Executive Summary: The eMachines EL1300G-02w is a good choice for a low power home theater PC (HTPC) or media computer. Pros: Small form factor, low energy use, low noise with stock fans, DVD-DL R/W +/- optical drive, lots of media card readers. Cons: 160GB stock HD will need to be swapped out for back-end use, VGA video out (only), Analog Audio out (only), minimal expansion capabilities.
The eMachines EL1300G-02w is a $300 computer/monitor combination that is a very good choice for a entry-level home theater PC (HTPC). Some people will complain about the lack of HDMI (or DVI!) video out, but I’m happy with a plain old VGA cable driving my TV at 1360×768 (the computer will do 1600×900 with the packaged monitor, perhaps even true 1080p with a better TV!). Some will complain about the lack of a optical SPDIF port, but I’m happy with the analog audio output (I’m still using 2 channel sound with my MythTV setup!) If you want those features, spend a few hundred more on a different computer.
This is not a monster back-end machine, as its AMD Athlon 2650e processor runs at only 1.6GHz, but it can playback 720p HD TV with only a 85% load on the CPU with XvMC enabled (leaving a whopping 10-15% left over to absorb spikes or transcode in the background). If you really want to be able to transcode and commercial flag several shows in the background while also watching HD video, you can always swap in any of AMD’s other AM2 socket “e” processors, including some of their X2 dual core processors such as the 4450e, 5050e, 4850e, up to 45W total power. My preferences for a processor upgrade would probably be the smaller 22W 3250e. It comes with 1GB of ram, which is plenty for most HTPC applications, but has a second RAM slot open for easy expansion. The hardware is fully supported by the 64 bit version of Mythbuntu 9.10 (be sure to enable the restricted NVIDIA video drivers).
It has a single half-height PCIe expansion slot (populated from the factory with a 56K modem). The motherboard has only two SATA connections, and the power supply has only two matching SATA power cables, so although you can replace the HD, don’t expect to add a second HD unless you remove the optical drive! Speaking of HD, it comes with a 160GB Hitachi 7200RPM drive. This is plenty for a networked front end, but you probably want to swap in the biggest drive you can buy for master back-end use. Once you have the cover off, to swap the HD you will need to remove the front cover by un-clipping three black plastic tabs and rotating the front cover off the front of the computer, unlatching three pegs on the other side in the process. Then unscrew three screws holding the optical and HD bay in place. Two screws are located on the front, to either side of the optical drive, and one is located on the back screwing into the power supply.
At a price of $300 including a 20″ wide-screen monitor, it’s a real deal. (You can also find it cheaper without the monitor.) The optical drive is top notch (dual layer DVD R/W +/- plus label-flash technology) for a HTPC, plus it has 9 USB slots (4 rear, 5 front) and a good collection of card reader slots on the front (CF/SD/xD/MemoryStick/MS-Pro). It also has front headphone/mic jacks, in addition to the (analog) surround sound jacks on the back.
I was especially impressed with the low noise from the stock CPU and PSU fans, plus the low power consumption (25 watts idle, 35 watts playing HD video) by the 80+ bronze EnergyStar rated power supply and stock Athlon 2650e CPU. (Measured after swapping in a 1.5TB Seagate Barracuda 7200 HD.)