- Review Price: £780.00
The funny thing about films is that while I love buying them on DVD or Blu-ray, because I like something tangible for my money rather than a ‘mere’ download, I also hate the clutter such discs can cause. I’ve got draws full of the bloody things all over the house.
Which is why I’m feeling rather enthusiastic today about the arrival of the MM200 Media Server from UK innovator, Vivadi. For the MM200 is a single, surprisingly slender box capable of storing vast quantities of my DVD discs onto its built-in 1 terrabyte of storage capacity. As well as being a Freeview PVR, DVD recorder and fully functioning, multimedia-savvy PC…
But before getting in to all that complicated stuff, though, let’s go back to the MM200’s aesthetics. For it looks a million dollars in other ways too, thanks to a gorgeous high-gloss black finish, and elegant and unusually readable LED display. Heck, even Vivadi’s logo is unusually stylish.
At first glance the unit appears to be extremely well-stocked with connections, too. There’s an HDMI output capable of delivering 1080p video to your screen, for instance, as well as an absolute feast of multimedia jacks, including multiple front and back USB ports, slots for Smart Media, Compact Flash/Micro Drive, Memory Stick and SD cards, a VGA port, IEEE 1394 Firewire ports, and a LAN port for internet connection – though you can, of course, also connect to the internet wirelessly, if you’ve got a wireless router.
Plus there’s a connections bay sporting an RF tuner jack, and two S-Video inputs, and finally there’s a rather important large slot to the left-hand side where you pop in your lovely shiny music and movie discs.
Pausing to reflect on this long list of connections, though, actually throws up one surprising shortcoming: no HDMI inputs to accompany the HDMI output. This means that you can’t use the MM200 as a handy ‘switchbox’ for HDMI sources such as a Sky HD receiver, Xbox 360 Elite, or PS3 games console.
I guess you could argue this isn’t an essential feature for the MM200; its chief raison d’etre is as a multimedia hub, and in that respect it’s amply provided for. But HD switching certainly could have boosted the unit’s potential usefulness considerably.
Unfortunately there’s another blow for HD fans when it comes to the MM200’s disc playback capabilities. For the disc slot is only capable of playing or recording to DVDs or CDs. In other words, there’s no Blu-ray support.
Vivadi is actually working on a version of the Media Server – the MM300 – with a built-in Blu-ray and HD DVD deck (apparently it’s going through third-party codec checking right now, as Blu-ray is not currently part of the standard Vista spec). But for me, it just doesn’t feel right for a product as otherwise home cinema savvy as the MM200 not to be better geared up for the HD age. After all, Blu-ray players are far from the megabucks bits of kit they used to be.
I should add here that I’m not necessarily saying that the MM200 should be able to rip Blu-rays to its HDD; such a process would require huge memory capacity and likely lead to a pretty enormous price hike. Lewis’ MSB Series HD server system, for instance, costs the small matter of £23,000. But I certainly feel that basic Blu-ray playback and HD loop-through would have been nice.
Leaving our HD obsession behind for a while, it’s high time we tried to get more of a handle on just what the MM200 CAN do. Which is actually a heck of a lot; starting with its abilities as an AV server. No sooner has a DVD or CD been popped into the MM200’s tray, it asks you if you want to burn the contents of the disc to the built-in 1TB HDD – a storage task it handles reasonably quickly and very effectively, storing all the extra features and menu structures on DVDs as well as the film itself.
If you’re hooked up to the internet the M200 will also look up details on the film or music disc you’ve just put in, and add any data it finds – cover art, synopsis, track listing, etc – to the ‘profile’ for each new additional element on its hard disk.
The MM200 is also, as we said earlier, a fully-functioning PVR. What’s more, it should be a good one, since when recording digital Freeview broadcasts it actually stores the incoming digital broadcast stream rather than putting it through any potentially quality-reducing analogue conversion process. It’s a boon, too, to find the MM200 offering a 14-day electronic programme guide where such ‘long-range forecasting’ is supported by channels, rather than the 8-day effort found on most standard PVR machines.
Next, the MM200 is nothing short of exemplary when it comes to accessing, storing and playing back multimedia files – as you’d expect of a device that’s arguably more of a Windows Vista PC than a straightforward AV player. It handles devices attached to all of its multimedia inputs expertly (it took us an eternity to scrape together enough USB, Firewire and memory cards to fill even the majority of the available slots simultaneously!), and plays back all file types that one can reasonably expect with zero fuss.
