While many consumers have bought into the commercial push for so-called Smart TVs the majority of the products on the Irish market are far from smart (yet). Very few have true internet browsers at the level of Chrome or Internet Explorer and most are limited to dedicated applications for specific services such as YouTube and Facebook which curtails their usability. Additionally some of the better known apps on Smart TVs supplied by manufactures for sale in Ireland can’t even be accessed from this country (the most prominent being the BBC’s iPlayer).
Anyone who has used a so-called Connected TV will know how lacklustre the performances can be and how many websites can confuse or crash the onboard browser (that’s when you can persuade the television to communicate with your wireless router in the first place). Even the addition via the TV’s USB port – if supplied – of one of a growing number of cheap Android dongles for “Google TV” (not actual but known off-handedly as such) adds little of value. In fact such an “upgrade” can cause a whole new set of problems of its own. In a similar vein connecting external devices, such as a portable hard drive, can be an onerous task whether by USB or HDMI cables. It is hardly surprising then that consumer research has proven that the majority of Smart TV purchasers do not have their televisions actually connected to the internet (which somewhat defeats the purpose of buying the sets in the first place).
A long-standing market solution to these issues (which actually pre-dates the development of Smart TV technology) is a Home Theatre Personal Computer or HTPC. Basically imagine a small computer connected to your TV with all the functionality of its bigger cousins but largely used for the purposes of multi-media entertainment. This is certainly the route I took when I decided to purchase a good off-the-shelf HTPC that combined a decent sized HDD (hard disc drive), an optical drive for playing DVDs/Blu-rays, a HDMI output to hook up to a Hi-Definition TV and a wireless internet connection for browsing. I say “off-the-shelf” since there is a considerable home market in people building their own from sourced parts though this can carry some pitfalls of its own. After much research I settled on the Lenovo IdeaCentre Q190, choosing the 1TB HDD version with the rather low-powered Intel Core i3 processor, a DVD/Blu-ray combo drive and a wireless multimedia remote.
Stripped of all the jargon the Q190 is basically a mini-PC, roughly the size of fat hardback novel, that can sit horizontally on a shelf or vertically in a supplied stand (it also comes with a small metal bracket that can be fitted to the back of a TV or a wall, complete with screws, to hide it completely). The 1TB drive gives lots of space for video and image files though some of that space is taken up by the rather hoggish operating system, the infamous Windows 8. Otherwise extraneous software is kept to a minimum with not even the usual Microsoft sample pictures or videos to take up valuable memory (which of course is a good thing). A bundled trial version of Microsoft Office and a few other bits and pieces are added for those who intend to use the Q190 as a replacement desktop though these can can be easily deleted.
Techies might prefer to replace the Win8 OS with a somewhat more frugal version of Linux, XBMC or some other operating system to free up even more space. As it is Win8 takes some getting used to and I’m not sure it suits the intended purpose of the Q190 (but that is a general criticism of Win8 on all non-touch screen machines). That said the handheld remote is quite good once you get used to it. It combines a battery-operated, backlit, mini-mouse/keyboard and makes navigation around the machine fairly easy (AA batteries are supplied and the blue-coloured wireless dongle for the remote is safely housed in the battery-compartment – remove it and place in a free USB slot on the machine before switching on). However for long-term or detailed use a dedicated full-size wireless keyboard and mouse might be preferred by some. I should note that you will need some sort of keyboard and mouse to set up and use the machine. In all other respects it is still simply a PC. So purchasing the wireless remote with the Q190 is probably the best option for most users.
I was pleased to discover that the remote can be set up under the Windows’ Irish keyboard option meaning the síneadh fada can be employed whether you are using the English or Irish versions of Win8.
The actual set-up itself of the Q190 was rather easy: a standard HDMI cable from the PC to the TV followed by some 20 minutes of entering the usual location details, user profiles, passwords, updates and restarts (most of the Windows’ updates needed to be done manually). No big surprises so far though there was an issue with the Date/Time but that was an easy fix. Connecting to the internet was painless too though I’d recommend downloading Chrome to replace Internet Explorer if you purchase the machine. As some might have guessed with a Core i3 processor this is not the fastest device in the world. There is a slight delay in some tasks such as opening or starting programmes that might frustrate power-users.
As for usability the image and sound quality from video files on the machine is fine (including playing 1080 HD video files – I’ve downloaded MPC-HC x64, a good video/audio players). DVD/Blu-ray playback is good too. I might well be investing in a surround sound system to complement both. Attaching additional drives was hassle-free, with no problems reading from a 64GB flash drive and a 1TB external hard drive connected via the back and front USB ports (the latter hidden behind a door), and a 1GB memory card. Streaming from the internet was good too with no issues watching webplayers from TG4 or RTÉ. I haven’t installed TOR or similar yet but I doubt there will be any problems watching foreign web services like the BBC’s iPlayer.
My only criticism, Win8 aside (which might be a matter of personal preference for some), is the slightly noisy fan. I had hoped for quieter but it’s not too bad and in most conditions, watching a video file or Blu-ray, it’s ok. There are various 3rd-party programmes to alleviate the issue that I will probably check out.
All in all this is an excellent machine, a true space-saving mini-PC that works very well indeed as a means of providing an internet connection to my HDTV or providing video and audio playback from local files on its large hard drive or disc-player. The wireless remote is actually quite clever, once you get used to it, and is certainly adequate for casual use. I purchased my Q190 from Amazon where it is slightly cheaper than from Lenovo’s own webstore, though as always with Amazon the euro-conversion is far too high.
If you’re in the market for a HPTC or thinking of upgrading your old HD television to a Smart TV I’d certainly recommend the Q190.