Viiv: New Platform, Same Old Systems


Intel's new Viiv platform offers plenty of goodies, but this PC crop fails to really take advantage of them


Intel's new Viiv platform has arrived, but the revolution in PC system design it was supposed to spark is still a ways off.

Digital Connect Labs engineers reviewed Viiv PCs from Hewlett-Packard and custom-system builders Nor-Tech, ZLife and Digital Home PC. The platform includes admirable innovations, but PCs need to be better designed to take advantage of them.

The standards list Intel developed for Viiv PCs offers a strong base for multimedia PCs: every Viiv PC must include Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 Update Rollup 2; an Intel Core Duo, Pentium D or Pentium Extreme Edition processor; the Intel 945G, 955X or 975X Express chipset; RAID storage and a Serial ATA hard drive. These standards, backed by the hundreds of millions of dollars Intel is expected to spend evangelizing the platform, should provide significant benefits for integrators and help drive the technology into the mainstream market.

The platform also brings strong technological improvements to Media Center PCs that should help integrators put them as vital pieces of home integrations. Viiv computers include instant on/off capabilities, which don't completely turn off the PC but instead put it into a standby mode so it can still record TV shows and perform other passive activities. Intel also included robust transcoding capabilities in the platform, to allow video and audio content to easily move between devices and be displayed at optimal resolution. The platform supports up to 7.1-channel surround sound.

While these technical benefits are in place, it will take a significant amount of time for the market to make the best use of them. For example, one major goal of Viiv is to help system builders develop slimmer and sleeker PCs that more closely resemble CE devices. But the four units reviewed here all use pre-Viiv designs and therefore are still too big and look too much like computers to be a hit in the home. The units also display many of the same problems and design flaws found in pre-Viiv editions.

Another of Intel's goals for Viiv is to offer a strong digital rights management system for convenient access and sharing of content, but that feature is not expected to be completed until later this year. Intel is working with content providers to offer Viiv-optimized video and audio content, and is also collaborating with manufacturers of non-PC devices, such as wireless routers, displays, speakers and networked storage products, to ensure compatibility with Viiv PCs. Once the devices start to become available in a few months, they should significantly reduce the headaches that integrators face when installing and optimizing home systems.

The upshot for integrators is that Viiv will offer significant benefits down the road, but they shouldn't invest heavily in the platform until more of the pieces are in place and manufacturers catch up and improve their designs.

HP Pavilion Media Center TV m7360n PC

Digital Connect engineers have reviewed several Media Center PCs from HP, Palo Alto, Calif., all of which are well built and perform exceptionally. The vendor offers two Media Center PC designs, one resembling a DVD player and the other in a tower design. The former is much more appropriate for a home multimedia setting. The m7360n PC has a tower design, and it is surprising that HP chose this design for its first Viiv PC.

Integrators can order the series in preconfigured designs from www.hpshopping.com or design their own systems on the site. Custom-designed units take several weeks longer to be built than pre-configured, but the ability to customize the units offers enough benefits for integrators to make the wait worthwhile. The site also offers numerous free upgrades for custom-built units, which at press time included an upgrade to a DVD Writer and 1-Gbyte memory upgrade.

Digital Connect reviewed a pre-configured unit. Prices start at $899, and the review unit cost $1,199 (or $1,149 after a mail-in rebate), making it by far the least expensive product in this review.

Digital Connect reviewers have always been impressed with the connectivity options and ports on HP's units, and this one is no exception. Conveniently accessible on the front of the PC is a 9-in-1 memory card reader. Hidden behind a front door are two USB 2.0 ports, one 1394/FireWire port, connections for computer-style headphones and microphone, and inputs for S-Video, Composite Video and left and right audio. A bay for a portable HP Personal Media Drive is also on the front, along with a CD writer and a DVD-ROM drive. The M7360n is the only unit in this review to include two drives, a useful option.

The rear of the unit has four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire port and Ethernet, digital audio in and out, radio and PS/2 connections. It includes only one NTSC TV Tuner, although a second is available for $60. Integrators should seriously consider the upgrade, as it will let customers watch one program while recording another. A VGA connector is included, but the unit lacks a DVI connector; 802.11b/g connectivity is built-in.

The PC includes HP's Media Center remote control, which is one of the best-designed remote controls, along with an HP wireless optical mouse and wireless keyboard. The mouse and keyboard each have their own external USB receiver; they should have been included inside the case to reduce clutter as with previous Media Center PCs.

The unit is powered by a dual-core 2.8GHz Pentium D 920 processor, and it has a 300-Gbyte 7,200-rpm SATA hard drive, a 800MHz front-side bus and 2 Gbytes of DDR2 SRAM memory. One side of the case removes easily by loosening two thumbscrews. There is plenty of space inside to upgrade the system.

