Acer Aspire iDea 500 review

Price when reviewed

We often feel a pang of disappointment as the latest media centre PC comes out of its box. Shoehorning a computer into a chassis the size of a hi-fi component isn’t easy, and the results are often frustratingly compromised. But the release of Intel’s Core range of processors could yet be a shot in the arm for the living-room PC: an inexpensive, cool-running powerhouse of a chip is just what it’s been waiting for. Based around Intel’s Viiv platform, a Yonah Core Duo sits at its heart. While that’s technically a notebook part, it’s just as at home in a system like this.

First impressions are good. For a start, the iDea 500 is about the size of a DVD player, and at only 71mm high it’s also perfectly proportioned to fit into a standard hi-fi rack. All of the heat is dissipated through the sides, which means you needn’t worry about stacking other AV devices on top of it either. The front of the system is sleek and slim, with a selection of transport buttons for controlling playback, and an LCD that shows meaningful information – what’s playing if you’re using the MCE interface, for example, or the time and date if not.

Acer’s attention to detail is obvious: the flap on the front whirrs down smoothly, revealing a pair of USB ports, S-Video, composite and coaxial audio in ports, as well as a pair of 1/4in audio jacks. The slot-loading DVD writer, able to write to dual layer and DVD-RAM, is another elegant and practical touch.

The iDea should fit in happily with any hardware you already have. The backplane has an impressively comprehensive range of video and audio options: scart, component, composite and S-Video are present, while individual analogue RCA ports for eight-channel audio are grouped together on the rear, or you can use the coaxial or optical S/PDIF outputs. There’s also an HDMI port, and it supports HDCP too, ensuring the iDea will play encrypted high-definition content. There’s even a useful plug-in in the MCE interface for specifying which of the video inputs to use.

There’s no shortage of PC-based ports either, with four USB 2 ports, plus FireWire and mini-FireWire, all sensibly located around the chassis. You also get Gigabit Ethernet, as well as an Atheros 802.11b/g card, with a screw-on WLAN antenna on the back of the system.

Inside, the notebook motherboard is a beautifully simple piece of design. All the internal components are neatly spaced out, and the system remains slim thanks to the TV tuner and WLAN card sitting in mini-PCI slots, while the RAM is spread across a pair of 512MB SODIMMs. The TV card is a DVB-T twin tuner so you can watch and record two channels simultaneously. With a single antenna input socket, it’s a much tidier option than most media centres manage.

The only fully fledged desktop component is the Western Digital hard disk. With notebook drives both much more expensive and limited in capacity, it makes sense, although the 250GB capacity isn’t all we’d hope for. If you have a huge music collection, or intend to make daily use of the iDea for TV recording, it will quickly feel full, and the constraints of the chassis won’t permit you to install another disk. You could always use an external USB disk, but a little more capacity here would be our first request.

There’s little in the way of custom cooling, with the CPU and PSU cooled by small 50mm fans. Under heavy load, the PSU fan soon speeds up, leaving the iDea periodically noisy enough to create an audible whoosh in an otherwise quiet room. It’s easily drowned out during TV and music playback, though, and day-to-day use will rarely cause it to kick in – just be sure to leave it well ventilated. Otherwise, the iDea emits a very low-level hum that’s unlikely to be annoying.

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