Operation, Stability, Storage, and Configuration Comparison
I've already covered most of the operation of the MCE interface in my 2partsfusion DMS-701 review so I won't go into the specifics again here. The VidaBox Slim can do all that the other HTPC can do plus they've installed the My Weather function. The weather thing is pretty cool, especially here in Florida during hurricane season. Pretty much the two most common questions in my HT from my better half is "What time is it" and "Have you checked the weather?" Now, with the Universal Remote Control TX-1000 she can check the time on the LCD screen, and with the weather function on the Slim, I've got my bases covered. No more sitting through the national weather on the Weather Channel hoping that the next segment is the local weather.
Tips and Hints for the Proper Care and Feeding of you MCE based HTPC
I've lived with an MCE-based HTPC for a while now and feel like I can offer some advice to new owners:Fun with Wireless Keyboards
God forbid you have a problem with your HTPC, but if you do, you'll probably have to go into safe mode or something similar. If you do, you typically can't count on your wireless keyboard to do much. The drivers for your keyboard aren't usually loaded in time for you to get into the any of the menu's you'll need. That means you need to plug in a USB or PS2 keyboard. If you are like me, you don't have an extra one of those just lying around so you'll probably need to use the one connected to your computer. Let's just say that in the last few months (to no fault of the VidaBox) I've learned how to remove and reinstall my keyboard on my main computer in the dark, blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back. The drivers for the VidaBox USB keyboard, however, are built-in to the motherboard. It will work in DOS, BIOS, and Windows Safe-mode. You don't need a PS2 keyboard to control their system.Fun with Receivers
When connecting via component and using a receiver for switching, you may run into a bug. It seems that HTPCs need some sort of signal to recognize that the connection is being used. This is good because you can connect via multiple methods and the HTPC will default to the best one. This is bad because when you connect the HTPC to some receivers (like oh, say, the Denon 3805 - the one I use) the HTPC doesn't seem to recognize the connection. You'll have to connect the component cables directly to your display, start up the HTPC, make sure you have a picture, then switch the cables to the receiver. Understand, I haven't had this problem with all receivers, I recently reviewed a Pioneer VSX-82TXS and the connection worked fine.Fun with nVidia
When you set up your HTPC, MCE will walk you through a configuration. You'll set your TV signal, guide, location, etc. It'll also ask you to configure your TV type, connection, and capabilities. Choose whatever you want, it won't make a difference. For some reason, the nVidia program and MCE don't play well together. You'll need to exit to Media Center using the keyboard and left click on the nVidia symbol on the lower right. Configuring the display is fairly straightforward from the nVidia menu.
What is really at stake here is the stability of the VidaBox system. The whole point of the VidaBox business model is that their units just work . That is why their products come with so few configuration options. Sure, they recommend you restart it every once in a while but you turn off your DVD player after every use. Of course, your DVD player takes seconds instead of minutes to turn back on so every once in a while should be a long while.
Now, I'm not a nice person, so I decided to design my own personal torture test. I set the unit to record each and every instance of MadTV, Spin City , and Still Standing on every channel it occurred. I chose MadTV because it is on all the time. I'm starting to think Comedy Central has nothing else to show (apparently, they ran out of re-runs of Reno 911). I chose Spin City and Still Standing for two reasons 1) they have some times that coincide with MadTV so that both tuners would be recording at the same time and 2) I like them so I won't mind watching some of them. On top of that, I loaded in an album and saved it to the hard drive. I put the album on Repeat and let the unit go... for a week .
I expected the unit to crash after about three days - it didn't. In fact, I noticed only two things that I could directly attribute to my torture test. After about a week of operation, I noticed a yellow box outlining the screen. For the most part, it wasn't visible (except when viewing the guide and the picture screen was shrunk) but it made it impossible to view the screen in the modified stretch mode (where it stretches the sides more than the center). As the modified stretch mode is my least favorite of all the viewing modes, I didn't mind so much. After restarting the unit, the yellow box effect went away. I also found that after a few days of continuous operation, from time to time the VidaBox Slim would pause the video feed for no real apparent reason. The audio would continue normally and after a second or three, the video would quickly rush forward and catch up. At first I thought it was systemic but it disappeared after a restart. After a few days, it popped up again. Both of these problems were only found on the Original configuration of the Slim model and not the newer Standard configuration. The Standard configuration seemed nearly oblivious to my torture test and the only "problem" I encountered was that after a week the screensaver stopped engaging.
