloaded, Movielink (in "Random Play," February/March 2003), I tried the other one, CinemaNow. I hadn't seen Chicago, so I paid $3.99 for a 24-hour viewing window beginning once I hit play. I was able to start watching the movie before the download was completed. The only option offered in this case was the widescreen version, so the image was letterboxed on my 4:3 screen.

The picture was VHS quality, but the motion was smooth, and it played without glitches through the final credits. As for the jazzy score, it sounded just fine on the Dell speakers. On the other hand, navigating the movie was tedious compared with watching a DVD: though you can pause and play, you can't fast scan in either direction. Instead, I could only hit Replay to go back in 7-second increments or Skip to move ahead 30 seconds at a time. (These buttons work the same way for TV shows.)

While Windows XP Media Center Edition 2004 can support an FM tuner/buffer that lets you pause, reverse, and skip through 30 minutes of a "live" radio broadcast, Dell decided not to include it here. It'd be nice if you could do the same things with radio that you can with TV, like leapfrog ads or replay anything you hear.

Things went smoothly with the Dell 4600C, but only after I received a third system. With the first two machines Dell provided, I encountered numerous bugs, including the inability to awaken a suspended system without a cold boot, TV shows that failed to record while I was away, fatal errors copying TV shows to discs, which were mysteriously ejected half burned and unplayable, and an inability to update the program guide despite an active Internet connection. Notably, I did manage to piece together a lovely slide show of error messages in My Pictures using the PrintScreen button and PaintBrush software.

Dell's Media Center may well appeal to computer-savvy students or studio-apartment dwellers who prize the space savings of an all-in-one PC and home-entertainment center. If you can escape the kind of glitches we encountered originally, the Dimension 4600C could indeed be the only A/V source equipment you'll need.

Tech Notes

As usual with a computer, the best sound quality you'll get out of the 4600C comes from its digital output, here an optical connector. But while that output is transparent to Dolby Digital and DTS-encoded DVD soundtracks (provided the DVD playback software is capable of handling them correctly), it is only partly transparent to CD audio. Only if you set the player-software and the computer volume controls all the way up is the digital audio output capable of the improved resolution of so-called 20-bit CDs. Playing DVDs over a computer monitor using the Windows Media Center software produced a 1 3/4% overscan. But with other DVD playback software, such as Microsoft's own Windows Media Player and InterVideo's WinDVD, the overscan came out perfect (0%). Trying to use the 4600C's composite- or S-video outputs to provide a reasonable DVD experience is hopeless, at least with the video card installed in our sample (an ATI All-in-Wonder 9000). As with most such computer "video" outputs, the computer "desktop" is compressed to show up in an "undersized" video signal that doesn't fill an entire TV screen. While this is done so you don't lose any desktop items off the edges of an overscanned TV display, it also creates unacceptably gross and uncorrectable geometric distortions - very squashed circles when playing DVDs or TV signals. Your best bet is to connect the Dell's computer-monitor output to a video monitor with a compatible input, either VGA or DVI depending on the video-card option installed. DVDs viewed this way can look outstanding, limited only by monitor performance. The computer's fan was noisy. When the burden on the Pentium processor is high - such as when playing the high-definition Windows Media version of Terminator 2 - the fan switches into a still more raucous high-speed mode.

- David Ranada

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