Review: Does The Sapphire Mini PC Have A Media Player Edge?

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$270 More info from brand

Written by Gordon Kelly     05/05/2011 | 06:23 | Category name i.e.MEDIA CENTRES

As media players go, this one has a lot of style, and an obvious appeal as a home theatre PC. The Sapphire Edge HD Mini PC has compact dimensions and has been billed as the smallest PC in the world. But can it stand up against the big boys as a media player?


Key Features

    * 1080P HD video playback
    * Built in WiFi & Ethernet
    * HDMI
    * Dual Core processor

Billed as "the smallest PC in the world" it actually isn't (that title goes to the Anders fit-PC2), but what it is hugely compelling. At 193 x 148 x 22mm the Edge HD is tiny (the fit-PC2 comes in at an even more minuscule 115 x 101 x 27mm) and weighs just 530g. This makes it smaller than most external optical drives and, for that matter, media players.
Specs are everything you'll need: a dual core Atom D510 1.66GHz CPU, 2GB RAM (DDR2-800MHz), a 250GB HDD and - bringing it all together - Nvidia's ION2 graphics chip with 512MB of dedicated memory. Connectivity is what you would expect for a device with multimedia pretensions: 802.11n WiFi, Gigabit Ethernet, HDMI, VGA, audio-in and line-out ports and four USB slots.

First impressions are good too. Build quality is excellent. Sapphire has wisely opted for a matt black finish making it dust and fingerprint resistant. There are no creaks or squeaks when handling the Edge HD and a bundled stand means it can be positioned upright like a Nintendo Wii or positioned on its side like a Mac Mini. So far so good and setup is simple, or so you'd think.
Plugging in the Edge HD requires little more than connecting the power cord (which has a small power brick) to a wall socket and running an HDMI cable to a monitor or (ideally) TV. Where it gets tricky is Sapphire has taken the unusual step of shipping the Edge HD without Windows. Instead you'll find FreeDOS, which does little more than bring up a flashing C drive prompt. The upside of this is it helps Sapphire keep costs down and pleases Linux fans who are sick of paying for Microsoft OSes they don't need. The downside is for those of us who do, it results in jumping through a few hoops at first boot.

An instruction manual provides a step-by-step walkthrough, but in a nutshell users will need to connect either an external optical drive or USB drive (create a Windows 7 USB boot drive using the Windows 7 USB boot tool) and switch the device boot order so the attached drive is checked before the hard drive. The user must then remember to reverse this when the Windows install procedure reboots so the HDD can finish the setup. a little complicated, but worth it…
Once your OS of choice is installed (note: Sapphire provides Windows drivers on a bundled USB drive) you will have a full desktop experience. Whereas media players try to mimic PC functionality with sluggish web browsers and dedicated widgets the Edge HD is no different to your laptop or desktop. Pick the browser you want and don't worry about widgets because the full sites are there.

Another sizeable advantage is codecs. Media players may come loaded up with multi-format compatibility (well all except one), but a desktop OS means you can install anything you need and never be out of date. The reliance on media player manufacturers to update codecs through firmware upgrades is gone. The downside media player advocates will tell you is you don't get the specialist user friendly interface. The good news is this isn't entirely true.
Arguably the best UI of them all is that of the Boxee Box and Boxee makes its UI freely available for download on Windows, Mac and Linux. Windows Media Center isn't bad either and there are many other options including LinuxMCE and MythTV which operate as digital video recorders, not just playback platforms. Unlike a media player, a media centre allows you to pick the user interface you like most.

Of course none of this means anything without two key factors: 1. That the Edge HD performs, and 2. That the price is right.

The first of these is a qualified success. Nvidia's ION2 chip means downloaded 720p and 1080p High Definition video playback is a breeze. No skipped frames and minimal strain on the CPU. HTML5 also works well, but you will need to install the latest Adobe Flash player beta to get the best out of streaming Flash web content. This is because, despite being dual core, the Atom is still something of a technological weakling. It works fine for basic web surfing and desktop work, but HD without assistance from the ION2 is off limits. Interestingly ION2 does mean some basic gaming is possible - notably titles like World of Warcraft and The Sims at lower resolutions - but don't expect Crysis to be anything other than a series of blocky stills. On the plus side the Edge HD is virtually silent in operation.
When it comes to price things are equally complicated. The Edge HD costs a bit more expensive than the Boxee Box and even more expensive than the WD TV Live despite offering far greater functionality than either. This is great for Linux users, where the distribution is usually free, but Windows fans will need to pay more for Windows 7 Home Premium taking the cost higher.

At this level it would arguably be more practical to buy an ION equipped netbook. Like the Edge HD they can also be easily connected to a TV or monitor via their HDMI port, unlike it they can be unplugged and used on the move. Furthermore the Edge HD's tiny chassis means it is not officially upgradeable whereas the hard drive in a netbook is easily swapped out should more capacity be necessary.

Verdict
Sapphire has created a stylish, Full HD capable media PC with wonderfully compact dimensions and a real sense of style. Full fat desktop functionality makes this a mouth watering prospect, but on closer inspection the price isn't as cheap as it first appears making an ION equipped netbook a potentially more flexible alternative.

To read the original review, click here

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Pros & Cons

Pros:

Ultra compact size; Stylish Design; Full HD video playback

Cons:

Intel Atom dual core CPU still slow; Price doesn't include Windows; ION netbook arguably makes more sense