I’m getting some questions about what Media Center I’ve got, so I thought I’d put up a post about it, as well as some information that I hope will be of interest.

My first MCE was an HP z555. This MCE is styled more like stereo equipment than a PCs, with a front panel transport controls and a semi-useful FL display.

The z555 has two cable tuners as well as a single HDTV tuner, various back-panel connections including Toslink and Coax for SPDIF, DVI and Component outputs (as well as S-Video and Composite), pretty much everything you’d expect. It comes with a single, easily accessed, 250GB drive, and a decent software bundle.

A few downsides: it’s not really expandable, there are no free slots (or normal boards to replace), and one drive is limiting. And one huge problem, though: it’s chuck full of fans, and they’re loud. In a media room, that doesn’t work—I tried to live with it for a few months, and it drove me nuts, so, I started looking for something else.

What I found was the Sony VGX-XL1 Media Center, which comes with a 200 disc changer, which is now available for $1799, with a $150 rebate to bring the price down to $1649… a great deal!

It’s also designed more like a piece of AV equipment. While it doesn’t have the transport controls or the display, it’s whisper quiet, and can take 3 SATA drives, which can be set up with RAID. The changer is well integrated, and quite useful. The slot-loaded DVD is elegant and easily loaded. It’s much more attractive than the HP. It’s got a built-in HDMI output, and sets up easily at high resolutions.

And, again, it’s quiet. Very quiet. Major kudos to Sony for that.

It has some downsides: they clearly intended it to be a DVD unit, since it ships with one cable/antenna tuner, and that’s pretty much it. Fortunately, there’s an open slot, and it’s easy to drop in an HDTV tuner (and the existing tuner looks like it can be replaced easily, too). The interior of the machine is very nicely laid out, only one screw type is used throughout, the drives all drop into a nice carrier, the bracing is nicely stamped, memory slots are right there in the open. Nicely done.

Of course, there’s one boneheaded thing. For some reason, Sony decided that the output from DVDs (etc) wouldn’t go directly out as SPDIF. Instead, while it’ll communicate with a receiver as SPDIF, it always goes out as Dolby Digital encoded AC3, even if the source is DTS, because you output analog to the sound card which then re-encodes.

Maybe there’s a logical reason for it, having to do with the HDMI spec or something, but it smells like Sony’s obsession with keeping first generation digital information from exiting their box. As such, it’s awfully frustrating.

Apart from that (and some complaints about the keyboard), though, it’s a really nice unit.