Inner Workings: Inside a Media Server

In the beginning - well, at least 5 or 6 years ago - music stored on a PC generally either stayed there or was downloaded to a portable player. But as more and more audio and video content has become available online, people want to hear and see it on home entertainment rigs.

One route has been to use some form of network device that acts as a bridge between a PC or Mac and a home theater system. Another is to actually have a Windows Media Center PC in the living room. Problem is, the innards of most computers make for a harsh, noisy environment for audio/video content.

Fortunately, we're starting to see some home media servers that look - and act - like they were built by audio/videophiles, not computer geeks. Case in point: Niveus's Denali Limited Edition (LE), one of the most un-computerish-looking computers I've ever seen. (Also see the S1Digital FX Edition media center review.)

Maybe as compensation for the amount of time you'll be spending indoors if you buy one, Niveus has tagged all its media servers with active, outdoorsy names like Rainier and Denali. (The whole lineup is part of the Summit series.) Essentially, they're souped-up PCs with fast processors, vast amounts of storage, and an I/O architecture more attuned to an A/V enthusiast than to the average PC user. Also, all of the Niveus servers look like they belong in your living room. In other words, while they sport PC processors and run on Windows Media Center software, there's no external evidence that either Microsoft or Intel got anywhere near them.

In fact, the Denali LE more than anything resembles an upscale, he-man-sized power amp, thanks to its 60-pound heft, its black, aircraft-grade aluminum chassis, and the extruded aluminum heat sinks on each side of the unit. The Denali's face is refreshingly clean, its lines broken only by a disc-drive slot, an on/off button, two USB ports, and one FireWire port.

The Denali LE stands at the top of the Niveus media-server mountain range. It's designed to manage your entire media collection, storing and playing TV shows, music, Internet radio, movies, and photos. And the inclusion of an HD DVD drive, a high-performance Nvidia video card, and a 7.1-channel Pro Audio soundcard equipped with Burr-Brown DACs and 192-kHz/24-bit audio makes it a worthy companion to the other gear in a high-end home theater rig.

While its chassis is striking, there's also a lot going on under the hood. To avoid the fan noise common in most PCs, Niveus's servers have a passive cooling system - I guessed Iceberg, but it's called Glacier - that uses pipes to draw heat away from temperature-sensitive core components. Heat at one end of the pipe causes the liquid inside it to evaporate, producing a steam-like vapor that condenses back into liquid when heat is removed at the pipe's other end. Capillary action in a wick then returns the liquid to the evaporator. This process pulls heat away from the components to the exterior of the chassis, where it's dissipated via the external heat sinks.

The Denali LE's PC heritage is evident in the powerful Intel Core 2 Duo processor, which helps send HD media to up to six zones. Other PC-centric components include 4 gigabytes of memory and twin Seagate 750-GB hard drives. The Nvidia GeForce Series 8600GTS video/graphics card, with Pure-Video HD processing that can scale video content to 1080p, is ISF-certified. The beefy 500-watt Antec internal power supply takes up nearly a quarter of the Denali's interior.

The HD DVD drive can output 24p video and 7.1-channel digital and analog sound. The Denali LE also has four TV tuners, housed on two 2 x 2 combo cards. Two are NTSC standard-def tuners; two are ATSC HDTV tuners that can receive free over-the-air HDTV broadcasts and let you integrate with cable- or satellite-TV receivers for standard-def broadcasts. The DVR feature lets you record TV shows and movies on the hard drives with all the typical DVR functions, like pause, replay, and 30-second commercial skip. You can record up to four shows simultaneously while playing back a prerecorded one.

Except for the front-panel USB and FireWire ports, all the connections are housed on what Niveus calls the ConvergencePanel on the rear of the unit. To the left, below a three-prong AC-cord connector, are the PC/networking inputs, four more USB ports, and another FireWire connector. A/V connections are on the right side of the panel: HDMI, DVI, and component-video outputs are just above the TV inputs, which are connected to the tuner cards. There are two sets of NTSC jacks - RF coaxial and S-video inputs - plus two sets of gold-plated RCA inputs for 2-channel audio. Below those are two RF coaxial jacks, connected to the ATSC tuners, for HDTV signals. The Denali can also accept CableCARD via an optional Digital Cable Receiver ($1,500).

The audio connections, at the far right of the panel, include discrete 7.1-channel analog outputs, a pair of gold-plated stereo RCA jacks, and a digital coaxial (SPDIF) jack that can handle 5.1-channel surround sound. Also here: an RJ45 Gigabit Ethernet port and an RS-232 control jack. The server comes with a Media Center remote control, a USB remote receiver and dual cable/satellite IR blaster, and an RF wireless keyboard/mouse trackball that can operate within a 50-foot range. But the Denali will work with more sophisticated controllers, such as those from Crestron. It can also be used with other Niveus components, like the Ice Vault disc changer, which can auto-rip more than 200 CDs.

If you think the Denali LE sounds expensive, you're right: It's $11,600. But talk to your accountant; since the Denali is a PC, maybe you can run some work spreadsheets on it and write it off as a business deduction.

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