A few times, I awoke to find the VidaBox Slim displaying a blue screen with an error message indicating that I needed to restart the unit because of a weak TV signal. Sometimes, I was able to return to normal functioning just by hitting a button on the remote. Otherwise I had to restart the unit. I've never actually seen this message before so I was a little concerned by it. I believe this may be because at night, the cable company somehow reduces the strength of their TV signal and the VidaBox Slim interprets this as an error.
VidaSafe storage is essentially a RAID 5 array. RAID stands for redundant array of inexpensive disks. In its simpliest form, a RAID is a method of using multiple hard disks to ensure that safety of your data. To the operating system, a RAID appears as a single drive. RAID 5's have a minimum of three hard drives and all your data can be recovered if one of them fails. So, what does this mean for you? You can feel confident knowing that the entire season of Ghost Whisperer won't be lost if one of your hard drives fails. Since VidaBox goes to great lengths to ensure that all your data is stored on the array, even if your operating system gets corrupted, you'll be able to reinstall without losing any of your data. After spending a weekend or two burning all your music to your Media Center, you'll appreciate the piece of mind a RAID array gives you. What is remarkable to me is that RAID arrays are nearly unheard of in anything but a high end product. VidaBox offers them in all Slim media centers as well as their more upscale models! I'm sure if they could figure out a way to shove one in the Roommate, they would as well.
Original / Standard Configuration Comparison
I had the benefit of testing both the Original and Standard Configuration of the VidaBox Slim. The main differences between the Original and the Standard is that the Standard uses a Dual-Core processor and has a DVI and Component out. With the Original configuration, a break out box is needed for component and DVI is completely missing. What this means for you the user is that you should be able to switch between menus faster and see fewer problems when the unit is doing multiple things at once.
Editor's Note: Cutting edge technology?
We could run through and compare the components that make up the VidaBox Slim and compare them to some of the newest and latest technology but is that really what it is all about? We think it is more important that a media server remain stable over long time periods and function properly. VidaBox tests and re-tests the interaction of each of their components to ensure compatibility. This may put them behind the curve as far as technology is concerned, but ahead in functionality. For all those that have spent the better part of an afternoon screaming at your computer because of a driver conflict, this may be a welcome tradeoff.
There were a few things I noticed with the upgraded Standard configuration other than the Standard Slim's resistance to my torture test. First and foremost, you can hotswap video cables (Component, DVI, and VGA for sure - VidaBox is still testing Composite and S-Video). This is huge. Now, it isn't quite as easy as it would be on a DVD player. With the unit already powered up and working, you can connect the new cable. You'll then need to exit to Windows and enter the nVidia menu. From there, you'll need to head to the nView Display Settings tab and choose whichever display is not defaulted under the Current Display drop down menu. And just like magic, it should work. While this is still labor intensive and far more complicated than it seems it should be, it is WAY better than having to shut down, install the new cables, and restart hoping it will work.
With the Original configuration, in order to connect via Component, you needed to utilize a Component breakout box connected the TV out port. This is a workable if annoying solution. The breakout box is a little heavy and, with the weight of the Component cables, tends to want to unseat itself from the back of the unit. There is an adhesive on the bottom of breakout box but I have yet to find a place that I feel comfortable permanently connecting the box too. With the newer Standard Slim, the component out is integrated into the box. This is a huge plus in that makes the unit seem more like a set top box and eliminates the need for the breakout box. My only qualm is that on my unit the Component connectors seemed a little recessed and the cables didn't grab on very tightly. I never had a problem with the cable falling off but I would have felt a little better if they were seated a little more securely.