The fact that the MM200 is also a fully functioning PC is, of course, vastly significant, too. For if you close down the gloriously simple and slick Vista front end – which is designed to make managing and accessing your AV sources as easy as possible – you get to a normal PC desktop from where you can do most things you would on a normal PC, including accessing the Internet and sending emails. In other words, the MM200 finally turns your TV into the true multimedia gateway that the more geeky of you (where geeky is intended as a compliment!) have always wanted it to be.
The only rider here would be that the MM200 isn’t really powerful enough as a PC to handle today’s demanding PC games. For that you’re advised to hold off for the Blu-ray packing MM300 model due next year.
Obviously if you’ve got a PC in the MM200, you need a way to access that PC functionality. And so it is that as well as a reasonably standard remote control most people will use for day to day use of the Vista front end, you get a wireless keypad for when you’re playing around with the PC desktop ‘back end’.
This keypad is not, truth be told, as well built or attractive as the MM200 probably deserves it to be, but it does the job well enough. In fact, if I have any issue regarding the MM200’s interface, it’s with the remote control. For this uses three separate circles of buttons, one directly above the other, and in doing so makes it too easy to use the buttons in once circle when you meant to use the buttons in another. For instance, I lost count of how many times I meant to choose the ‘OK’ button from the centre of the middle circle of buttons but instead accidentally chose the ‘back to the main Windows screen’ button at the centre of the lowest circle of buttons.
While I’m on the subject of operating foibles, I also have to say I wasn’t too chuffed to find the power button on the MM200’s remote control also turning on and off my Xbox 360! And finally, I found the system’s approach to aspect ratios a bit weird, having to fiddle around with the aspect ratio buttons on both the MM200 and the screens I tried the system with before I got a satisfactory result. And even then little black bars were visible down the side of widescreen presentations on our reference Pioneer TV.
These tiny black bars, I should stress, aren’t actually anything like as annoying as you might think; in fact I didn’t even notice them at all initially. But anyway, they don’t seem much of a price to pay for the addition of full PC functionality to your AV experience. Converting a PC desktop environment into an AV signal format such as 1080p is never as easy as you’d think it would be.
Moving at last to the rather key matter of what sort of performance levels the MM200 has to support its prodigious functionality, it’s a relief to kick off in fine style with some seriously assured DVD playback. Or rather, ripped DVD playback.
For while playing discs back through the unit’s disc tray certainly yields sharp, crisp, colourful, contrasty results, motion occasionally seems to suffer ever-so-slightly with judder. Whereas if you first rip a DVD to the hard drive and then play the ripped HDD version, that seems to deliver just the same high levels of detail, impressive freedom from noise and rich colour palette as the DVD deck but without the accompanying judder issues.
It’s worth adding here, too, that the MM200’s upscaling processing seems unusually effective with a relatively high-grade source like Pirates of the Caribbean on DVD, definitely making the picture look sharper without introducing significant amounts of nasty new video noise.
While we’re on the subject of DVD playback, the MM200’s built-in DTS and Dolby Digital audio decoders deserve kudos, too, for serving up their multi-channel audio platter with no serious timing or distortion issues.
The MM200 is even a respectable CD player, something I really hadn’t expected given that it’s basically a PC with (admittedly hefty) home entertainment knobs on. I’m not talking about truly hi-fi levels of clarity here, but there definitely isn’t as much sibilance, jitter and off timing than I usually experience with PC CD playback.
As a TV tuner/PVR, the MM200 is also a real success. Its recordings, as we’d hoped, look practically indistinguishable from the original broadcasts, which is really all you need to know about them. And as a tuner it delivers digital broadcasts that look less noisy and artificial but more sharp than they do on many standalone digital TVs.
If you’re a true multimedia fiend and/or you see your future firmly allied to DVD rather than Blu-ray, the MM200 is a great, versatile and startlingly affordable solution to your disc and multimedia storage problems. The only thing that we suspect might put our readers off is the MM200’s lack of Blu-ray and HD pass-through support. Needless to say, once the Blu-ray capable MM300 model is available we’ll be all over it like a rash as soon as humanly possible.
Score in detail
Sound Quality 8