Music Machines Serve Ear Candy for MP3 Devotees
Have you caught the MP3 bug? If so, you may have noticed the flurry of desktop PCs offering features for devotees of the popular Internet music format. Bearing names such as Music PC and Home Music Studio, these machines make playing and recording digital music files easy.
We lent an ear to three of these music machines: shipping versions of
These desktops are being marketed for their music features, not their performance, and their scores on our PC WorldBench 98 test suite of business apps reflect this.
The PIII-500based Dell with 128MB of RAM earned a middle-of-the-pack 231. The HP, configured with a PIII-550 and 128MB of RAM, came in slightly below average for its CPU rating, at 234. Our preproduction NEC, a PIII-500 with 96MB of RAM, initially turned in a disappointing score of 188, 15 percent slower than we expected for this configuration. But after we removed a file used by the bundled Prodigy Internet software, the score zoomed to 222, which is more typical.
The Dimension XPS T500 Music PC Combo's standard beige box looks uninspired next to the sleek cases of the other two units. And the steep $2359 price tag--about $500 more than those of the HP and NEC--is downright off-putting. But the bundle includes Diamond Multimedia's acclaimed Rio 500 portable MP3 player--a $269 value. And after a few hours of use, you'll find that Dell's superior components more than compensate for its plain-vanilla wrapper and premium price.
The powerful Altec Lansing ACS340 speakers with subwoofer, a crisp 17-inch flat-screen CRT monitor, and a robust 32MB Diamond Viper V770 graphics card all make for a fantastic multimedia experience. The hardware MPEG-2 decoder and 8X DVD-ROM drive played our test movie flawlessly--even with multiple programs running in the background.
Dell also includes a full version of MusicMatch Jukebox for turning CD music into MP3 files and playing them back (HP bundles a shareware edition with the Pavilion). And Dell consistently scores high for reliability and service.
The $1758 NEC has several strong points. You get better audio software, including special limited editions of two excellent packages from Sonic Foundry: Siren for playing and organizing MP3 and other music files, and Acid for creating and editing music. NEC even throws in software for creating CD-ROM labels. And the PC has four USB ports, two of them on the front of a nice multimedia keyboard that accepts such peripherals as printers and scanners.
But NEC cut costs by giving short shrift to several key components. Unlike the Dell and HP PCs, which ship with 128MB of RAM, the NEC has just 96MB of RAM. And NEC's 13GB hard drive looks shrimpy next to the 20GB drives on the Dell and HP. You get a CD-ROM drive instead of a DVD-ROM unit, and good but entry-level multimedia speakers--a serious drawback for a music machine. Gamers won't like the system's 4MB of graphics RAM, either. NEC omits a Rio player. Finally, opening and closing the side of the bowed case is unduly frustrating.
Hewlett-Packard's Pavilion 8575C comes well integrated, with a slick multimedia keyboard containing controls for everything from one-touch print and fax buttons to a speaker volume knob. Its accessible $1898 price will appeal to budget-conscious home users, and its carefully color-coded ports help make it the easiest of the trio to set up and get running.
However, you don't get a Rio, and the HP's parts can't match the Dell's. The integrated graphics with 8MB of RAM, while better than NEC's video hardware, may still be inadequate for many of today's high-resolution games. Colors on the monitor looked washed out, and text was fuzzy. Worse yet, this music-oriented PC's mediocre speakers produce boomy bass and distorted sound at high volume.
If you want a Rio and need a system that will work well for audio, games, and productivity apps, Dell's bundle is solid--and well worth its premium. If you already have a portable MP3 device and a decent set of speakers, HP's lower-cost option comes nicely configured and is easy to install. The NEC might be worth considering if you're willing to trade some performance and hardware quality for the superior Siren software and a more affordable package. Just don't expect to play games on it.
Then again, if you don't need a Rio MP3 player or special audio software, you may fare just as well or better with a standard computer and a few shareware programs such as MusicMatch Jukebox or WinAmp. These music machines, after all, are basically creations of their vendors' marketing machines.