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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  • Xajel - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I think that Input & Output and all connectivity features are very important along with any remote interface ( network interface ) they may have... + if they can be used as a PVR or not... Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Xajel, Thanks for your suggestions.

    Currently, I believe that no shipping media streamer has PVR capabilities. The upcoming ZaggBox fits your description, but it is nowhere close to shipping :|

    We will consider your concern about connectivity options and remote interfaces in our reviews
    Reply
  • Hubble70 - Wednesday, June 16, 2010 - link

    Actually, The Moxi DVR and its extenders can do PVR duty and coupled with Playon it can do Hulu and with Tversity I think it can playback your local content as well but I'm not sure about that.

    No standalone unit can do PVR duties, but coupled with SageTV Server software running on any computer in the house (widows, Linux, WHS, or OSX) the SageTV HD200 media streamer can be a PVR and playback your local movie content.
    Reply
  • morpheusmc - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Congrats for the media streamer roundup, I believe an Anandtech-class article is very much needed to clear up the this area.

    I would like to see the performance of media streamers over a wifi network. Most of them support 802.11N USB wifi adapters, but do not exceed even 802.11G speeds. I have had a bad experience with an eGREAT M34A and had to return it because of it.

    I am interested in finding out which is the cheapest device to play at least 720p MKVs (4,38GB/movie) over wifi (assuming a Wifi Access point (G or N if needed) is installed).
    My 4 year old (dual core) laptop plays 720p fine over 802.11g by the way, so 25Mbps ought to be enough, IF the device can actually achieve such speeds.

    Keep up the great work!
    Reply
  • morpheusmc - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Forgot to mention that I would like to see speed tested with WPA2 enabled. Not sure it makes a difference, just want to be sure though.

    Bottom line, I would like to see if any of those devices can function as a drop in addition in a house with an encrypted wireless network and a NAS/file server. Assuming of course that all the other components (NAS/File server, access pint etc) can support the required bitrates.

    My experience up to now says no, but I haven't tested any of the more expensive devices. Although spending 300-400$ for a media player seems a lot, considering the prices of cheap, but HD capable laptops/netbooks.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    morpheusMC, Thanks for the pointers.

    Wireless network performance will also be a point for us to consider in the review if it is part of the original specifications of the player. Some versions of Asus O!Play support 802.11n natively, and your suggestions will be handy while reviewing them. For units such as the WDTV Live, it wouldn't make sense, because we would be introducing third party additions to the hardware platform (yet another variable which could go wrong!) to enable this feature. Of course, wired network performance will definitely be tested thoroughly.
    Reply
  • vol7ron - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    As I said in an email to Anand,

    I would like to see the Ceton InfiniTV reviewed. I think you can stream up to 4 live HD channels at once. Not too sure if the $399 price is justified, but this might be something to consider as an option in the future, since you only need one CableCARD.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    vol7ron,

    We will be having a separate series of articles in the same section which will cover the TV tuners / recorders / PVRs and DVRs. CableCARD products like Ceton's will be dealt with in that series.

    Best Regards
    Reply
  • glugglug - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I have a Jasper XBOX being used as a media center extender. Your power consumption estimate of 140W only applies to the original XBOX, not the Jaspers currently being sold. The Kill-a-Watt tells me it is using just over 90W no matter what it is doing (unless its off). Sitting idle uses the same ~ 90W as playing HD video, and it doesn't go up past 100W during gaming.

    Also, I have yet to encounter a video that was too high a bitrate for it. U.S. HDTV is MPEG2 @ around 15-16Mbps (max 19Mbps). This bitrate of MPEG-2 yields the same quality as roughly 3Mbps H.264. So 10 is actually overkill. Blu-ray rips may have this overkill, but they play just fine. I played an Avatar x264 rip at 20Mbps on the XBOX with no issues. The official maximum bitrate may be 10Mbps, but generally higher bitrate stuff still works. Otherwise you would see a lot more people who use it as an extender complaining in Europe, where their broadcast TV is H.264.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    glugglug, Thanks for bringing this to our attention.

    We quoted the official lines on the Xbox capabilities. Still, 90W is very high for a media streamer. There are much more capable media streamers which perform the same task for less than 1/10th the power consumption :) (Agreed, HD playback isn't XBox's main agenda).

    We may touch upon HD playback capability when covering any new Xbox versions that MS decides to put out in the future.
    Reply

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