The FMC-901X isn't silent, but it was remarkably quiet for a 3-GHz Pentium 4 machine. Installed in my cabinet along with the rest of my gear, it didn't distract me at all while I watched DVDs or listened to music. When I was recording but not watching TV, I occasionally heard the hard drive chunking along.
As a CD and DVD player, it handled the basics very well. Sure, it was a little clunkier than using a standalone player. I sometimes had to step in to make sure that, say, Media Center software, not MusicMatch Jukebox, played a CD that I inserted. The same is true on the DVD side, as you must decide whether you want Media Center or the InterActual or WinDVD player software to take control. But that's a minor point that drives home the major point that the 901X is a lot more than a disc player.
The main drawback of the FMC-901X is that it doesn't support HDCP copy protection on its DVI (Digital Visual Interface) output. I had no problem watching DVD movies on DVI-equipped monitors that also lacked HDCP support. But you won't be able to use the FMC-901X's DVI output with a newer monitor or HDTV.
The wireless RF (radio-frequency) keyboard and mouse included with the system worked great (though our first keyboard died after a few weeks, and we were still waiting for a replacement at press time). The keyboard is quite compact, having no separate numeric keypad, but it does have handy DVD/CD transport and volume controls as well as buttons for launching applications like Internet Explorer and Outlook. The optical mouse was interesting because it can be used both on a surface - like the arm of my couch - or, by holding in a trigger button, in free air. When used as an "air mouse," it's sensitive to the up-and-down and side-to-side motions of your hand.
The keyboard for the all-in-one 610XL, by contrast, is full-size, though still wireless, as is its optical mouse - but with no air-mouse functionality. I set the machine up in my dining/family room on a table right next to an armchair. Unlike the FMC, the 610XL has a built-in wireless 802.11g network adapter in addition to an Ethernet port; it found my Wi-Fi network almost immediately after boot-up.
This setup was ideal. The 610XL doesn't take up a lot of space, and I appreciated having an always-on "Internet appliance" - or at least one that would quickly wake up from standby - to check news headlines and the weather forecast before leaving the house. Going to my home office to boot up my PC to do the same just isn't worth the effort. Except for the cable-TV line, the FM antenna, and the power cord, there were virtually no wires to clutter things up. And since the 610XL is a full-fledged computer, I could do so much more than I could with an Internet appliance, from writing this report to preparing my taxes. A built-in retractable handle made it easy to tote the machine elsewhere when needed.
Of course, the 610XL is also a Media Center PC, so I did my share of time-shifting TV shows to its hard disk. Four quality settings are provided, which is standard for Windows Media Center PCs. Sonic's PrimeTime DVD-burning software provided an easy way to copy the shows to DVDs or Video CDs. The clean, sharp picture on the widescreen monitor (1,280 x 768 pixels) made watching DVDs from my nearby armchair thoroughly enjoyable.
I could have hooked the 610XL to my A/V gear - it has a full complement of audio outputs - but for my purposes that didn't make much sense, so I did my viewing with only the built-in speakers flanking the LCD screen and the "subwoofer" attached to its back. Of course, the sound was no substitute for a home theater rig, but for watching DVDs at close range, I found little to complain about. I could crank up the volume without the distortion typical from built-in PC speakers.
For whatever reason, the FM tuner in the 610XL performed much worse than the one in the FMC-910X. One gripe about these computers and all Media Center PCs that include FM: the Media Center Radio can buffer up to 30 minutes of a radio program to the hard drive, but you can't schedule a radio program to be recorded, nor can you even record one manually. Perhaps Microsoft feels that setting a timer is beyond the capabilities of most people because there's no onscreen radio guide. But why not give them an option?
Gateway's FMC-901X and 610XL Media Center Edition PCs aren't perfect. Although the 901X is well equipped, an avid gamer could probably assemble a higher-performance system without a substantial additional investment. And the lack of HDCP support for the DVI output may count it out altogether (though you could swap out the video card for an HDCP-compatible one). You can't upgrade the insides of the 610XL, so be aware that there's not much you can do beyond plugging accessories into the USB and FireWire ports. Neither the FMC-901X nor the 610XL can do a thing with HDTV signals, of course, but in the end these machines are about form factor every bit as much as performance. And in both cases they bring a winning hand to the table.
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