Click to viewWe got a chance to visit the Niveus headquarters last week, and the founders gave us a nice hands-on with their upcoming CableCARD-capable systems. If you're not familiar with these media centers, they're essentially Windows Vista machines with an external receiver that handle high-def feeds from your cable provider. Why's this cool? Because these OEM machines from Niveus (and a few other manufacturers) are the only way you're going to be able to watch and record HD channels from your cable station on a Vista machine. You can't make this with off the shelf components.

In short, the Niveus PC can do whatever you normally do on Vista, such as watch downloaded movies, and it can also do what the TiVo Series 3 does.

The test setup, which you can see in the video on top, is running Niveus's higher-end Denali system along with the company's dual CableCARD receiver. Check that out, then join us after the jump for impressions.

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

Exclusive: First Hands-On With Niveus' CableCARD Equipped Vista Media Centers

If you've never used Vista's Media Center, you can see how shiny and usable the interface is. The bonus of going with a Niveus system is the company-specific add-ons and plugins: Stuff like HD music downloads via the Music Giants Network and Niveus's own backup software are all integrated into the 10-foot experience.

If you are familiar with Media Center—perhaps using it with an analog NTSC tuner to record standard definition cable now—you'll know it works quite well. Adding a CableCARD makes it work even better. In this test system, we were able to record three HD shows and play back a fourth without any hiccups. We were also able to flip channels in HD with even less delay than my piece-of-crap Comcast Motorola DVR.

You'll be needing both a standard Rainier or Denali set that has Vista installed, plus a Niveus Digital Cable Receiver with CableCARD in order to handle HD. This, in turn, makes it so you have two components to place into your media center cabinet, not just one. Plus, it jacks up the price a bit.

Other miscellaneous items: It's super quiet (only 20-something db) thanks to its all-but-fanless system. There's one fan in the power supply but everything else is passively cooled, with the heat out to the gigantic fins on the outside. It works with Niveus's other products like a Disc Changer, Storage Server, and a Media Center Companion that runs on a laptop or a tablet PC.

The only downside is that the setup is pricey. These are high-end systems here. If you thought a TiVo Series 3 was expensive, don't look at the $3199 price point for the Rainier, plus another $1499 for a CableCARD digital cable receiver. However, other than having DVR features, the Niveus system doesn't have that much in common with a TiVo. Can you play games on your TiVo? Record 4 HD channels simultaneously? Download and play back HD media? Link up to your 100-disc DVD changer? Play back HD DVD discs? Not exactly.

If you do want one with CableCARD recording capability, you'll have to wait until late April or early May to get it. Watch for our review before then.

Product Page [Niveus]