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Similar, But Different: Entertainment PCs

Because a digital media server is nothing but a personal computer optimized for use in a home theater system, why not go the PC route to begin with? There's a new class of personal computer, dubbed entertainment PC or home theater PC (HTPC) designed to work in the home audio/home theater environment. They're small, quiet, and they sometimes offer more features than the consumer-oriented digital media servers.

Let's take a look at some of the entertainment PCs currently available.

Alienware

Alienware makes several entertainment PCs. The DHS 5 series is the latest, all running Microsoft's new Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 operating system. The base configuration runs $1,783 and includes an AMD Athlon 64 3000+ processor, 512MB memory, and 80GB hard drive. You can use it as a music server, TiVo-like PVR, photo library, or PC game machine. Other Alienware models offer faster processors, more memory, bigger hard drives (up to 800GB), and dual-tuner capability.

Hewlett-Packard (HP)

HP offers two new component-sized entertainment PCs, both running Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005. The surprisingly affordable z540 ($1,499.99) has a 3.0 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB memory, and 160GB hard drive. The step-up z545 ($1999.99) ups the hard disk size to 200GB and adds dual-tuner capability. Both offer built-in Ethernet and WiFi networking for connection to your main PC and the Internet.

Hush Technologies ATX

Hush manufactures a so-called "silent PC" that looks (and sounds) like a normal audio component, thanks to its passively cooled (fanless) design. You can order up an ATX in a variety of custom configurations; the base ATX includes a 2 GHz Celeron processor, 256MB memory, and 40GB hard drive—with options for up to 2GB memory and a 300GB drive. Prices start at $1,725.

Interact-TV

Even though it's not billed as such, Interact-TV's Telly MC1200 Home Entertainment Server is actually a Linux-based PC running Slim Device's Squeezebox software. The base MC1200 retails for $799 and features a 1.2 GHz VIA C3 processor, 256MB memory, and an 80GB hard disk. What I like best about the Telly, however, is that you can configure it with up to three internal hard disks, for a total of 900GB storage space. This lets you store up to 1,500 CDs in their native (uncompressed) format; it's the only consumer unit that doesn't demand a compromise between audio fidelity and storage space. (And it's priced lower than most of the competition; a fully tricked-out unit comes in around $1,500.) Of course, you can also use the Telly to record television programs; that's where it gets its name, after all.

Niveus

Niveus offers several Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 PCs in silent, fanless audio component–sized boxes. The Rainier Edition Base Camp model ($2,499) features a 2.8 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 512MB memory, and an 80GB hard drive; higher-performance models with larger storage and dual tuners are available. You can use any Niveus media center PC as a PVR and music server, as well as for traditional computer applications.

OMWAVE

The OMWAVE EH1 is a sleek black home theater PC that comes in three different configurations—M for music, L for music + PVR, and XL for music + PVR + gaming. The base EH1 M ($1,342) features a 2.6 GHz Pentium 4 processor, 256MB memory, and 80GB hard drive; move all the way up to the XL model ($2,451) and get a 3 GHz processor, 1GB memory, and a 160GB hard drive. OMWAVE runs the Microsoft Windows Media Center operating system, along with the company's proprietary OMtheater multimedia software.

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