Packard Bell Video Dre@m Machine

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Packard Bell Video Dre@m Machine

You'd think that buying a powerful, DV-ready Windows PC with truckloads of software and a DVD-R burner would cost an arm and a leg. Amazingly, that's not so. Packard Bell has come up with an inexpensive system that has all these things, the Video Dre@m Machine

On paper, Packard Bell's Video Dre@m Machine promises to be the home video novice's ideal PC. A 1GHz Pentium III processor coupled with 128MByte RAM and an excellent nVIDIA GeForce 2 MX graphics card make this an excellent workhorse, and it comes with enough office software, games and educational programs to make it an effective starter machine for family use. Add to that it's built-in OHCI FireWire and Pioneer DVR-A03 DVD writer, and the Dre@m Machine lends itself beautifully to home movie making. And, at a mere £1,500, the system costs little more than a good DV camcorder, making it look like excellent value for money.

The box
The Video Dre@m Machine consists of a tower case, a 17in CRT monitor and two speakers. Setup is simple, all helped by an easy-to-follow illustrated instruction sheet that comes in-pack. A kettle-type power cable feeds the computer, and power feeds out by a second lead to the monitor, ensuring that only one mains socket is needed for both. Connecting the monitor, modem and speakers is straightforward, and the speakers hook onto the sides of the monitor to save desk space. The keyboard and mouse are USB, and connect to the front of the system which sports two USB sockets and one six-pin FireWire port ideally situated for connecting a DV camcorder.
Sockets round the back include two more USB ports; two further FireWire sockets; two PS2 ports; a single parallel port; and two serial ports, giving plenty of expansion possibilities for external devices such as FireWire hard drives, scanners or printers.
All software is pre-installed, and centres around Windows ME - an operating system many CV readers are wary of. Carrying out a DIY installation of Windows ME as an upgrade on an existing computer can often lead to trouble, and it's our opinion that ME is really only suited to off-the-shelf PCs such as this one, containing parts that are known to be stable and compatible with ME. In the case of the Dre@m machine, ME proved to be rock-solid.

General use
Packard Bell's marketing of the Dre@m Machine seems to be directed squarely at the home and family market. This in itself is no bad thing, as long as mum, dad and the kids do plan to take advantage of the system's full potential. It's also an excellent platform to push video editing, DVD authoring and media literacy into the mainstream.
As a general home computer, however, this system is also an excellent choice. The processor and RAM are probably more powerful than anyone needs for office work, and we're pleased to see a copy of Microsoft Word installed as standard - it certainly came in handy for writing this review, as we had set up the Dre@m Machine away from our normal office systems and didn't want to flit back and forth between rooms. Microsoft Money provides the user with a suite of tools to manage accounts and finances. Great for those new to the horrors of working freelance! Microsoft Works provides spreadsheets, diaries and a database for general office use.
Away from the stuffy responsibility and sensible living inspired by office software, the system comes supplied with a healthy assortment of games, which we tried out as a means of testing the installed nVIDIA GeForce 2 MX graphics card. First up was a graphically-rich and completely ludicrous 3D action game, MDK2. The design work behind this game is breathtaking, and it looked absolutely stunning on this system. Edges were smooth and rounded, and action was extremely fluid. As MDK2 is now about a year old, we tried out a more up-to-date game (not supplied with the machine) - the Japanese Tomb Raider beater, Oni. Playing at a resolution of 1152 x 864 pixels, and 32-bit colour, we found that the graphics were stunning, and the motion beautifully smooth. Even though the speakers supplied with this system are fairly basic, we were perfectly happy with the sound they delivered.
The Dre@m Machine's suite of tools contains many applications for graphics and web design. Ulead PhotoExpress 3 provides an easy way in to graphics manipulation, while Sierra Print Artist 4 gives a basic set of tools for creating greetings cards, calendars and party invites. Most encouraging, however, is the inclusion of some fairly serious web design tools. Sierra Web Artist gives a very basic way in, with page templates and loads of (very tacky) stock graphics and buttons. Those feeling more adventurous, however, can take advantage of the provided copy of Macromedia Dreamweaver 2. This is already two versions out of date, but it's still an excellent program which we rate very highly.

Getting started with video
First on the list of video tools in the Dre@m Machine's software armoury is CyberLink PowerDVD - a software DVD player. PowerDVD is a well-featured program, supporting all common DVD features, including subtitles, alternative soundtracks and multiple angles. It's easy to operate, and playback can be controlled directly from the keyboard - a bonus when viewing video full-screen with the control panel hidden. We watched a well-encoded retail DVD - The Truman Show - and found the picture and sound quality to be excellent.
CyberLink is also behind the second program in the system's suite of video tools, PowerVCR. This allows the system to be used as a TV set and VCR, bringing in video via an auxiliary or composite video port, and recording it to the hard drive in MPEG-1 or MPEG-2 format. Selecting the source and recording format is easy for those who know a little about video, but for the complete newcomer, we expect the terminology to be a little confusing. The help files don't do a very good job of explaining matters either.
However, among PowerVCR's MPEG settings is VCD-compliant MPEG-1 and DVD-compliant MPEG-2. These are clearly labelled, but hidden in among Advanced Settings, from which the complete novice will probably shy away. TV tuning is easy and straight forward, but the ultimate quality of the TV image depends greatly on the strength of the signal. In our case, we were unable to get decent TV reception, and we had the system installed some distance from the nearest cable TV receiver. Instead, we hooked up a DV camcorder via the composite video input, and used that as the source.
Picture overlayed on the computer monitor looked good, but became jerky when we began recording. Annoyingly, these dropped frames also appeared on the recorded MPEG files - being more evident in the MPEG-2 video for DVD than the VCD-compliant MPEG-1 file. In each case, picture and sound quality wasn't bad, but nowhere near as good as we've seen from other software encoders. PowerVCR can also be used for time-shift recording with an easy-to-use timer program.

Packard Bell's Dre@m Machine nicely lives up to its promises, and offers astonishing value for money. By today's standards, a 1GHz processor isn't the fastest there is, but it's more than fast enough to handle DV editing and DVD authoring and, in our minds, the trade-off against the extra cost of a faster PIII processor is a sensible choice. The machine seems very expandable and technophobes will be pleased to hear that many upgrades are possible without even removing the cover. Extra hard drive space can be added via FireWire, and there are free USB, parallel and serial ports for printers, scanners and webcams. Those buying the system to add to an existing arsenal of media machines will probably begrudge the fact that there's no networking built-in, and this is one area where some internal surgery may be required unless opting for a USB Ethernet adaptor. Either way, prospective buyers should note that there appears to be only one free PCI slot.
We're very pleased to see a machine geared primarily for family use that has such a strong focus on video. DV editing is ready for the mainstream right now, with DV supported in all main operating systems, and hardware and software costing so little. And if DVD-R becomes as popular as we hope it will, then we may well be witnessing the birth of something quite massive. We're very excited, and feel that Packard Bell's Dre@m Machine represents a bright beacon for the way ahead.

For the full review, see the August 2001 issue of Computer Video.

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