OK, boys and girls, today we're going on a treasure hunt. Well, treasure may be an exaggeration, but it sounds better than "we're going on a quite-nice-PC hunt." Our treasure map isn't much -- it's just a list of computer retailers torn from the Yellow Pages -- but there's a cryptic message scrawled across it. It says Need a clue? Find the SKU.
If you don't work in retail, you can be excused for not knowing that a SKU, pronounced "skew," is a stock keeping unit -- one of the products, or types or sizes or colors of the same product, you'll find on display or in stock at the corner store. Otherwise identical models of a netbook, for example, are different SKUs if one is preloaded with Windows and the other with Linux.
And once you master the art of the SKU, you can hunt for an appealing configuration of Acer's small-form-factor desktop, the Aspire X3200.
Actually, calling it a desktop is a little restrictive; the 10.4 by 3.9 by 12.4-inch Acer can also serve as a quiet, inconspicuous home theater PC -- not as petite and elegantly styled as, say, Dell's Studio Hybrid, but with more horsepower under the hood. Three or four cores' worth of horsepower, in fact.
Our test unit bore the SKU label AX3200-U3630A, with which Google guided us to Fry's Electronics, the West Coast chain that as of a few weeks ago was selling it for $680 with a Sunday-supplement discount to $600. It combines an AMD triple-core processor -- the 2.1GHz Phenom X3 8450, with a trio of 512K Level 2 caches and 2MB of shared Level 3 cache -- with a combination Blu-ray player (BD-ROM) and DVD±RW reader/writer, along with 4GB of memory and a 640GB Western Digital hard disk.
At this writing, it was easier to find the newer model AX3200-EF9100A, a $650 quad-core configuration with a 1.8GHz Phenom X4 9100e processor. Beyond that, you can get lost in a plethora of permutations with different AMD and Intel CPUs, plain or Labelflash label-etching-equipped DVD±RW instead of Blu-ray drives, discrete or integrated graphics, and more modest model numbers -- Aspire X1200 or X1700 -- for the lower-priced spread.
Like You've Died and Gone To USB Heaven
Acer tries to gussy up the X3200's slim-black-box styling with a plastic chrome strip around the top in lieu of a plain power button, but it feels flimsy and tacky (we actually had a moment's trouble turning the PC on until we learned to press the middle of the strip, not the end that says "Power"). A more successful filigree is the touch-sensitive spot on the front panel that serves as an eject button for the Hitachi-LG optical drive.
The Aspire will expand your connection collection by no fewer than nine USB 2.0 ports, five up front plus four at the rear. The former are joined by front-panel microphone and headphone jacks, a FireWire port, and slots for Secure Digital, xD, Memory Stick, and CompactFlash cards.
Besides USB ports six through nine, the rear panel provides Ethernet, analog and S/PDIF audio, eSATA, and two PS/2 ports, as well as VGA and HDMI outputs for old and new monitors, respectively. There's also a tiny modem card filling the motherboard's sole PCI Express x1 slot.
Removing two Philips screws lets you lift the lid and inspect the abovementioned motherboard, which in addition to the PCIe x1 slot has one PCI Express x16 slot for a half-height discrete graphics card. Acer says the X3200's nForce 720a chipset supports Nvidia SLI sharing of graphics duties between a discrete card and the integrated GeForce 8200 graphics processing unit. Our test unit had only the latter, which features 16 shaders or processors and its own 256MB of display memory.
Except for the slots and the CMOS button battery, you won't see much under the hood except for the hefty cooling unit that covers the Phenom CPU and the Blu-ray/DVD±RW drive that does the same for the 640GB, 7,200-rpm Western Digital hard disk. The optical drive also hides the two system memory sockets, populated with 2GB each of DDR2/800.
With the lid back on, the CPU cooling fan is adjacent to a ventilation grille on the system's side. The cute little 220-watt power supply has its own smaller fan. The Aspire is fairly quiet even with both fans running, which doesn't happen very often; it's not a silent PC, but it's easily drowned out by music or movie playback.
Speaking of sound, the X3200 comes with a pair of USB-powered satellite speakers that look nice, but crackle with static whenever one of the cooling fans kicks in (and positively go bonkers when a cell phone rings nearby). They probably cost Acer about 50 cents and might as well be black paint splashed over the sticker on the system's flank touting its Dolby Home Theater audio.
Somewhat better than the speakers are the X3200's bundled keyboard and mouse. Both are USB corded (not wireless) devices matching the system unit's matte black color scheme, with a rather fetching gray stripe accent on the mouse. The mouse is a standard optical unit with a scroll wheel but no extra buttons for undo, Back, or other functions.
The keyboard features multimedia control (play/pause, stop, next, previous, mute) buttons and a volume dial, as well as buttons to launch your browser or e-mail or put the system to sleep. Key travel is satisfyingly deep, but its typing feel is a little stiff.
Acer teamed our test system with its P244W, a 24-inch widescreen LCD monitor priced at $339 that boasts a 20,000:1 contrast ratio, 2-millisecond response time, and 300 nits of brightness. Tipping the scales at 12.5 pounds and measuring 22.4 by 16.5 by 8.2 inches, the display has one VGA and two HDMI inputs -- like the Aspire, it has no DVI port -- and draws 75 watts of power.
Except for a button that lets you rotate through preset standard, graphics, movie, and text brightness modes, the P244W is close to generic -- its detachable stand offers tilt, but no swivel, pivot, or height adjustment capability. But it's a handsome, glossy black unit, and its 1,920 by 1,080 resolution made a Blu-ray movie look sharp, with strong colors.
Our only problem with the movie was with Acer's Blu-ray player software, which oddly offered mouse control for its own menus but obliges you to use the keyboard for movies' menus; Acer preinstalls a suite of numerous house-brand multimedia programs, but we found them unimpressive compared to their counterparts from CyberLink, Corel/InterVideo, or Nero.
Other bundled software includes trial versions of Microsoft Office Home & Student 2007 and McAfee Security Center, along with Microsoft Works, NTI Backup Now and Media Maker, and the eSobi RSS feed reader and article organizer.
Anything But Gaming
Neither our system's Phenom X3 nor the newer SKU's X4 is one of AMD's new larger-cache, smaller-die-size Phenom II processors, but the X3200 motors along nicely enough without that. Everyday performance feels perky, while most benchmark scores are fair to middling. The system rates a 4.4, with suitability for Vista's Aero graphics dragging down impressive CPU, memory, and hard disk numbers, on Windows' 5.9-point Experience Index.
On the minus side, its Nvidia integrated graphics keep the X3200 well clear of the gaming arena. While the Acer rendered Cinebench R10's sample scene in a respectable 2 minutes and 21 seconds with all three cores on the case, even at lowly 1,024 by 768 resolution it was lucky to average 15 frames per second in HOCBench's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars and Unreal Tournament 3 flybys.
If it came with a remote control and didn't come with proprietary software instead of Windows Media Center, the Aspire X3200 would get our enthusiastic endorsement as an off-the-shelf, no-tinkering-needed solution for living-room or home theater PC seekers. Even with those quibbles, it's a solid deal for anyone who doesn't have a lot of spare desk room and who'd like to include Blu-ray viewing -- whether on the P244W monitor or an HDMI-equipped HDTV set -- as part of their general-purpose computing experience.
This article was first published on Hardware Central.