Nor-Tech Voyageur Viiv Home Theater System

For customers with significant amounts of stored digital content, integrators should look at the Voyageur Viiv Home Theater System ($2,999) from Northern Computer Technologies of Burnsville, Minn. The product includes a 1.81-Tbyte RAID array, the largest storage amount of any system in this review. Assuming that an hour of 1,280x720p-resolution HD video occupies 11 Gbytes of space, the array can store 168 hours of recorded video or 926 hours of standard video. The array is RAID 0 and lacks the fault tolerance of RAID 5 arrays. Integrators should therefore offer clients a separate backup solution.

Voyageur includes one TV tuner; additional tuners are $59 each. The PC is housed in a large black case from Bach Media Lab and includes blue lighting on the front for extra style. The Nor-Tech, ZLife and Digital Home PC units reviewed all use large cases, an impediment to acceptance in the home.

The Nor-Tech PC has the best collection of front connections in this review, including a 15-in-1 media card reader, three USB 2.0 connections, one FireWire connection and inputs for computer-style microphones and headphones. The rear includes four USB 2.0 ports as well as optical, radio, PS/2 and Ethernet connections. The case is secured by three thumbscrews and removes quickly. The inside is spacious.

Nor-Tech needs to improve the quality of its shipping materials. The front door on the Voyageur that hides the connections broke during shipment; another unit from Nor-Tech reviewed last year was also damaged during delivery and was DOA.

The Viiv edition includes the official Media Center remote control, which works well but requires an external receiver. This is surprising, because Media Center PCs include a built-in internal receiver for the official Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Media Center Edition but not for the official Media Center remote control. The Nor-Tech unit also ships with the Logitech Cordless Desktop MX3000 wireless keyboard and optical mouse. The keyboard includes many useful features, such as a media playback buttons, volume control wheel and buttons that automatically launch particular applications. The receiver for the keyboard and mouse is slim and black and blends into the unit.

The system includes a 16X DVD-RW drive, a dual-core 2.8GHhz Pentium D 820 processor, 512 Mbytes of DDR2 memory, a 500-Gbyte 7,200-rpm SATA hard drive and an Intel D945G motherboard.

ZLife M4 Digital Entertainment PC

For customers hooked on TV, integrators should consider the M4 Digital Entertainment PC from ZLife, Tempe, Ariz., which was spun off from system builder Elite PC last year. The M4 Digital Entertainment PC ($2,999) boasts two AverMedia high- definition tuners and an AverMedia dual analog tuner, so users can watch and/or record up to four channels simultaneously, more than on any other Media Center PC reviewed here. But the ability to watch and record lots of television is fruitless without a way to store the content. Thankfully, the unit includes a nearly 1-Tbyte storage array running on RAID 5, which offers speed and fault tolerance to protect data. The array can store around 55 hours of HD video or 207 hours of standard video. But with four tuners feeding it, the array can fill up quickly so integrators should think about adding a networked storage device.

The M4 is housed in an LC16M computer case from Silverstone. The LC16M is designed for multimedia PCs, and the display, playback control buttons and volume knob on the front of the case help it to fit into the home. The volume knob is useful but feels flimsy.

The screen uses Ahanix's iMon software to display system data, CD or DVD stats, and information downloaded from the Internet. Behind a door on the front of the case is a 7-in-1 card reader and an archaic floppy-disk drive. There are no USB or FireWire ports on the front, which is a serious omission because it is difficult to access the PC's rear ports, especially if the unit is racked. The rear of the case includes four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire connection plus Ethernet, VGA, DVI, S-Video and Composite In and Out, PS/2 and optical out. The cover is secured by a few screws and is simple to remove. Maneuvering inside the case is easy.

The M4 includes a dual-core 3.2GHz Intel D 940 processor, an Intel 945G motherboard, 1 Gbyte of DDR2 RAM, a 150-Gbyte 10,000-rpm hard drive and a DVD-RW drive. The unit can be controlled by the included Media Center remote control and wireless Microsoft Remote Keyboard for Media Center Edition, which Digital Connect engineers reviewed previously and found to be overall well designed but had several flaws. An external receiver is included for the remote control.


Digital Home PC FUSION Model 2

Digital Home PC, a spin-off of system builder CDI, Wichita, Kan., offers the Fusion Model 2 for $2,200. The PC is housed in a silver version of the large Silverstone case. It lacks a memory-card reader, which is indispensable for any multimedia PC. Instead it includes four USB 2.0 ports, a FireWire port and connections for computer-style headphones and microphone. The rear of the PC includes four USB 2.0 ports, one FireWire connection plus Ethernet, radio, VGA, DVI, PS/2 and optical out. The bottom is illuminated via changing neon lights, an additional $199.

Fusion includes two television tuners and the Media Center keyboard. It comes with an iMon remote control from Ahanix, which is a poor choice. The remote control is a general multimedia PC remote control and was not designed for Media Center PCs, so it has a painfully slow response time and often causes the screen to flicker when a TV control button is pressed. During testing, the PC frequently emitted a loud tapping sound loud enough to be easily noticed over audio being played.

The Fusion includes an Intel 945G chipset motherboard, a dual-core 2.8GHz Pentium D 820 processor, a 250-Gbyte SATA hard drive, 1 Gbyte of DDR2533 RAM, a 16X DVD-RW drive, and an ION media backup/recovery package.