Vidabox LUX Home Theater PC 
Home Theater Media Servers Home Theater/Media Center PCs
Written by Brian Kahn   
Monday, 01 October 2007

Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) are becoming more and more prevalent in today’s most adventurous media rooms. HTPCs are being offered by some larger mainstream manufacturers, as well as smaller, specialized manufacturers, such as Vidabox, that focus on the “HT or home theater” portion of HTPC. Microsoft’s incorporation of media features in their Vista operating system all but ensures that PCs will remain in our home theaters.

Vidabox, LLC is based in Garden City, New York, where co-founders Steven Cheung and Sergio DeAlbuquerque remain hands on in day-to-day operations. Vidabox was founded to design and build premium quality media centers and home theater PCs. The LUX model reviewed here is toward the higher end of the line.

The LUX that is running in my home theater right now is different from every other HTPC that I have seen to date, in that it supports both the HD DVD and Blu-Ray formats. Niveus, a well-regarded competitor in the world of HTPCs, currently supports HD DVD only.

From the front, the LUX looks more like an AV component than a computer. The only aspect missing is a display. The review unit’s front metal panel is finished in brushed silver. The panel features two optical drive drawers on the right-hand side, one displaying the HD DVD logo and the other the Blu-Ray logo. A door under the drawers opens to reveal numerous connection options, including card reader, USB, Firewire, microphone and headphone jacks. The simple front panel is finished off with a pair of buttons underneath corresponding blue LEDs on the bottom left that control powering on/off or resetting the system. The back of the LUX looks like the backside of a computer. It contains two DVI outputs, one component video output, one S-Video output, TOSLINK and SPDIF digital outputs, coaxial TV inputs and FM antenna inputs, as well as all the standard computer connectivity you’d expect to find on a traditional tower PC. I should point out that the analog audio outputs are of the mini-stereo headphone jack variety. The unit came with numerous adapters and cables that were carefully chosen so that most users will not need to make a run to their local electronics stores in order to set up the unit. Vidabox also offers optional HDMI modules and upgraded audio outputs.

Looking under the hood of the Vidabox LUX, you will find an AMD X2 Dual-Core 5200+ AM2 processor with 2GB of high-speed memory, 750GB of SATA drives with VidaSafe protection (upgradeable to 5TB), dual HDTV and dual ISF-certified SD tuners (cablecard tuners are available), an ALC 7.1 sound card and a nVidia 8600 series video card. The hardware is accompanied by a mildly tweaked version of Microsoft’s Vista Home Premium Edition, and the whole package can be controlled with either Microsoft’s IR remote control or a 2.4GHz RF keyboard with an integrated trackball, all of which come included. The base LUX retails for $5,100, but as set up in this review with dual HD drives, it goes for approximately $8,400.

Those of you who are pretty computer savvy may recognize that these components are not necessarily the latest and greatest in the computing world. However, after speaking with Steven Cheung of Vidabox, I learned that every component was chosen because of its reliable interaction with all the other components. Cheung noted that a lot of trial and error went into selecting the combinations utilized in the systems. It was found that many components that should work together in fact do not. Other factors that Vidabox took into consideration are heat and noise. It was important to strike a balance between having enough horsepower to get the job done without having a great deal of extra unused power that would only serve to generate heat. All moving parts were carefully chosen for reliability and quietness. Again, some components with the exact same specifications were much louder than others. readers may recall our recent article on HTPCs crashing and losing data. Many of us now use computers to store information that is precious to us, including photographs, on our HTPCs. Vidabox recognizes the importance of data integrity and builds its proprietary Vidasafe technology into each system it sells. The Vidabox website has a white paper that goes into greater detail on Vidasafe, but here is a quick rundown. RAID 5 is implemented in Vidabox units to protect against hard drive failure. While this is important, RAID 5 in and of itself is common in HTPCs. Vidasafe continues by separating the data and system drives. This way, if a virus makes it past all the protection, the system drive can be wiped and reinstalled without any data loss. Vidasafe also includes self-optimizing features, many of which run in the middle of the night when the system is not in use, such as downloading and installing upgrades, defragmentation and memory purging. This combination of features should keep all your data safe, while keeping the LUX running optimally.

I was a little apprehensive when the LUX arrived, as I had never before set up a HTPC, or for that matter, used a Vista-equipped computer. My worries soon abated, for when I opened the box, I found everything well labeled and clear instructions printed on oversize “Quick Start” guides.

At first, I was unable to utilize the digital video connection, because the LUX had a DVI output and I did not have a DVI to HDMI adapter on hand. Thankfully, Monster Cable was kind enough to rush one over to me. The connections were easy to make following the simple instructions. The keyboard is a wireless RF unit that syncs to a dongle plugged into the computer’s USB port.

Once I had all the connections made, I ran through the set-up wizard. One function of the set-up wizard allows for automatic detection of the monitor’s capabilities and setting of the video adjustments accordingly. This function understandably did not work when I used the McIntosh MX-136 as a video switcher. Once I ran the DVI/HDMI cable through an Accell Cable splitter, with one run directly to my Marantz VP-11S1 projector and the other to the McIntosh, the computer correctly identified it as a 1080p display. I should point out that the video signal at 1080p was 60fps, as 24fps is unavailable at this time. A future software patch or change of video cards may enable this frame rate. As the system is normally set up by a Vidabox installer, I called Vidabox to ensure that I had set everything up right. Vidabox was able to access the LUX and check all the settings to confirm the system was up and running properly.

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.

The Downside
Analog audio performance is not on par with the system’s video performance. I would investigate Vidabox’s upgraded premium sound card, or simply use the digital outputs. As this is a computer-based system, I was hoping that its flexibility would allow the sound card to pass the new lossless DTS Master HD and Dolby TrueHD formats, but it doesn’t. A call to Vidabox indicates that if a patch that allows this cannot be satisfactorily implemented, a new sound card may be installed. Obviously, this type of modularity allows for easier upgrades than a traditional system.

Similarly, the nVidia 8600 video card in my review system could not output 1080p/24 frames per second. Vidabox stated that they were working with nVidia on custom resolutions and, if this could not be implemented satisfactorily, a different video card may be used in the future.

The Vidabox LUX is a fairly expensive premium HTPC. Is it worth the extra money over a “Frankenstein” home theater solution? For wannabe IT guys, the support, ease of use, access to both formats and strong performance makes for a pretty damn compelling case for why something like the LUX might belong in your rig.
Manufacturer Vidabox
Model LUX Home Theater PC
Reviewer Brian Kahn

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