The CineMagix Grand Theater represents Velocity Micro's first foray into the realm of the all-out home theater PC. Blu-Ray, CableCard, Windows Vista Home Premium, quad-core CPUs--they're all here. You can also scale it back to more modest specs, starting at $2,195. Our review unit came in with most of the bells and whistles listed above (minus the CableCard support), and for its $4,385 price tag, we found that its value compares well against systems from the likes of Niveus, Okoro, and other vendors that compete in the high-end home theater PC (HTPC) market. We still think that the current concept of a home theater PC is flawed, even with all of the new, Vista-supported features in this system. The problems inherent to HTPCs aren't really the fault of the PC vendors, though, and until a better solution presents itself, Velocity Micro's CineMagix Grand Theater is the system we'd recommend, as long as you don't mind hanging on to your audio receiver.
The first thing we thought when we got a look at the CineMagix Grand Theater on the show floor at this year's CES was that its case was huge. When you hold it up to a standard home theater component such as a DVD player, a cable box, or even a gaming console, it looks like you could fit all three of those devices inside this one, though the CineMagix is actually about average in size compared with other similar systems. Of course, it can do almost all of the things that those devices do, but we imagine that some of you might find its 6.75x17x16.5-inch measurements (HWD) a hard sell in the living room. At least its brushed-black-aluminum case is attractive, with no Intel or Microsoft badges on the front. There's also no SideShow screen or other built-in front panel LCD tied directly into Windows, which we've seen on other HTPCs. Its spare LED display that shows track data and other basic info does its job well, though, and overall the screen adheres to the CineMagix Grand Theater's clean-lined aesthetic.
Any way you want it--almost
So what can it do? We've already mentioned the Blu-ray disc burner, for one. This configuration has plenty of video output options, although some functions are currently limited by Nvidia's Vista drivers for the included GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card. Velocity Micro lets you configure whatever cables are appropriate to your current home theater hardware when you configure your CineMagix Grand Theater, so if you need DVI-D-to-HDMI you have that option, but you can also go out via component or straight-up DVI. Using the Pioneer PRO-FHD1 as our current reference TV, we connected the system via a DVI-D-to-HDMI adapter, then later we connected it with component cables, for those of you with older HDTVs.
Over HDMI, the CineMagix Grand Theater delivered outstanding Blu-ray movie playback, much better, in fact, than an HD-DVD test system that Nvidia submitted to us to check out its PureVideo HD video-decoding capabilities. For the record, though, we attribute the Nvidia system's less-than-perfect performance to early PureVideo HD code, rather than to any superiority of one HD format to another.
We like the movie Crank for video testing for two reasons. The first is that it's awesome. The second is because its scenes have very high bit rates, perfect for determining whether a player will deliver smooth playback. The Velocity Micro system didn't even blink. Its image quality was also on a par with that of the PlayStation 3's Blu-ray output. The only time we had to mess with the video driver settings was when we changed the output resolution to 1,920x1,080 (aka 1080p).
Component video, on the other hand, doesn't work. Our video image alternated from red and white, blue and white, or black and white, never once settling on proper color output. Velocity Micro said that with an older GeForce 7000-series card you won't have this problem, as those cards are fully Vista ready. We also know that Nvidia is working on getting its GeForce 8000 software to where it should be, and that Velocity Micro has informed Nvidia of the issues we saw. Because a GeForce 7000-series card costs less and its video capabilities are ready now, we suggest you opt for one of those cards in this system if you don't plan to use it to play games. For gamers, though, we recommend taking the lumps on the beta drivers in the short term, because the GeForce 8800 GTS graphics card will reward you down the stretch. Of course, you have to be one determined gamer to play games with a home theater PC. We'll get to that in a minute.
That's the way you need it (in digital)
Before that, we'll talk about the CineMagix Grand Theater as a TV receiver. An ATI TV Wonder 650 Pro card comes standard and will take care of your analog cable, over-the-air HD, and FM radio reception needs. Your other option is CableCard. Velocity Micro didn't send us a CableCard-enabled unit, but the company does give you the option via an internal ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable card for an extra $140. Windows Vista is the first operating system with native CableCard support; if it's available in your area and you don't mind losing out on pay-per-view and interactive menus (since current PC-based CableCard can only send and can't yet receive a signal), you might consider it. Heck, we'd go CableCard just to get rid of the stupid IR blaster you need to tie an analog tuner and your cable box together with one remote. Velocity Micro also let you add two tuners, analog or digital, if you want to watch TV on one channel and record on another. We still think PC-based analog cable has poor image quality compared to that of your typical cable box setup, so for straight TV viewing, you're probably better off sticking with your current cable box and adding this PC as a complementary device. As for CableCard and a digital signal, we're going to conduct some extensive PC CableCard testing shortly, so stay tuned for an in-depth look at the whole experience.
