Lighting review of the Acer Aspire X3200 mini-desktop (Verdict: a fine beginner's HTPC)

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On the surface, there's little to really say about the Acer Aspire X3200, which is perhaps the greatest testament to the straight forward excellence in which it carries out its function as a frugal consumer's first home theater PC. It's a tiny, glossy little black box with the same smash-up of cheap yet understated aesthetics for which Acer is known. You won't find any brushed metal here; the Power button is a translucent wave of blue-glowing plastic that is cheap to the touch. But the x3200 isn't ugly: though no one would admire its looks, it is meant to sit unnoticed in an entertainment center, the silent engine of a high-definition media center. And silent it is: it's fan is quieter than my MacBook Pro. There's no underlying hum, no quiver of the air, certainly no crackle of ozone to pollute the ambience. It's a triumph of quietness.

The processor and video card are ample for an HTPC: the CPU is an Athlon 64 Dual Core 4400+ running at 2.3GHz and backed by 2GBs of RAM and a 360GB hard drive whirring away at 7,200RPM. Some configurations allow you to amp this up to a quad-core and up to 8GBs of RAM and a one terrabyte hard drive, but I got the bare bones system. Similarly, the GPU is an Nvidia 8200 which slurps up to 256MB of shared RAM, but there's also a PCI-e Nvidia 9500 with VGA and HDMI out slapped in the case. The latter works amply for those who want to free up some memory, but problematically, it doesn't output HDMI sound, requiring another cable for direct audio output to your television or speakers. No matter what GPU you choose to use, this is not a Bioshock PC, but for hooking up to a television and running movies, audio and MAME, it is absolutely fine.

Where the x3200 really shines is its output. Into a tiny chassis somewhere between the size of a Mac Mini and an Xbox 360, Acer has packed a staggeing nine USB ports split between the front and back of the case: after cramming in a wireless keyboard / trackball combination, an Xbox 360 controller, a WiFi dongle, an external hard drive and an infrared sensor, the entire front is still unperturbed by technological protuberances. Amongst those peripherals, you'll spot the X3200's few weakness as an HTPC: there is no built-in wireless card, nor is there an infrared sensor for PC enabled universal remotes.

But there's a tendency to get weighed down with specs on machines like this. It's the run-off madness of an industry obsessed with incremental technology. The Acer Aspire X3200 gets what matters right: for $400, you can walk out of the store with a simple-to-setup, tiny, subliminally attractive HTPC to hook up to your HDTV. For a few hundred more, you can double the RAM and the processing cores and throw in a Blu-Ray drive. For the mewling home theater neonate, there's much to recommend and little to criticize about Acer's Aspire X3200: a small, affordable mini-desktop that makes setting up an HTPC as easy as dropping a credit card and tucking a cardboard box in the crook of the arm out of the computer store. I should know. I am that bewildered neonate, and the X3200 halved my birthing pains. I love the damn thing.

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