The Perfect HTPC Cards

Like the rest of the Radeon HD 4000 series (4870, 4850, 4670 and 4650) the new Radeon HD 4550 and 4350 both support 8-channel LPCM over HDMI. This makes these two cards the perfect addition to any HTPC for use in a 6 or 8 channel home theater setup. The Radeon HD 4550 reference design is a full height PCI Express x16 card but it's completely passively cooled, making it an even better HTPC solution than the 4670 and cheaper. If you don't care about gaming performance but want a good way of upgrading your PC to full hardware H.264/VC-1/MPEG-2 acceleration, the 4550 is perfect, especially if the multi-channel LPCM over HDMI output matters to you.


Radeon HD 4550

We tested the 4550's 8-channel LPCM output and it worked just as advertised, no different than the more expensive ATI cards. And honestly, compared to integrated graphics solutions, getting 8-channel LPCM and hardware decode working is just as easy if not easier.

The only requirement is that you install the Realtek HDMI Audio driver from Realtek's site, once that's done you'll get the option to enable 8-channel audio output in Vista's speaker configuration settings.

The Radeon HD 4350 is an even cheaper alternative to adding 8-channel LPCM output and hardware Blu-ray acceleration, however the half-height reference design does require a fan by default. While add in board partners will undoubtedly produce passively cooled versions, the default 4350 includes a fan; it's small and reasonably quiet, but it's still a fan.


Radeon HD 4350

AMD states that while both the 4550 and 4350 support full hardware Blu-ray decode acceleration, the 4350 may not be able to fully accelerate a high bitrate 2nd stream for picture in picture scenarios. We didn't have the opportunity to test this on our 4350 but we'll be following up with more HD decode tests in a future HTPC article. Both GPUs should decode a single stream 1080p Blu-ray movie without any issues, offloading 100% of the decode pipeline to the GPU; we confirmed that the 4550 works as expected and we're assuming the 4350 is the same given that the hardware is identical.

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  • Dribble - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    I agree - it's not a good HTPC solution if it doesn't give you the same playback quality as a high end card. You didn't test that so you can't really make a judgement, and hence have no basis for saying it is. Reply
  • haplo602 - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    So you are testing 2 cards aimed mainly on HTPC market but all you do is GAME benchmarks ?

    What about a video playback test compared to the best IGP solutions ? I mean CPU offload graphs and such ?
    Reply
  • deruberhanyok - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    I agree. The article calls them "Great HTPC Solutions" but how does the article apply to an HTPC? You run a few games with a ridiculously high end processor and motherboard but spend a page talking about 8 channel PCM output and that's how you call it a great HTPC solution?

    How about testing with a low speed processor and micro ATX motherboard more likely to be found in an HTPC? How about using those quieter, cooler components to run a CPU usage test so we can see how well the video decode works? Why not test on a 780G motherboard and show us if hybrid crossfire works with the current drivers?

    Why not compare the card's video decode capabilities against the current line of IGPs? If you have a motherboard with an IGP that can competently accelerate high definition video then the question becomes "is it worth the $40-$50 for one of these over your current card-less solution?"

    If someone is interested in one of these cards for an HTPC, how well it runs Crysis when paired with a quad core Core 2 Extreme is not a remotely important question.

    What kind of rationale made this article make any kind of sense?
    Reply
  • deruberhanyok - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    And now that I look at it again I wonder how you compared these cards to onboard video such as the 780G.

    Do you have a 780G board that can run that quad core Core 2 Extreme processor so we could see an actual comparison? Maybe you ran them with a Phenom X4 sitting at around 3.5GHz so the numbers would be reasonably close to those put up by the Core 2 Extreme.
    Reply
  • 7Enigma - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    I actually went back through the review assuming I had double-clicked or something and bypassed the practical comparisons that actually MATTER with these cards. I'm shocked there is nothing. I routinuely stick up for the articles here, but this one is really poor. Reply
  • Strid - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    Yeah, I agree. That is pretty important for the point the author is trying to prove. Also, the cards seem pretty power hungry? It's difficult to tell from the charts, but they're pretty close to the 4670 and 9500GT? I would have liked to see power ratings for only the 4550/4350. Sure they blow the hat off IGPs, no question, but at what power cost? Reply
  • Manabu - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    Acording to AMD, they use less than 20W at full load. The 4670 should use less than 60W. Also note that the PSU ineficiency afects the charts. Reply
  • Calin - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    This was the system power - measured from the wall. Unfortunately, the power used by video card is difficult to measure (if at all possible without a big budget). Some guesses on the power use would be fine, though, and some temperature readings too Reply
  • BigLan - Tuesday, September 30, 2008 - link

    Can either of these run in hybrid crossfire on a 780g or 790gx motherboard, or does only the 3450 work?

    These cards sound really nice for converting an older box into a htpc, though I'm not sure if lpcm audioo out is such a big deal at this price point - you're going to need a relatively expensive receiver to take advantage of it, so the $30 difference between a 4550 and 4650 isn't going to really matter, though the passive cooler might.
    Reply
  • hiphile - Wednesday, November 25, 2009 - link

    I'm testing two of the MSI 1GB DDR3 R4550 cards, running on Windows 7 Ultimate x64 and they are are running in Crossfire mode, no additional power is required other than plugging it into the PCI-E slots. The performance is decent, but I think I would opt for the 4850 cards. Reply

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