Dell Dimension 3100
Dell's Dimension 3100 is a Media Center PC. As well as all the features of a Windows XP Professional PC, Media Center PCs offer functions such as video recording and the ability to watch and pause live TV - all using a single remote control.
Most Media Center PCs we've seen suffer from one serious drawback - their price. A price tag of £1,000 isn't unusual, but by being a little less ambitious with its spec, Dell has brought the price of the Dimension 3100 down to a much more affordable £599.
It's evident throughout this system that corners have been cut, but many of them have clearly been well thought through and don't detract too much from its performance. The 3GHz processor, for instance, is one of the older models with Hyper-Threading (which simulates two processor cores) rather than a more expensive dual-core chip. This still manages to take the PC to an impressive overall score of 112.37 in our performance test.
We were less impressed with the PC's memory. It only has 512MB installed, which seeing as it's been designed to work with video, one of the most demanding jobs you can ask a PC to do, isn't enough. It really needs at least 1GB of memory. Dell goes on to compound its error by using a motherboard with only two memory slots, both of which are filled. If you want to add more memory to this PC, you'll have to throw out one of the strips it comes with, which is needlessly wasteful.
Upgrading simply isn't an option when it comes to the system's Intel-integrated graphics. Scoring a woeful 4.5 frames a second in our Doom 3 test, the graphics just can't cope with the latest games - and because the proprietary Dell motherboard has no AGP or PCI-Express 16x slot for a graphics card, you can't replace the graphics card with anything better. For a system designed for home entertainment, this is a serious flaw. In fact, limited upgrade potential is an issue throughout this system. Only one PCI-Express slot is free for internal add-in cards, while outside, only four USB 2 ports are provided to plug in external devices and there's no FireWire.
If you never intend to open your PC's case to expand its repertoire of skills, you may be able to live with this. But many first-time buyers won't know what they'll want to do with their new PC, simply because they don't know what modern PCs are capable of - and they'll hit a brick wall with this system if they develop any serious ambitions.
At least the Dell's hard disk is a reasonable 160GB, although with high-quality video recordings occupying over 3MB per second, you may want more. Happily, this is one of the few upgrades there is space for.
WHERE ARE ALL THE CHANNELS?
As we'd expect, the system's Media Center features are straightforward to set up and easy to use. The Hauppauge WinTV PVR PCI II TV tuner card had difficulty tuning in to the relatively poor reception in our test lab, but with a bit of manual adjustment using the Media Center setup wizard, we soon had five TV channels to watch. Yes, that's right, five - the TV tuner is analogue only, so no Freeview. With over 30 TV channels available on Freeview, we'd rather have seen a digital TV tuner installed. We wouldn't expect dual tuner cards that enable you to watch one channel while recording another in a system at this price, but an analogue tuner is a bit miserly.
That said, watching television and DVD movies is a happy experience. The 17in Dell E176FP flat-panel monitor is bright and clear. Its excellent contrast suited DVD playback and because the display has a more conventional matt coating, rather than the glossy 'X-Black' finish used by many screens, it's less prone to reflections. This is a good choice for a Media Center PC, which will be viewed from a distance and a range of angles.