Media Streamer Platforms Roundupby Ganesh T S on June 13, 2010 7:00 PM EST
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.
What is the use of 1080p without HDMI?
[ Picture Courtesy : LogicSupply ]
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.
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.