MSI’s box of tricks wisely follows two growing trends in computing. First, it’s a small form-factor, bare-bones PC, ready for you to add your own components to turn it into your latest beast. And second – ready for a buzzword? – it’s a convergence product that capitalises on the increasingly blurred lines between computing and home entertainment.
Let’s deal with the PC side first. Supporting Socket A processors (arguably a drawback, given that Socket A is at the end of its natural life), the system comes with motherboard in place, and requires you to add a processor, hard drive, optical drive, graphics card and memory.
So when you look at that price tag and marry it up to the snazzy looking appearance of the Mega 180, don’t forget to budget for the extra components you need to get it up and running. A sticker on the box informs us that MSI only guarantees it to work with MSI optical drives (surprise surprise), but we completely ignored that and encountered no technical trouble.
We did have more problems putting the machine together, though, and that’s partly down to the confines of a small form-factor build. It’s a task that takes a little more preparation and planning than putting an ATX machine together, as the components are so tightly packed in that one mistake generally leads to undoing lots of things to correct it.
MSI don’t do you many favours, though. Locating the AGP slot slap-bang next to the power supply makes it a real squeeze to get even a middle-of-the-road graphics card in there (meaning you may be better off using the on-board solution instead), and then inserting the optical drive is an art in itself.
Still, with the odd cut on our hands to prove it, we did get things up and running, and the supplied fan in particular was a real help, as it pushed air out horizontally rather than vertically. The thought of levering a traditional cooler onto the board was concerning, especially as it was tight enough getting the supplied unit on board anyway.
There’s one PCI slot, too, which we didn’t use, and we can readily imagine things getting really cramped inside that box if we had. Fortunately, the likes of sound, LAN, modem, USB 2.0 and FireWire ports are provided on the board. Oh, and a nice touch is the inclusion of flash card ports on the front as well. There’s support built-in for wireless technology too.
We tried an Athlon 2200+ CPU in the box. Understandably, given the tightness of the layout, the restricted airflow gave us a system bubbling at a slightly higher temperature than its desktop brethren. Nothing to worry too much about, with the CPU temperature sitting in the 50s and 60s.
So, box sealed, we were intrigued as to what the other buttons did. First, you can use the machine as a CD player without having to turn the computer itself on. This feature is accessed either via the passable supplied remote control, or from a single button on the front of the machine.
FM radio is also supported, with an antenna going into the back of the box. When used as a music box, the front of the Mega 180 features graphical work that we last saw on a row of snazzy stereos in Dixons, and to complete the effect, when you shut it off it simply displays the time. Sadly, when you pull the power out, it blanks everything, which spoils the effect slightly.
Switching to PC mode, the performance of the machine happily competed with a larger desktop. As we said before, some thought has to go into the selection of components – a cutting edge Radeon 9800XT with its demands for an extra power input and large fan could feasibly drain the 220W power supply and, crucially, not even squeeze into the box.
Ultimately though, the MSI 180 is a frustrating piece of kit. It undeniably looks the business, and its versatility and styling are clearly appealing. Yet it’s not easy to build a system into it, and given the price tag, it’s not too tricky to find slightly friendlier and cheaper (if less aesthetically pleasing) small form-factor boxes in which to build a PC.
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