Some of you may remember that I have a day job. Although I write tons of reviews and today's hottest toys are scattered throughout my house (on loan), I still don my Clark Kent getup and report to "work-work" each day. (Writing is "fun-work" but, sadly, it doesn't pay all of the bills.) Recently, while at work-work, I had lunch with my cubicle neighbor, Wes. He was telling me about his friend's new custom-built "Media Center" computer. "Have you played with one of those yet for the magazine?" Funny you should ask, Wes. Having just spent a few weeks with Niveus' Rainier Edition Media Center PC, I've come to one conclusion. The Media Center PC is definitely the future of computing.
Like most people, you've probably jumped on the digital bandwagon with a digital camera, a healthy collection of DVDs and maybe an iPod or some other portable MP3 player. I don't have an iPod, but I enjoy downloading the occasional MP3 file when I don't want to purchase an entire album. Not too long ago, I purchased my first serious digital camera, and now I can't remember the last time I had a roll of film developed. My friends and family will tell you that my DVD collection borders on unhealthy. (My wife prefers not to talk about it.) Having all of these files on my PC is great, but my PC is in my home office. If it's not during work hours, who wants to browse photos and listen to tunes in the office? With Niveus' Rainier Media Center PC, you can bring all of that content into the living room (or home theater) where it rightfully belongs.
If you're like most humans, you've spent a good deal of time around computers - either at home or at work. Some are tall, some are short, some are black, and some are beige. If there's one thing you can say about virtually all computers (without using four-letter words), it's that they're noisy. With processor speeds getting faster every year and high-end video cards generating massive amounts of heat, fans and proper cooling have become more important than ever. Sitting atop the list of reasons I love this Niveus Media Center PC: its fan-less, passive cooling system. Niveus refers to it as an "Anodized Niveus Heatsink Case with Proprietary Passive Cooling Technology", but what it means for you and me is a whisper-quiet machine that's respectful in your home theater, where silence can often be golden.
Whenever I get on my soapbox extolling the virtues of Microsoft's Media Center, the unacquainted usually ask about the mess of wires normally associated with using a PC. "Why would I want all of those wires in my living room?" In a word, wireless. Whereas most Media Center PCs utilize a basic wireless mouse/keyboard combination, Niveus goes one better. Included with the Rainier Edition is a standard Microsoft Media Center remote, but you also get Gyration's wireless gyroscopic mouse and keyboard. I'll have more to say about these slick peripherals in a minute.
Installation/Setup/Ease of Use
Unpacking the Rainier was a piece of cake, but I did encounter one minor issue. While taking the chassis out of the box, I noticed it only had three feet, instead of four. The fourth apparently fell off during shipment and was loose in the box. I contacted Niveus about this, and apparently it's a known issue and they have since changed adhesives. First impressions aside, the problem is easy enough to fix, and I didn't get the sense that it was indicative of larger quality-control issues. Moving on, it was time to make my wire connections and run through Media Center's extensive setup process.
Read more about the performance of Niveus's Rainier Edition on Page 2.
To learn more about the ins and outs of Microsoft Windows Media
Center Edition 2005, be sure to check out www.microsoft.com and do some
reading. The site has lots of information and should answer most of
your questions. In a nutshell, Windows Media Center Edition 2005 is
Windows XP (with Service Pack 2) featuring a snazzy "Media Center"
application that launches at startup and runs in the foreground, taking
up the entire screen. The Media Center application can be minimized or
closed like any Windows application; it can be launched at any time by
pressing the little green button on your remote control.
The supplied Microsoft remote is standard fare, but it fits nicely in
the hand and is laid out perfectly - I only wish they backlit the
entire remote and not just the upper half. The Gyration wireless
keyboard works well, but I found it a bit cramped for my tastes. I'd
prefer a larger keyboard (which they do make) with more space for keys
such as Esc, Tab, Backspace, and the cursor directionals. With this
one, typing quickly is not an option, unless your fingers are small and
nimble (two things no one has ever accused me of being). Gyration's
wireless mouse takes some getting used to, but once you get the hang of
it, this thing rocks. Using an internal gyroscope, it senses up, down,
left, and right movements from the flick of a wrist. It took me a day
or two to become comfortable with it, but now I just love it. Even my
wife thought it was "very cool". And that's saying something.
Microsoft has done an excellent job with making setup and video
configuration approachable and user-friendly. Setting up "My TV" is
probably the rockiest of the tasks, and even there the hurdles were
minor. Rainier is Niveus' entry-level Media Center PC, so you don't get
a built-in ATSC tuner for off-air HDTV recording. (Check out their
Denali Edition for this feature.) What you do get is dual NTSC tuners
and an FM radio tuner. I was able to successfully connect my Samsung
DirecTV box to the Rainier using the supplied connectors and IR
flasher. Channel surfing through the two devices takes a little longer
than normal, but the integrated DVR makes it all worth it. Media
Center's integrated channel guide and DVR functionality is first-rate,
and second only to TiVo in this reviewer's opinion.
With all of the setup and connectivity issues out of the way, I played
with each of Media Center's core features. "My Pictures" is rather
straightforward; but the slideshow transitions are a nice touch, and
setting your kids' pictures to music is the cat's pajamas. I must admit
I was amazed and disappointed at Niveus' decision to exclude a
multi-slot memory card reader from the unit's front panel. If this PC
is truly a "media center" and storing and displaying digital photos is
one of its key selling points, the lack of a front-panel memory card
reader (and USB and FireWire ports) is inexcusable.
The heavy lifting required for "My Videos" and "My Music" is
provided by Windows Media Player. Music playback and CD ripping in "My
Music" was flawless; but I did encounter a few audio issues while
playing some sample "Windows Media Video HD" clips. Some clips sounded
okay; but others were missing the dialogue track - this may have been a
problem with the content and not the player. One of the sample clips
that did work, a 1080p trailer for the film Step Into Liquid, looked
absolutely breathtaking over Rainier's DVI output.
I encountered some minor clipping and dropouts during DVD playback
of Paramount's new Special Collector's Edition of Star Trek: First
Contact. Having watched it the night before (with no such errors) using
my Panasonic RP91 DVD player, I'd have to give the edge to my
Panasonic. When the sound was playing properly, Trek's robust 5.1
soundtrack sounded great coming out of Rainier's coaxial output, and it
was practically impossible to distinguish it from my RP91.
In summary, the Rainier Edition is a whisper-quiet PC with terrific
looks, and (most importantly) it allows for seamless integration with
your home theater. If Niveus had incorporated a front-panel multi-slot
memory card reader and/or USB ports, this Media Center PC would be
darned near perfect.
Wes posed some valid questions at lunch the other day. "Sure, it's
cool, but does it make sense for my family? What if my kids and I want
to use the computer at the same time? If it's just a regular PC in a
fancy black case, can't I just spray paint my tower?" In the end, it
all comes down to lifestyle. If a Media Center PC makes sense for your
home and your family, you are in for a real treat. I know of no other
product better able to harness and consolidate your collection of
digital media. And once you've made the decision to go with Media
Center, Niveus should be on your short list of manufacturers to
Niveus Media Center PC, Rainier Edition
Windows XP MCE 2005
Intel P4 2.8GHz Processor
512MB SDRAM/250GB HDD
Dual NTSC Tuners w/DVR
ATI 9600XT Video w/DVI Out
Fan-less, Passive Cooling System
17.5"W x 15"D x 4"H (w/feet)
Weight: Approx. 35 lbs.