WMCESo we're going to assume that you can do some basic "under-the-hood" computer work, but not enough to build your own PC. The goals here are:
  • Keep the system inexpensive (less than $1,000)
  • Make the upgrades minimal and simple
  • Use the HDTV capabilities of WMCE
  • Prepare for integration with the Xbox 360
First things first: we need a base Windows Media Center system. Most desktops these days are now shipping with the WMCE 2005 Operating System; a sure sign that Microsoft feels the OS is generally ready for prime-time. WMCE is actually the Windows XP OS with a few media-centric bells and whistles.

So what did we pick, how much did it cost and what did we get for our money? Find out more after the jump!


The system we chose was readily available at CompUSA for $649. At the risk of a smattering of "boos", I'll say right up front that we chose a Gateway system. (*ducks from flying tomatoes*) Now, hear me out on this. We didn't have a requirement to go with a top-of-the-line name brand, and I've had some good luck with Gateways in the past. Remember that our ultimate goal is to have a solid machine for under a grand and we need some money for extra components yet!

So what did $649 buy us? The Gateway 838GM mini-tower is powered by and Intel Pentium 4 630 chip that's rated at a 3.0 Ghz clock speed. This chip also has Intel's Hyper-Threading technology. More expensive systems offered multi-core processing, but for our budget, we went with this CPU and the 800 Mhz front side bus.

Gateway 838GM mini tower

If we're going to watch and record high-definition programming, we're going to need some decent storage. The 838GM system is equipped with 200 GB of storage, which is about the minimum we would want. The upside is: the 7200 RPM drive uses a fast S-ATA 150 interface and an 8 MB cache.

Expandability is key and we liked the options that this box gives us. We have 7 USB 2.0 ports and 3 IEEE-1394 (FireWire) ports to use. Inside the box we have an open PCI slot as well as an open PCI-Express slot. These will come in handy later because the on-board Intel Graphics Accelerator isn't quite what we want for viewing our television and other media.

For optical storage, the system comes with one CD-ROM drive and one DVD drive. The optical DVD is a DVD +/- RW so we can burn (and re-burn) some programming as needed. The system also comes with 512MB of PC3200 RAM memory running at 400Mhz. That's not enough for us, but we'll chat about that in a later post; yet another reason to save a few bucks in the budget!

Additionally, like many low-end WMCE computers, we didn't get a TV tuner of any type; neither NTSC (analog) nor ATSC (digital). This kept the cost down and gave us more choice over what tuner we want to add.

For those of you that threw tomatoes at me when I mentioned "Gateway", forget the label for a second and let us know what you think of these specs for $650? Sure, there are less expensive WMCE systems, but we didn't want to compromise too much. We could have spent more for enhanced storage or processing features, but that would have hit the budget too hard.

Next up: adding more memory and a graphics card quickly and cheaply!

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Sub-grand WMCE 1: the base system