Niveus Media Rainier Edition 500HD Media Center PC system

The Short Form
$7,697 (as tested) / NIVEUSMEDIA.COM / 866-258-2929
Snapshot
The Rainier PC and the Edge extender successfully elevate the Media Center experience to the high-end A/V realm
Plus
• Bulletproof build quality and standard A/V form factor • Mostly glitch-free performance • No fan noise from PC or extender • Niveus installer network helps guarantee successful CableCARD installation
Minus
• Noisy hard drive in review unit • Current HDMI drivers not compatible with all preamp/processors • Just-average video-processor performance
Key Features
• HDMI, DVI, optical digital, and 7.1-channel analog-audio outputs • 1080p video output • Plays Blu-ray Discs, DVDs, CDs, and AVCHD discs • 500-GB hard drive • Dual CableCARD slots (digital cable receiver) • Wireless RF keyboard • RS-232 serial port • Rainier ($4,699): 19 1/4 x 6 x 15 1/4 in; 27 lb • Edge extender ($1,499): 17 1/4 x 4 3/4 x 15 in; 30 lb • Digital cable receiver ($1,499): 17 x 2 3/4 x 15 in; 10 lb

The whole Windows Media Center PC concept is something I've been curious about for a long time. But as a traditional A/V guy (and Mac user) who's comfortable with his stacks of components and web of cables, I've been hesitant to take the plunge. It was only after stumbling across one of these PCs at a trade show - a model from Niveus Media, running Vista and tuning premium high-def cable channels via CableCARD - that I even started to entertain the notion of chucking separate components for a single box that does, well, everything. A PC in the living room? Bring it on!

Not surprisingly, the first thing that grabbed me about Niveus's Rainier Edition (which can be configured with a hard-drive capacity up to 750 GB), was its resemblance to a typical high-end audio component. With its black, brushed-aluminum faceplate and flared, side-mounted heat sinks, the look is more Krell than Dell. But for Niveus, packing a PC into a formidable case is more than a matter of style. The Rainier's passive cooling system employs heat-pipe technology - an industrial technique that uses liquid-filled tubes to transfer excess warmth from the processor and video card to the external heat sinks. This allows Niveus to use only a single, near-silent fan inside the Rainier, resulting in quieter overall operation.

The model I tested, the Rainier Edition 500HD, is fairly maxed-out hardware-wise, packing a 500-GB hard drive, a 2-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and an NVIDIA 8500GT card that scales video up to 1080p resolution. Its versatile disc drive uses ArcSoft's Total Media Theater software to play not just DVDs and CDs but Blu-ray Discs, too; I could also use the drive to view discs holding high-def video shot with a Sony AVCHD camcorder. ArcSoft TMT supports Dolby TrueHD, uncompressed 5.1-channel PCM, and Dolby Digital Plus soundtracks on Blu-ray, although its handling of DTS-HD Master Audio is limited to decoding the lossy "core" version. The recordable drive can also burn music playlists to CD, but DVD copies of CableCARD-tuned programs (even lame-ass infomercials!) are off-limits because of content-protection restrictions.

As impressive as the Rainier Edition 500HD's front panel might be to an A/V gearhead, the drool really starts flowing when you peek around the back. Along with HDMI and DVI, there's a trio of BNC connectors for component-video connections, as well as eight gold-plated RCA jacks for making a 7.1-channel analog-audio hookup to an outboard processor, amplifier, or receiver. In a world where most Media Center PCs use cheesy mini-jack connectors for handling analog audio and video, Niveus's attention to quality here really sets it apart. You also get an Ethernet jack, multiple USB and FireWire ports, and an RS-232 port for an advanced control system.

Instead of trying to make room in the Rainier's well-stuffed chassis for CableCARD, Niveus offers an external solution with its digital cable receiver, which has the same style and form factor as the company's other components. It connects to the PC via USB 2.0, an interface with sufficient bandwidth to pass the two high-def video streams coming from the receiver's twin CableCARD tuners.

One thing that Niveus didn't bother to put its design stamp on is the system's remote: It's the same Microsoft-issued one you get with any Media Center PC. While the controls are sufficient for most tasks - browsing TV-channel grids, music libraries, or photo collections - I found the remote to be somewhat limited when I was watching Blu-ray Discs. (Some playback functions could only be controlled via the software player's onscreen menu bars.) But I did like the wireless keyboard that came with the system. Along with providing RF control over the Rainier, the keyboard has a built-in trackball mouse that makes it a breeze to operate.

SETUP

Unlike most other Media Center PC makers, Niveus only sells products through its network of custom installation pros. There are many advantages to this, the first being that your system gets set up and configured by people who know the product inside and out. Also, the Niveus dealer network has extensive field experience with CableCARD installation. (The company has even produced a Webinar on the topic - now that's serious!) The benefit here is that when your cable guy shows up with the CableCARDs (the same ones that the cable company's service rep, reading from a script, tried to talk you out of ordering), a Niveus-trained tech will be on hand to supervise the installation. And not only will the Niveus guy ask the right questions, he's trained in the art of the Vulcan nerve pinch (just in case the cable guy tries to leave without completing the job properly.)

My own install didn't go down as smoothly as most apparently do, thanks to the Time Warner Cable techs showing up with a bunch of nonfunctioning CableCARDs. But once they left, Scott Varner, Niveus's manager of sales and training, connected the Rainier to my HDTV via DVI and strung a set of six audio cables from its rear panel to my Anthem AVM50 preamp/processor's 5.1-channel analog-audio input. For some reason, an HDMI connection to the Anthem didn't work, although this problem is supposed to be addressed in a Niveus driver update.

The setup options in the Media Center's Task menu let us configure the Rainier's video output for 1080p/60 display. (A trip to the NVIDIA control panel also gives you a 1080p/24 output option for viewing Blu-ray Discs on a compatible video display - but you'll need to switch back to 1080p/60 for watching TV.) The Intel Audio Setup screen also let us configure all six speakers as Large on the Rainier's multichannel analog output - a setting that allowed the Anthem to perform the bass-management duties.

Thinking on his feet, the very capable Scott also MacGyver'd my primitive home network to connect the Rainier to both a cable modem on another floor and Niveus's Edge Media Center extender - a task that involved a run to Best Buy to get a powerline network adapter. The Rainier sports a built-in Wi-Fi receiver, but the company strongly recommends plugging its components into a wired network. As any custom installer will tell you, a wired setup tends to be more reliable - especially when shuttling high-def video around the house.

And just what exactly is an Edge Media Center extender? It belongs to a new category of products, just now hitting the market, that do exactly what their name suggests: you hook them up to your network so you can extend the Windows Media Center experience by streaming content from your Media Center PC to additional A/V systems. (HDMI, component-video, optical digital, and stereo jacks are all onboard for making the connection.) I'll have more to say about this below, but first: How well does the Rainier itself work?

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