The Water by Low Carbon PC is a beautiful small-form-factor PC that seems to be squarely targeted at the home theater PC (HTPC.) It share many of the same design aspects of the Earth model that we reviewed a few months back, but the Water packs a bigger punch. Will it make a great HTPC though?
With a computer like the Water you have to start by talking about its appearance. Visual appeal is largely subjective of course, but I love the clean design, the smoothly curved edges, and the aluminum case of the entire line of Low Carbon PCs. While they aren’t black, like many audio/video components that you’ll have near your television, their beauty and simplicity will fit right in with most setups. The front is very clean as it only has a circular power button surrounded by an LED for power and CPU notifications. Above that is a tray-load optical drive that is painted to match the aluminum case.
What really separates the Water from the the Earth that we reviewed before are the hardware specifications. While the Earth was a little under-powered for some tasks due to its Intel Atom processor, the Water comes packed with an Intel Core i3-2120 3.3 GHz Sandy Bridge processor with an HD 2000 video chipset. Intel has squarely secured the top spot with the Core i series line of processors when users are looking for the best quality combination of processor and video performance for home theater PC usage. This machine also came equiped with 4 GB of DDR3 1333 memory, a Blu-ray combo drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. The i3 processor is at the bottom end of Intel’s Core i Series, but that’s like being the lowest model in Lamborghini’s lineup.
Around back of the machine you’ll find all of the ports. For video you have your choice of HDMI, DVI, and DisplayPort. For audio there is the typical five port analog audio selection, plus a TOSLINK optical digital audio out. Network connectivity can be had via wired ethernet at 10/100/1000 Mbps, or via the dual antenea wireless b/g/n setup. Storage and expansion can be handled by the eSATA port, or the six USB ports. Two of the USB ports are USB 3.0; the rest are 2.0.
While the Water would make a great desktop computer, especially since it’s capable of handling two monitors at once at a resolution of 2560×1600, we like to know how computers perform in the home theater at the DMZ. To be a great HTPC the candidate must look good, operate quietly, and handle all of our media needs. I’ve already mentioned how great I think the Water looks next to my TV, so let’s get down to the details.
Our previous knowledge of the Intel Core i3 processor line lead us to believe that this box wouldn’t have any troubles with any of our common audio/video tasks, and we weren’t disappointed at all. The Core i3 decodes even 1080p video without so much as breaking a sweat, and unlike it’s little brother, the Atom, it can hold its own against more CPU intensive demands also. While Netflix HD streaming is unusable on most Atom-powered devices, the Water had no trouble at all keeping up with whatever videos were thrown at it. In fact, it only used 15% of the CPU while displaying Netflix HD at the maximum bitrate of 3800Kbps.
Because the Water is in a very small case, and doesn’t have any available internal expansion slots, you are left to use either USB or network provided television tuners. For testing of live and recorded TV we used the network sharing functionality of a Ceton InfiniTV 4 CableCARD tuner. The Water had no trouble at all displaying and recording HD television, even while using a tuner that relied upon the integrated Ethernet. Watching live TV only took processor utilization up to 6%.
Another common use of a home theater PC is to convert video files for use on other devices, such as smart phones and portable media players. To test the capabilities of the Water in video conversion we used Handbrake to convert a one hour long HD television show. We used Handbrake’s iPhone & iPod Touch profile. The Low Carbon PC Water did a fantastic job with the conversion. It finished in only 18 minutes! That’s not bad at all for a processor that is at the low end of the product line!
Of course using a home theater PC typically means placing that computer in the living room, near the television. Whenever a computer is in the living room you hope that the noise of the machine is at an absolute minimum. Unfortunately the Water was not the quietest HTPC I’ve ever used. It was audible from a distance of about 10 feet when we weren’t watching television or listening to music on the device. It was quiet enough however that when we were consuming media the fan noise was completely drowned out, and it wasn’t noticeable at all.
One of my favorite features of having a home theater PC is the ability to automatically skip commercials. Commercial skipping is also a great test of a computer’s performance because it stresses the processor and the file system. For this test we used ShowAnalyzer which is still the only software capable of detecting commercials in WTV files. The Water handled commercial skipping admirably, by detecting the commercials in a one hour HD show in about 32 minutes. That’s certainly not the fastest time I’ve seen, but it is more than fast enough to detect the commercials in an entire show while you watch it.
If you’re going to name your company Low Carbon PC then you better be prepared to back-up the eco-friendly statement. When one thinks “eco-friendly” with regards to computers they typically think it just means that it consumes very little power. While that’s definitely a design goal of this company, it’s not the only aspect of these ‘green” computers. All of their computers are small form-factor PCs. This means they require less materials to produce, and “significantly less energy to transport than the average desktop computer.” The computer cases are also made of aluminum which is 100% recyclable, and it is less toxic than plastic. Of course being low-power can’t be forgotten about. So how much power does the Water consume?
Compared to normal desktop computers, home theater PCs are often left running for very long periods of time. Many people even leave them running 24 hours per day. If you’re going to leave a PC running for that long, then the machine’s power consumption numbers better be pretty low! Fortunately now power usage is another strong point of the Intel Core I series of processors. With the Water at idle, simply running, but not doing anything, it only consumes 24 watts of power. This measurement, as with the rest of the power measurements for this review, was taken with a Kill-a-Watt with only the Water plugged into it. When watching live television, power consumption only went up 32 watts. Watching Netflix consumed 28 watts, and watching a Blu-ray only consumed 29 watts of electricity. The most power hungry task was converting video which took the power draw up to 55 watts. All of these numbers are great, and you simply won’t find a machine that uses significantly less power without also significantly downsizing the processing capabilities.
Low Carbon PC also sent me their Wireless Touchpad Keyboard with the Water. The keyboard/touchpad combo is a $99 option from the Low Carbon PC store. The keyboard looks like a keyboard that you would find on a typical laptop with all the standard keys, including function keys, page up/down, home/end, insert/delete, print screen, etc…, and a touch pad below the keyboard with two separate mouse buttons. The keyboard is wireless running at 2.4 GHz with the included USB dongle. The surface area is just slightly larger than a sheet of paper, so it fits on the lap really well. If you’re used to using a laptop on your lap, then this keyboard will feel very natural. Because it sports normal sized keys, even bigger than your typical netbook keyboard, typing feels great! It does not have a power switch, it automatically turns itself on off when not in use. It turns back on by hitting any key. This make its very easy to use, but if you have small children or pets you’ll need to put it away when not in use or they are sure to hit the keys and drain the battery, or even worse, do things to your computer.
Price and Options
The base Water starts at $799, and for your money you’ll get an extremely capable machine. It’s a home theater PC that won’t disappoint. The machine that we were given to review came with an optional Blu-ray drive and Cyberlink PowerDVD software, which adds $198 to the base price. We were also sent the Cyberlink remote control, which is a $19.00 option, and the Wireless Laptop Style Touchpad keyboard. With all of these options tacked on the final price comes to $1,115.
Intel’s Core i3 processors seem like they were designed to be put to use inside home theater PCs, and the sleek, small, beautiful aluminum case of the Low Carbon PC Water looks right at home next to your television. The two of them paired together make for a great combination of trouble-free HTPC usage. Ever since the Core i3 series was introduced we’ve been recommending it as the go-to option for a Windows Media Center PC that will handle all of your home theater needs without the fuss of trying to piece different components together. The cost of the Water is higher than what you would pay if you tried to build a machine with similar specifications yourself, but with it you’re getting a case that is gorgeous and small, all in an eco-friendly package.