Niveus Media Center Denali Edition
One of the few mainstream names in the rarified domain of specialty home-theater personal computers (HTPCs), Niveus has garnered a lot of press recently for its ultra-high-end PCs and their accompanying high-end price tags. With features that will appeal to A/V buffs, the Niveus Media Center Denali Edition is designed exclusively for home-theater operation; however, it lacks the upgradability that PC power users take for granted. At $6,298, you're in the same ballpark as a top-of-the-line Alienware; but instead of the latest overclocked components, you're paying for a unique case design and rock-solid construction--and maybe just a little for the bragging rights.
Like other rack-style Media Center PCs, the Denali is housed in a black horizontal case. But this system is larger than most we've seen, measuring 25 inches wide by 15 inches deep by 8.25 inches tall, with the outward appearance of a high-end amplifier. The front panel is almost blank; the only things that give away the Denali as a computer are two USB 2.0 ports and a slot for the dual-layer DVD burner.
A good home-theater PC should be as quiet as possible--you don't want a noisy case fan or a chugging hard drive to interfere with your viewing experience. The Denali's oversize anodized aluminum case and unusual design allow it to maintain nearly silent operation by removing case fans from the equation. To prevent meltdown during the strenuous work of recording and playing back media, along each side of the Denali, large metal slats jut out in a sunburst design. They act as giant heat sinks, pulling heat away from the system. The open grill on top also releases heat. The sheer mass of the heat sinks and the sturdy case add up, though: the Denali weighs a whopping 60 pounds.
Thermal pads surround the hard drives and help dissipate the heat, as do the thermal pipes connected to the processor, the graphics card, and the motherboard's Northbridge chipset. The Denali actually becomes quite warm within a few minutes of operation, and Niveus advises owners to give it plenty of breathing room on the top and the sides--don't stack your cable box or Xbox on top of it.
Around the back, you won't see any of the PCI-card slots found on most computers. The only user-accessible ports are four USB 2.0 slots and one FireWire connection. The rest of the connections are for A/V, and they're routed through a proprietary panel built right into the case. You never see the Nvidia GeForce 6600 GT video card or any traditional 1/8-inch audio connections to the onboard Intel High Definition eight-channel audio. Instead, the Denali routes those connections to a series of plugs that home-theater fanatics will love but casual users might find confusing. The Niveus Denali's VGA and DVI outputs should seem familiar, but the system lacks an S-Video output. Most users connecting the Denali to a television will want to use the DVI or component outputs, but like the component connections on Panasonic's popular line of commercial plasma displays, the ones on the Denali require BNC plugs--you will want to grab some BNC-to-RCA adapters.
To input a video signal to the Denali, you can use one of the two standard-definition TV-tuner inputs on the rear of the system. Both accept either S-Video and stereo RCA audio or a coaxial cable, which combine video and audio. Most of the time, you'll take a coax or S-Video output from your cable or satellite box and connect that to the TV-tuner inputs on the PC. You also get two over-the-air HDTV coax inputs, but you'll have to supply your own HD antenna.
The audio outputs are a unique feature on the Niveus Denali, offering eight channels of discrete RCA audio on a well-labeled panel. Unless you're interested in connecting your surround-sound speakers directly, you'll probably just want to use the S/PDIF optical TosLink connection and connect the Denali to your home-theater stereo system. If you're looking to connect the Denali's audio to your television and use your set's onboard speakers, you're probably not in the right demographic niche for this product, although you can get decent results just using the main left and right RCA outputs. If you're into recording, the system's audio inputs include standard RCA left and right jacks and a coaxial FM connection.
Unlike most PC cases, the Denali's isn't designed to be opened. The top is attached with 16 bolts, and the rear panel is semipermanently sealed in a similar fashion. For an additional fee, Niveus will install RAM, hard drive, and TV-tuner upgrades for its well-heeled customers, but you'll have to send the system back to them. Initial configuration options are fairly limited; you can select only the amount of RAM (up to 4GB) and hard drive space (from 250GB to 800GB). Our test system included 4GB of RAM and dual 400GB Serial ATA hard drives.
While you may never look under the hood, the Denali actually has the makings of a competent computer. Its use of slightly older parts, such as the GeForce 6600 GT video card and the 3.2GHz Pentium 540 CPU, may seem odd for a premium system, but they produce less heat than the latest components. To improve the chance of long-term system stability, some high-end home-theater vendors prefer using technology that they consider mature. In CNET Labs' BAPCo SysMark 2004 benchmark tests, the Denali finished in a statistical dead heat with the other high-end Media Center machines we tested: the, which runs a 2.4GHz AMD Athlon 64 3800+, and the , with a 3.2GHz Intel P4 640. We would have liked to have seen a dual-core chip in this system (as well as the others), but we expect we'll see them as the technology matures.