|Vidabox LUX Home Theater PC|
|Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs|
|Written by Brian Kahn|
|Monday, 01 October 2007|
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Music, Movies and More
The Vidabox LUX runs off of Microsoft’s Vista operating system. For those of you who are not familiar with Vista, it was designed to incorporate many media features. Through the Vista interface, you can access all sorts of media, including pictures, audio, downloaded video and television (on systems with tuners). I have most of my media files stored on an Infrant NV+ network attached storage device, which I had no problems accessing from the Vidabox.
I spent most of my time with the Vidabox using the various media features within Vista, and did not try to load any other software that I typically use, such as Office or WordPerfect. While the Vidabox should run these programs without any problems, it is designed as a media center and that is where my focus remains.
In the media center portion of Vista, you can easily access DVDs, HD DVDs, Blu-rays, pre-recorded videos, weather information, FM radio, TV, Karaoke, CDs, music files and pictures.
My wife and I now take solely digital photos, and we usually do not print them. This leads to the question of how to share them with guests. In the pre-digital days, we would simply pass the albums around the family room, and we can still do that with the photos that we print out. The problem comes when we want to share the unprinted photographs. We found everyone huddled over a small laptop screen or crowding into our home office. With a HTPC such as the Vidabox, I do not feel so awkward going through all my vacation photos, as my guests can view them on a large screen while sitting on the couch. Another nice thing about a HTPC is the ability to browse the Internet from the family room. I recently found that when we have guests over the conversation often turns to a website or to looking something up online. So there we are all again, hunched over a small laptop screen or crowded into the home office. With the Vidabox, I picked up their easy to use wireless keyboard and trackball combination and we were off to the Web. This was very cool and came in handy much more often that I would have thought.
The weather portal on Vista is nice, but with so many other sources for weather updates, I rarely use it. I do not use the Karaoke function, but imagine that it would be fun in houses with lots of entertaining and/or children. As a DirecTV subscriber, I do not have a cable feed with which to test the Vidabox. However, the unit was shipped to me with some saved TV recordings from various HD cable channels, as well as Discovery HD. While perusing some of the pre-recorded items, I noted that the picture quality was equal to what I could get on DirecTV. The sample guides and recording menus look similar to those found on many DVRs, and should be very easy to use in practice.
Listening to music is an enjoyable experience through the Vidabox, so long as I use the digital outputs into my processor. The albums are easy to sort in the graphical interface, which is similar to that used by Escient and Kaleidescape. Music can also be sorted by song title, artist, genre, year, etc. You can also generate playlists. Basically, anything you can do with a music server, you can do in Vista. When listening to music that I encode as a FLAC file, I find the sound quality to be comparable to using a good transport, providing me with a rich, full sound that is neither harsh on the top end nor bloated down below. When I try to use the analog outputs of the standard (not upgraded) audio card, I find the music can sound a bit thin and bright in comparison to using the LUX’s digital audio outs. This is confirmed when I play the same music tracks back on Oppo’s DV-781, a solid, low-priced DVD player, which costs about the same as a good audio card.
Pre-recorded movies can be sorted through an interface similar to the music interface, and by just as many categories. While most movies cannot be recorded onto the hard drive and sorted in this way, there are a few that do not have the prohibitive copy protection schemes in place. Yes, it is true that copy protection can be easily circumvented, but I am not going to explain how to do that here. Another way of being able to access a lot of DVDs without breaking any laws is to use the new generation of computer DVD jukeboxes. Sony makes a relatively inexpensive unit that simply plugs into your computer and can be controlled by it.
One benefit of storing your media on hard drives connected to a Vista or MCE computer is the ability to stream it throughout your household through media center extenders. Vidabox makes some extender units, as does Mediagate, along with several other companies. The most popular media center extender on the market right now is the ubiquitous Xbox. I have found the Xbox to be fast, easy and reliable for streaming audio and video files on a Vista-based system. A media center extender set-up is worth exploring if you plan on keeping all your media in one place, as it is a fairly easy and cost-effective way of sharing media throughout the house.
I saved the best for last: high-definition discs, both HD DVD and Blu-ray. Vidabox engineers drafted some software patches to run invisibly in the background of Vista, as the operating system normally does not recognize either of these high-definition formats as being a video disc. Not being a programmer, all I can say in appreciation of the Vidabox engineers’ work is that when I pop in a Blu-ray or HD DVD disc, the movie player comes up just like it does for a regular DVD and I am off to watch the movie. The supplied Microsoft remote worked just fine. Whether watching Apollo 13 on HD DVD (Universal Studios Home Video) or Black Hawk Down on Blu-ray (Touchstone Home Entertainment), the image produced by the LUX was excellent and comparable to the best players currently offered by both the HD DVD and Blu-ray camps. When I put in Phantom of the Opera on HD DVD (Warner Home Video) and compared the playback to that of my Toshiba HD DVD player, I was unable to detect any differences in either playback or audio quality, provided I used the LUX’s digital video and audio outs. More surprisingly, and unlike a lot of standalone players, both HD DVD and Blu-ray drives functioned flawlessly with zero handshake issues.