Audio output for the CineMagix Grand Theater is actually tied into a number of system-related factors. From a straight, out-of-the-box connectivity standpoint, you should find everything you need here as long as you intend to go out to a receiver you already own or a set of PC speakers. If you want to connect a set of traditional home theater speakers directly to this system, you'll need a separate receiver. Velocity Micro says it plans to offer a specialized, PC-oriented external digital audio receiver from a company called SimpliFi within a week. We're curious about that idea, but if the price is already overwhelming and you really want to cut down on living room hardware, you'll be annoyed that the CineMagix Grand Theater lacks a built-in receiver of its own. Other high-end HTPCs have gone that route, and while it adds to the cost, we think people who hope an HTPC will cure all of their home theater ills will find an integrated receiver preferable. We should also add that unlike the last gaming PC we reviewed from Velocity Micro, this system is for the most part whisper quiet.
For the CineMagix Grand Theater's overall PC performance, we're glad to see that Velocity Micro stays true to its high-end PC roots. At the heart of this system, Velocity Micro includes a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Quad Q6600 processor, which makes this the first system we've seen with Intel's new, more mainstream quad-core chip. You can also select more and less expensive Intel dual-core and quad-core chips, and the lower-end models will knock a significant chunk off the price. In addition, you get 2GB of 667MHz DDR2 SDRAM and two 400GB Seagate 7,200rpm hard drives in a RAID 0 configuration, for 800GB of total storage. You can add more hard drive storage as well, up to 2.25TB between four 750GB drives. An Intel 975X BadAxe II chipset motherboard ties it all together. Okoro, Niveus, and the other high-end home theater vendors also offer similar specs in their competing systems, but we found that all of their PCs came in $1,000 to $1,500 higher than the Velocity Micro.
The Core 2 Quad chip helped the Velocity Micro on our performance tests, but we wonder how this system would perform with a 10,000rpm hard drive. We have a feeling that the AMD-based Shuttle XPC P2 2700g benefited from its faster spinning 10,000rpm drive on our benchmarks. Velocity Micro doesn't offer the option in the CineMagix Grand Theater, but we expect most of you will find this system's current performance more than adequate.
As far as gaming performance, at first glance, the aforementioned Intel motherboard seems strange because it supports ATI's CrossFire dual graphics card technology but not Nvidia's SLI. You'd need support for the latter to add a second GeForce 8800 GTS card to this system. Granted, Nvidia's current Vista drivers also lack SLI support, but we trust that someday they will support SLI. Velocity Micro explained to us that it paired an Nvidia 3D card with a non-SLI dual graphics slot motherboard because the Intel board is Viiv-compliant (whatever that means), while an Nforce 680i SLI motherboard is not. More importantly, Intel's 975X boards have Dolby Master Audio support and also have the requisite sound chips for maintaining digital audio output via the aforementioned SimpliFi receivers. Velocity Micro likes those features better than, say, a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi card, for current home theater setups that include traditional speakers. We agree. The only people that might disagree are gamers, but chances are any gamers shopping for a HTPC are already aware of the limitations they will face with a living room PC.
Separate ways, worlds apart
Aside from the lack of even the possibility of SLI graphics, the CineMagix Grand Theater and GeForce 8800 GTS combination delivers strong 3D gaming performance. For the moment, our game tests stick with standard 4:3 resolutions, so we don't have any wide-screen numbers that would apply to PC gaming on a 1080p wide-screen TV. Still, pixel count is pixel count, and the Velocity Micro's scores at 1,600x1,200 give you a good idea of its performance at 1080p, which is only greater by about 150,000 pixels. With no true next-gen PC games out yet, we can't say what performance will be like when those titles start to hit at the end of this year; for current games, we're confident that this system will play any game on the market, with most, if not all, of the image-quality settings dialed up.
The other issue gamers and everyone else should think about is how to use a PC to its fullest from your couch. Velocity Micro includes a Microsoft Remote keyboard, mouse, and remote control by default with this system. You can also opt out of an input device altogether or upgrade to a Microsoft Wireless Entertainment Desktop 7000. There's no perfect solution here, and it's one of our hang-ups with home theater PCs. We don't really expect that you'll be typing a dissertation on your TV, so it's reasonable to think that you might spend most of your time driving this system with the standard Windows remote control. Velocity Micro even configured the CineMagix Grand Theater to boot directly into the Windows Media Center interface. You'll want to pop out to Windows to arrange directories and configure settings (for which Velocity Micro provides a thorough user guide), but it's convenient that once everything is set up, Velocity Micro makes it easy to put your mouse away.
Gaming on a PC in your living room, though, is difficult at best. Many PC games don't lend themselves well to game pad control. Windows Vista's support for Xbox 360 controllers and the ability of Vista gamers to play across the network with Xbox Live gamers ensures the Velocity Micro CineMagix Grand Theater can deliver a fairly decent gaming experience. But the idea of playing World of Warcraft on a remote keyboard is dismal, and for most shooters, you can look forward to getting your butt kicked by traditional mouse-and-keyboard players online. As for cross-platform gaming, Microsoft seems to be making only a half-hearted push. A few games have been announced that will debut on both the Xbox 360 and the PC at once. Halo 2 will also have a PC version out soon. But with Halo 3 coming out as an Xbox 360 exclusive this fall, it's apparent that Microsoft is still protective of its console. We should also add that the Xbox 360 threatens the very concept of a Windows-based home theater PC, since it can act as a Media Center Extender and receive streamed media, including CableCard recordings, from a less expensive traditional computer.