The Apple TV was the first media streamer to be based on a HTPC. With a Pentium M processor and the Nvidia GeForce Go 7300, it wasn't long before it was hacked to run custom firmware. When introduced, it could support upto 720p resolution for video playback. Sadly, lack of updates to the core hardware have kept this capability stagnant. The Apple TV deserves mention as a pioneer of sorts, but byeond that, there is nothing much to write home about.
 


AppleTV - A Pioneer of Sorts
 

The introduction of the Intel Atom processor in 2008 led to the appearance of net-tops. This processor, despite being woefully underpowered, had the advantage of being based on the x86 architecture, and brought along with it a huge software base. The only missing piece in the puzzle was the fact that it lacked the horsepower to decode and process HD video. Nvidia and Broadcom pitched in with add-ons to offload video processing from the CPU.

Broadcom Crystal HD


Based on BCM70012 for the 2009 Atom processors and the BCM70015 for 2010, the CrystalHD mini-PCI-E card provides acceleration for all mainstream HD media. A multitude of OEMs have started to use this solution in their netbooks as a means of providing HD playback capability. However, from a media streamer point of view, it is difficult to imagine this as a competitor for the Nvidia Ion. Any media streamer worth its salt interfaces with the rest of the AV components using HDMI. With the plain vanilla Atom chipset (using the Intel IGP) providing no HDMI output, and the Broadcom offering being an add-on card, it would be hard to justify tacking this on to a serious media streamer net-top. If the HTPC already has a HDMI output, it probably already has a graphics core capable of accelerating HD video. All said, these Broadcom offerings are probably aimed at the non-techie netbook crowd (who want to enjoy 1080p YouTube videos on a 720p screen!) and not the media streaming enthusiast.
 


The BCM970012
What is the use of 1080p without HDMI?
[ Picture Courtesy : LogicSupply ]


Nvidia Ion

The GeForce 9400M chipset forms the core of the media streaming capabilities of any Nvidia Ion based HTPC. With VDPAU acceleration under Linux, and excellent driver support on Windows, it is unlikely that you will encounter any mainstream HD media which doesn't get hardware accelerated playback. A XBMC or Boxee install pretty much guarantees an out-of-the-box experience. The chipset also provides for a HDMI output, making it easy to integrate with the rest of the home theater setup. One of the most interesting off-the-shelf HTPC based media streamer is the Myka Ion. With 2 GB of DRAM and a plethora of connectivity options, this is one Ion net-top which would probably never disappoint you as a HTPC option.
 


Myka Ion
An out-of-the-box Media Streamer with all the HTPC Advantages


Nvidia Ion HTPCs can be built for around US$300. As far as power consumption goes, a typical Nvidia Ion HTPC setup consumes around 30W at full load. Assuming that we have a HTPC with XBMC or Boxee installed, let us analyze how it performs with respect to various media streamer metrics. Connectivity is almost never an issue with these setups. HDMI outputs are usually present for transmitting both audio and video. Media can be obtained from a local hard disk, card reader, USB port or even eSATA in some cases. Ethernet ports are a default too. Some setups may even have wireless capabilities. VOD streaming such as Hulu and Netflix work without much hassle. DRM content, such as those on Blu-Ray disks, can be handled using appropriate playback software. The proper selection of a video card also ensures that most codecs can be hardware accelerated. An important point to note is that there is no GPU capable of accelerating RMVB playback, but the good thing is that there is probably a decent x86 processor (not necessarily Atom) to fall back upon, and HD media (which requires hardware acceleration mainly) is not encoded in RMVB usually.

HTPCs such as the Zino HD which use the AMD Atom equivalent along with a Radeon HD3200 chipset can also act as capable media streamers with XBMC / Boxee. The performance and constraints are similar to that of an Ion net-top. However, the HD3200 is not as powerful as the GPU used in Ion with respect to video decode acceleration. So, we will restrict ourselves to the popular Ion platform while considering HTPC based media streamers for now.

Introduction Blu-Ray Player / Media Streamer Combo
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  • agold80 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Could I put in a request that you test subtitle languages that are Right to Left oriented, like Hebrew? there is quite a market for HTPC and Media Streamers in the middle east but companies support for RtL languages has been less than stellar and is something that often even their technical support finds hard to give a straight answer about. Reply
  • beginner99 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I would also test network capabilities. Support for wireless or wired, limitations, connection stability and so on.
    I would say most people buying such a device will sooner or later also get a NAS.

