Closer Look at GMC AVC-S7
Exterior Design and Software
HTPC cases are usually designed as other hi-fi devices like a neat flat box. The designer’s logic is easy to grasp. There are well-established stereotypes that must be followed. It wouldn’t be aesthetic to put an HTPC with a gaudy front panel shimming with multicolored LEDs onto a special stand next to expensive hi-fi products.
So, GMC doesn’t go against the general trends. The AVC-S7 is disguised as a high-class DVD player. You can hardly suspect that this slim thing with a characteristic disc slot in the middle of the front panel and a row of familiar icons in the bottom corner is actually a computer. The small height of the case is highly impressive. A regular HTPC case is about two times as tall as that.
Besides the optical drive slot, there are two buttons on the front panel. One of them opens the drive’s tray (it is designed in an original way and sinks but very little under your finger) and the other turns the thing on. But let’s push the front panel as the word painted on it prompts us.
The bottom part of the front panel, made from translucent dark plastic, flips down and opens access to a gorgeous selection of connectors and buttons. There is a two-line display in the center that shows text information. I will discuss its functionality shortly. To the left of it, there is a multi-format card-reader integrated into the front panel. That’s quite all right: I don’t think anyone will want an external 3.5-inch bay in his HTPC whereas the neatly integrated card-reader is going to come in handy considering the current popularity of various memory cards. On the right of the front panel there are buttons and connectors: two USB ports (placed too close to each other, so you won’t be able to plug two thick flash drives in simultaneously), two audio connectors (microphone and headphones), and a FireWire port. The buttons are a 4-way joystick, AV center, Back, and Reset. The latter is the same shape as others and can be pressed accidentally. I guess this button might be moved to the back in an HTPC case or discarded altogether. The buttons and connectors are all accompanied with labels or icons which are also duplicated on the back of the flip-down cover.
Before describing the case further, I want to tell you about the buttons and the display. The AVC-S7 employs a management system that is similar to the one in the GMC AVC-K2. It is developed by SoundGraph and combines a controller connected via USB to the mainboard, a display, a remote controller and software. The software consists of two applications: iMon Manager is responsible for the display and the interaction with the buttons on the case and the remote control. The iMedian HD application is a multimedia shell similar to Microsoft’s MediaCenter (you may also be familiar with MediaPortal, which is yet another popular multimedia shell). It serves as a graphical interface, providing access to files and features from the remote control.
SoundGraph’s solutions are also sold as separate products: a kit consisting of a display and remote control (the software is included, too). As you understand, GMC just installed an OEM version of the solution into this HTPC case.
As part of that system, the 2-line display I have mentioned above outputs diverse information from time/date to sound equalizer, song info, weather forecast and news reports from the channels the user has specified in the iMon Manager settings.
After you turn the computer on and install drivers and software, the display will go on showing its information even when the computer is shut down. This is implemented by the connection of the management system to the standard 24-pin mainboard connector so it can be powered by the 5V standby source. It is this power adapter that you can see in the photo above together with the system’s USB connector. By the way, the USB connector is equipped with an adapter for the mainboard’s onboard header. Unlike many Chinese manufacturers, GMC is aware that there are no standard USB connectors inside a computer.
Now let’s get back to the functionality of the management system. The buttons on the front panel of the case are designed for interaction with the computer without a mouse and keyboard: the 4-way joystick is a good substitute for a mouse while the Back button works as Escape. The AV Center button evokes the iMedian HD shell by default.
The remote control included into the kit has about the same functionality as other such devices. It offers full control over the media center and can be used to perform some simple actions in the OS: the mouse pointer can be moved about by means of the joystick in the center of the control (and I should say it is a lot of fun). The remote control is fully compatible with standard MediaCenter controls from Microsoft, so you can easily use it with most applications including Windows MediaCenter proper. It is free from any ergonomic innovations, but has a handy size and responsive buttons.
And finally I want to say a few words about the software part of the system: the iMon Manager and iMedian applications.
Being a tool for controlling the buttons and display on the front panel of the case, iMon Manager is inconspicuous but offers wide setup opportunities. You can set up almost anything you can think of, the selection of commands being especially impressive. You can assign almost any function to any button of the remote control or system case. If you are not satisfied with the standard, system or iMedian functions, you can write your own macros. You can also set up the information output for the display: weather forecast, news, email notifications, system info, playback info, mode selection. Yes, the setting up may take a long time, but in the end the system will be just the way you want it. And do you often see home electronic devices that can check out your email box?
One of the few visible signs of iMon’s presence in the system is the list of quick-launch applications. This list is rather short originally, but you can extend it as much as you like. You can also set up the operation of the exclusive applications already on the list. It is good that the default list includes such handy applications as an onscreen keyboard, a quick change of display resolution (may be handy if you connect a TV-set to the computer), and an alarm clock. So, that’s a menu for launching your frequently used applications.
The iMedian shell is, on the contrary, very conspicuous. It is within this shell that you interact with the media center’s features. Like with other such programs, you first have to choose and scan folders with photographs, music and videos, specify codecs to use, set up your TV-tuner if you’ve got one, enter the addresses from which you are going to get news, weather reports and webcasts. It is deep within such programs that you usually find problems like incompatibility with codecs or with rare TV-tuner models, or unhandy menus, etc. I did not have any problems with iMedian, though. All of its features seemed to work normally.
So, this management system is not as simple as to be set up to your taste in half an hour, but its functionality is as wide as with alternative solutions.
Now let’s get back to the system case.
The case is low and can hardly accommodate any cooling fans. Therefore it is cooled passively. There is a large array of round holes in the top panel of the case and vent slits in the side panels. This system case is going to accumulate dust, so you will have to use your vacuum-cleaner on it often.
The back panel is an unusual view. Even low-profile expansion cards cannot fit into such a slim case, so there are no expansion-slot brackets here. There is no basic I/O shield for the mainboard, either. On the other hand, there are so many configurations of mainboard connectors available that you have to install the I/O shield included with the mainboard anyway (it is even odd that system case makers include a “standard” I/O shield that does not fit any real mainboard anymore).
The single slit in the center of the back panel is interesting. Judging by the characteristic protrusion next to it, the case has a riser card that allows to install an expansion card in parallel to the mainboard.
The system case does not support standard ATX power supplies due to its small height. It only supports SFX models. My sample of the AVC-S7 was equipped with a Sirtec High Power SFX-270A1 that has an output power of 270 watts and is cooled with two 60mm fans. This PSU complies with the SFX 3.0 standard which is not new, but still viable (the newer versions of the standard have lower requirements to the load capacity of the +5V and +3.3V rails).
The PSU is equipped with the following cables and connectors:
- Mainboard cable with a 20+4-pin connector (30cm)
- CPU cable with a 4-pin connector (30cm)
- One cable with one SATA power connector (30cm)
- One cable with two PATA power connectors (30+15cm)
- One cable with two PATA power connectors and one floppy drive plug (30+15+15cm)
I did not test the PSU because its capabilities are obviously enough for any reasonable HTPC configuration you can assemble in such a compact case. Its manufacturer – Sirtec – has a good reputation.
The system case stands on four massive plastic feet that have metallic rims and rubber pads in order to absorb vibrations.