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Review: Personal computer doubles as TV

By Paulo Nogueira

New Hewlett Packard computer beings TV to your PC.
New Hewlett Packard computer brings TV to your PC.

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(CNN) -- For years, tech gurus have foretold the merging of the television and the personal computer. That day is here with Hewlett Packard's Media Center personal computer.

Besides surfing the Internet, this computer lets you watch TV, record your favorite shows, listen to music, burn CDs and DVDs, and store digital photos.

Powered by Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center software, the computer has a 2.53 GHz Pentium 4 processing chip, a 533 MHz frontside bus, 512 MB of RAM and an ample 120 GB hard drive. That's a monster amount of space, 12 times more than the computer I use in the office, which has a 10 GB hard drive.

Picture quality lags

The unit will work with your cable, satellite or antenna, but picture quality leaves something to be desired. Although DVD movies and pictures are crisp, the regular TV signal seems a bit bright and out of focus on the computer's 17-inch flat monitor.

Unfortunately, PC monitors and televisions have different resolutions. I still enjoyed writing this article while watching a minimized version of my favorite television news show in the corner of the screen. A remote control allows you to change TV channels from afar, but you won't be able to surf the Net with the remote.

The system is about $1,600, but the 17" flat-screen monitor I have is separate and costs around $750. And if you want the ultimate digital experience, you'll need surround sound speakers that go for about $130. In all, the entire system may end up costing you close to $2,500.

Better than other systems

The HP Media Center PC fares better than its ill-fated predecessors WebTV and UltimateTV. A college student might enjoy the experience of writing his English term paper while watching his favorite episode of "Friends." It might not turn out as good, but the experience would probably be more enjoyable.

You can browse the computer's program guide and easily select the programs you'd like to record. It's easier than a VCR because by simply highlighting the program, the computer will record it. No setting of times. No hassling with videotapes.

The built-in Personal Video Recorder, which works much like TiVo, has a "time-shifting" element that allows you to skip commercials. You can watch the beginning of a program while the rest is being recorded. And with the 120 GB hard drive, the HP Media Center can store up to 90 hours of recorded content.

Recorded programs can be saved to the hard drive or DVD discs; however, the latter will only be played on another HP Media Center machines and not on other PCs or DVD players.

Sleek, functional design

The computer's front panel is sleek, featuring a DVD/CD-combo drive, CD-ROM drive, five shortcuts that let you switch from the TV to the music library to a photo-viewing program with a click of a button.

A hidden compartment with firewire and USB 2.0 ports on the front of the computer is handy. You can connect your MP3 player or your portable hard drive without having to reach for the back of your PC. But if you like to stretch, there are additional ports in the back panel.

The computer also comes standard with media card readers for formats such as MMC/SD, SmartMedia, CompactFlash I/II, and Memory Stick, which is handy if you're storing your pictures or music in those formats.

Overall, this would make a nice holiday gift for the student who has everything or the serious gadget aficionado. But for most of us, the price is still too steep.

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