    Personally I have a WD TV Live and it's fine.But it has it's issues. One beeing that it sometimes has trouble connecting to the network. Another thing is that some content from youtube is blocked. You get a message similar to:
    "This content can not be watched from TV attached devices."
    This is pretty annoying because it is no mentiond that youtbe access i limited...
    -> one thing that speaks for a real HTPC.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    beginner99, Thanks!

    We definitely plan to test the networking capabilities, and present it in the review. The only problem we will need to work around is the fact that the network performance is highly dependent on the setup and environment. So, one thing which works in the reviewer's home perfectly, might not be very stable in someone else's home. Of course, we will be keeping an eye out on the various forums to get the various users' experience and make those observations play a small role in our review.

    By the way, my WDTV Live experience is also very similar to yours, and that is the main reason I am unable to get rid of my HTPC :)
    Reply
  • SlyNine - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    For HD content you will def. need 50+ sustained mbps. I find that even my netgear WNDR3700 based wireless stutters on High Def, I just wired everything and now it's silky smooth.

    I think the devices should be reviewed in their own right, with no networking limitations, then a general review of how wireless works on media streamers ( unless you find one that performance unusually well or poor)

    Also you might think about looking at software media servers like twonky and tversity and others. With Twonky and WD Live, through the twonky software on your server ( computer) you can tell the WDlives what to do, for instance, play music in the bathroom, see what each device is playing, Play the same music through out your home.
    Reply
  • clarkn0va - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    "For HD content you will def. need 50+ sustained mbps"

    For non-recoded BD rips perhaps, but many users will not run into this limitation, at least not in the current state of things. I've tested hundreds of 1080p mkv/H264 rips and typical bitrate is in the neighbourhood of 20mbps (variable, peaking as high as 40).

    I don't stream a lot of HD over wireless, but with a good 54mbps connection I've found 720p to work well, while 1080p is more hit and miss.
    Reply
  • SlyNine - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Yea I'm talking about demuxing and remuxing a Blu Ray and playing back TrueHD which is my preferred way of getting HD content. I guess if you reencode it at 720 P you would be ok. Now, I'm way more picky then most so to get acceptable quality encoding HD takes around 5-10 hours, I have a Core I7 at 3.7ghz. So for me, forget that.

    But I just say 50mbps just to be on the safe side, you'd probably be ok with 40 but you would have no overhead.
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Don't forget the SageTV HD200. It is the only media streamer that spans all of the categories. It can act as an extender for their excellent media center software, can play almost any file format (mkv, blu-ray file format, etc) as a standalone media streamer, and can stream non-DRM internet video. I'd love see Anandtech cover it since it never seems to get any love from the media. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Hubble70,

    Thanks for your suggestion. SageTV HD200 is based on a Sigma Designs chipset. It will probably have the same features of a WDTV Live or any other NMT, except for UI changes. We will definitely review an upcoming revision of the product if we manage to get our hands on a review unit.
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Yeah, its based on the old Sigma, but I find that its not the hardware that limits most of these devices, it is the software stack. Whether or not they can play ISO, full BD menus or just BD menu lite, whether you can pick a BD playlist, container support, etc. It seems to matter a lot more than the hardware in them unless you really want HD audio support which it lacks.

    And no, the HD200 is nothing like the WDTV since its primarily designed as an extender for for their media center software. And when you use their media center software you can use any UI on it that you want. There are LOTS of user created UIs and you can customize your own easily. SageMC is the most popular alternate UI. Their new version of their media center, V7.0 even allows you to install XBMC frontends on them, though this feature is in beta.

    Used as a standalone unit it is pretty similar to the WDTV live but with better file format support.

    It's definitely worth taking a better look at since it is unique among media players because it can be used as an extender, a standalone media streamer, and even as a placeshifter.

    Here's a geektonic review of the unit.
    http://www.geektonic.com/2009/01/sagetv-hd200-hd-t...
    Reply
  • dumbletore - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Hi and thx for an very interesting article.

    I would like included test for playback of the format WTV which is the standard TV recording format for Windows7 / media player 12
    WMP cannot record TV shows in any other format, and i am really annoyed by my WDTV LIVEs lack of ability to playback it.
    Not that any of the competition can either though..
    Reply

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