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Vivadi MediaMaster MM320 Media Server Review

The MM320 is the latest media centre PC from UK-based Vivadi, which continues its tradition of offering multi-room clients and servers for much lower prices than the likes of Imerge and Kaleidescape. Apart from the no holds barred, top-end MediaMaster Pro (which costs between £2,000 and £3,000) the MM320 is the best-specified model in the range, conveniently combining all of your home entertainment and PC needs into one smart living-room friendly box.

The MM320 comes equipped with a Blu-ray player with full 1080/24p picture quality, plus a 1TB hard-disk drive that can hold around 200 movies, 1,600 uncompressed CDs, 200,000 MP3s or 800 hours of TV recordings from the built-in twin Freeview tuners.

 Unlike previous Vivadi units, which have taken a more industrial approach to external design, this model is a real beauty, sporting a gloss-black finish with a bright blue strip of light dashing across the middle. Apart from the depth measurement of 423mm, which could make it a real pain to squeeze onto a shallow shelf, the MM320 could be mistaken for a high-end DVD or Blu-ray player, while its lack of buttons and fascia clutter makes it look suitably esoteric.

On the rear panel is a decent selection of PC-style sockets – four USB ports, DVI output, 15-pin VGA, printer serial port and line in/outputs for speakers and a mic. But these are joined by a couple of home cinema-oriented sockets, namely HDMI and coaxial digital audio outputs. There’s also Ethernet port, which is essential for multi-room networking or for hooking up to the internet for BD Live access. The MM320 also ships with a Wi-Fi dongle for wireless web connection and networking.

Spec-wise, the M320 boasts a dual-core, 3GHz processor with 2GB of memory. Naturally the operating system is Windows 7, and your music, movies, photos and TV are all accessed using Media Center, which as we’ve established before is a slick, easy-to-use system. To anyone not familiar with it, the main menu uses gorgeous graphics and jazzy animations, splitting up your content into ‘My Movies’, ‘Music’ and so forth. Under the TV menu, you get access to the Recorded TV menu, a 14-day EPG and a Live TV option. If you’re browsing the menu while surfing around the menu system, the live TV picture plays in the background.

It’s a very versatile system that offers a vast array of playback options for music, movie and TV viewing – for the latter, the unit acts as a PVR and lets you watch one channel while recording another or pause live TV. The Recorded TV menu lists your programmes in a horizontal row, with thumbnails and a full programme synopsis below the highlighted recording.

The EPG meanwhile uses a straightforward grid with the synopsis below it, making it very easy to find the desired programme. It’s not immediately clear how to jump forward or back 24 hours – on-screen instructions are few and far between – but you’ll soon figure it out.

Under My Movies, you’ll find the Copy Disc option, which allows you to rip DVDs and Blu-ray discs to the hard-disk, but to circumvent thorny copyright issues the MM320 does not come with the necessary SlySoft AnyDVD software installed. Instead Vivadi errs on the side of caution and leaves this to the reseller or the end user to load, which is legal provided they already own the disc and copy it for personal use only. The MM320 has all the links in place so that the software will integrate with the software when it’s installed. The AnyDVD software will set you back £59.

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However, our sample came with the software installed and we tried ripping a DVD and a Blu-ray disc. Understandably it’s not a quick process (BD takes well over an hour), but you can carry out other tasks as it copies – a small dialogue box lets you know when it’s done. What’s more, the quality of the resulting rip is excellent. If using the MM320 as part of a multi-room system (as was the case when we reviewed Vivadi’s multi-room system) you’ll probably rip movies to the main server and access them remotely.

 For Blu-ray and DVD playback, the unit runs ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theater 3 software, which provides an excellent, intuitive user interface. It supports BD Live (in fact it was the first PC software to be certified for BD Live playback) and BonusView, plus it offers 1080/24p output and DVD upscaling to 1080p. However, due to licensing restrictions placed upon PCs it can’t output Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio bit-streams via HDMI. Instead it converts the signals to PCM, which should produce the same sound quality as the bitstream method. If bit-stream output is a must, then Vivadi’s MediaMaster Pro does support it thanks to its high performance sound card.

Although this is technically a PC, it has the look and feel of an AV product. As such, everything can be controlled using a single remote (which communicates with the supplied Microsoft remote control receiver), but unfortunately this zapper lacks the practicality needed for a seamless operating experience.

It’s covered with small, fiddly buttons and as a result it feels cluttered, and it’s also easy to hit the large Media Center button instead of the OK key, which can be annoying. On the plus side, the menu controls are sensibly placed right in the middle with volume/channel buttons on either side, and all the functions (Videos, Music, TV, DVD and so on) have dedicated buttons, making it incredibly simple to jump straight to your desired content.

Exit Media Center and you can use the MM320 as a regular PC, and enjoy all the functionality offered by Windows 7 – Internet, e-mail, word processing, games, that sort of thing. For that purpose you get a wireless KeySonic keyboard in the box. But obviously we’re more interested in the home cinema side and on that score the MM320 is an impressive performer.

 Starting with Blu-ray, we loaded up Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and the unit delivers the disc’s abundant detail and comic-book colours with aplomb. The tiny moving parts of the transforming CG robots are revealed in all their gleaming glory, while human faces look utterly convincing. The picture is punchy, sparklingly sharp and natural, plus the unit tracks the frenetic action without any obvious artefacts or judder.

The MM320 isn’t quite as happy with the tricky video tests found on the Silicon Optix Blu-ray evaluation disc. The juddering movement and stepping along the edges of the moving diagonal bars constitutes a failure, as do the violently flickering boxes on the Film Resolution Loss test pattern. Although this clearly doesn’t have much of a bearing on Blu-ray playback, it does confirm that the onboard processing isn’t up to the same standard as many of the latest Blu-ray decks on the market.

Next we loaded a DVD and used TotalMedia Theater 3’s SimHD feature to upscale the picture to 1080p. Although the overall quality of DVD playback is flawed, with traces of smudgy mosquito noise surrounding moving objects, the quality of the upscaling is clear to see. The software includes a ‘before and after’ comparison mode and using this you can clearly make out the extra detail definition after the upscaling has been applied.

Sonically there were no problems when piping the PCM audio to our Onkyo amp and Teufel speakers – Transformers 2’s DTS HD MA soundtrack is an absolute blast. However, when listening through our TV’s speakers there’s a disparity between different sources – when watching a DVD the sound is so quiet that we had to crank up the volume, only to be given a heart attack when switching to the much louder volume of live TV.

 

Verdict

Although the MM320’s price tag might seem steep compared with a desktop PC or standalone Blu-ray/DVD deck, it’s actually a great deal cheaper than the rival multi-room media centres with which it’s designed to compete. It’s lovely to look at and throws a terrific array of home cinema functions, a fully-fledged Windows 7 PC and a massive hard-disk into the bargain – and thanks to Windows Media Center the operating experience is a pleasure. Yes, performance is slightly flawed and the remote is a tad confusing, but neither of these things greatly detracts from the overall quality of this impressive home entertainment hub.

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