A good media server has a tall order to fill. It needs to look sharp, sit quietly, have a smooth interface, and be reliable and easy enough to use as an everyday entertainment hub. And all the while, it has to support and run a complex array of A/V and computing technologies that are still evolving. Niveus is a five-year-old company that specializes in souped-up media servers built primarily for audio and video, using Windows and its Media Center application to control the action. The new Rainier 500 HD Media Center is a powerhouse of a server that lets you play HD DVDs and HBO right alongside online music and video, and takes its high performance tasks seriously every step of the way.
The Rainier has a low-profile appearance, but also a good dose of style with heat sinks fanning out on either side to help keep it cool and quiet. A wireless keyboard and track ball help you navigate and control the Vista Ultimate Media Center, where your multimedia files will live and breathe. One advantage of the Rainier over most Media Center PCs is that it can play virtually any type of media file on multiple stages, be it a computer monitor with desktop speakers or a big-screen HDTV and 7.1 surround sound system.
To optimize audio and video performance, the Rainier uses Intel’s Core 2 Duo processor (see “Compute” in this issue), 2GB of dedicated RAM, and an Nvidia video processor/scaler that supports resolutions up to 1080p. One of its big selling points is its built-in HD DVD drive, and it has a generous 500GB hard drive for storing lots of music, videos, and photos. The server offers a nice selection of analog and digital output options that will sync up nicely with any modern A/V receiver. Among them is HDMI (version 1.2a), which simplifies hookup since audio and video signals are carried over one cable. For this review, I ran an HDMI cable to the 70-inch JVC HDTV in our lab and made a component video/optical audio connection to our Anthem Statement
The Rainier offers various ways of experiencing video, and the performance depends primarily on the quality of the content and which output is used. For instance, pop in an HD DVD using the HDMI connection and you’ll get excellent 1080p resolution (assuming your HDTV supports it). Watching Terminator III and V for Vendetta on the Ranier and then our Toshiba HD DVD player, I found picture quality to be indistinguishable. If you haven’t seen HD DVD (or Blu-ray) yet, it’s a significant upgrade over standard DVD, with a color depth, contrast, and overall sharpness that bring you one step closer to movie-theater quality.
The Niveus came pre-loaded with several programs that were recorded in HD off cable TV, and those, too, displayed a vivid picture. If your cable company offers a CableCARD option—which allows you to do away with your set-top box—you can add a Niveus Digital Cable Receiver ($1499) to the mix and use the Rainier’s Media Center application as a full-featured digital video recorder. Media Center lets you view two weeks worth of program guide information, schedule and record shows directly on your hard drive, and even has the capability to record two HD channels simultaneously. CableCARDs are currently available from the major cable TV companies such as Time Warner and Comcast.
I checked out the Rainier’s sound quality by playing some albums directly from the CD drive along with tracks that were stored on the hard disk in Windows Media Lossless format. I also switched between the analog 5.1 and optical digital outputs, and music and movie soundtracks sounded great with both. The sound was big, full, and nicely balanced with realistic separation between instruments. On Carrie Rodriguez’s “Seven Angels on a Bicycle” [Train Wreck Records], the interplay between her voice, the steel guitar, and saxophone was lifelike and appropriately nuanced all at once.
Niveus has customized the Vista/WMC interface so that features such as shopping for music or ripping CDs to the hard drive is a more powerful and convenient experience. For example, there’s an “HD music” icon under the Media Center menu that takes you to the MusicGiants store, where you can browse artists and albums, and preview tracks through a custom built interface (Niveus even added a “Preview all” button so you can sit back and scan through every track on an album.) MusicGiants distinguishes itself from other online music stores by offering high-quality audio files in the Windows Media lossless format (see “Chit Chat” in this issue for an interview with CEO Scott Bahneman).
I downloaded a dozen or so tracks and they immediately appeared in the Media Center music library along with the artist/track names and album artwork. A few more clicks and I burned them to a CD that I played in my car on the way home. This type of flexibility in organizing, transferring, and playing music is usually not very easy to achieve, but the Rainier makes it all simple.