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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  • twol - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I think the review would have gained from the author having looked at some of the user forums for this area - e.g. Mpcclub, avsforum - where there is a wealth of information on these devices and their popularity, some of the most popular are not mentioned in this article unfortunately . Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    twol, Thanks for the tips. I am quite active on AVS Forums, and I also keep a lookout for HiJack's posts on MPCClub.

    Our readers would hugely benefit from the content on those sites, but our reviews and analysis are intended to complement the content on those forums.

    To the best of our knowledge, there is no English review site which has a standardized test suite for media streamers. We intend to create one with the help of our readers. This is only part of the story! You will also get Anandtech's unique style of SoC and system analysis in the reviews and articles. I hope this will help consumers to identify whether a company is just plain lazy, or the base hardware platform doesn't have enough power for a certain task when they demand features from their media streamer.
    Reply
  • Golgatha - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    A bit of background:

    I recently purchased a newer and bigger home. At my last residence I had just my 32in Sharp Aquos (for my HTPC) and 22in TV/Gaming Rig Samsung monitor as the only screens in the house. At my new residence we plan to use the old Sharp Aquos TV upstairs, buy a newer and bigger TV for downstairs, and install a smaller TV in the kitchen area. I transcode my DVDs to MP4 with the audio left untouched for the most part. I also stream Pandora, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube etc. through TVersity.

    Current day:

    I just recently got my GbE network set back up downstairs and have my XBox 360 and PS3 streaming content from a Tversity DLNA server to my main 32in TV (we plan to buy something bigger and put this one upstairs above the fireplace) and 22in HDTV/Monitor at my PC. This is mainly for my family's benefit, as I just watch videos directly from the HTPC on my main 32in HDTV, while navigating around with a Logitech DiNovo Mini. For the 2 new upstairs locations, I had some choices to make.

    Location 1 - 32in Sharp Aquos 1080p HDTV

    Basically for $100-$150 more than a local network enabled streaming box, I can put a 120GB PS3 behind my 32in HDTV and control everything with a PS3 Bluetooth remote, which doesn't need line-of-sight transmission to work. This is advantageous because we can play all our Blu-ray disc content and all our streaming media from one device. Also, the space for this TV is above a large fireplace, so line-of-sight transmission would require standing up and lifting the remote in the air to change anything. Not acceptable for a sitting room and the Bluetooth remote fits the bill nicely and cheaply. The TV's IR receiver is easily seen and settings on the TV can be changed easily from a sitting position, so that's not a problem.

    Location 2 - Yet to be purchased wall mounted TV

    I'm kind of unsure about this location and this is where I hope Anandtech reviews and user experience can help me out. I need a smallish local streaming enabled device, which can be easily mounted to a wall, and is not very intrusive space wise. I envision it beside an extendable mounting arm, with the 19 or 22in TV covering most of it up. An Apple TV or WD Live unit would seem to fit the bill here. I do however wonder what the maximum bitrate one can stream is for these devices, and if the wired ports are GbE or 10/100Mbps Ethernet. I also wonder how they handle a 5.1 encoded file when outputting it in stereo, since most of my transcoded DVDs are 5.1, but my upstairs locations will just be using the TV speakers or a simple stereo setup at the most. Finally I wonder if iTunes will require re-transcoding of my already transcoded files, and if either one will be able to stream from my TVersity server. That's a lot of questions and I almost wonder if a Slim PS3 wouldn't be the easiest solution since I'm used to using it already and I know what its limitations are as far as streaming is concerned.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Golgatha,

    Currently, there are no shipping media streamers with Gigabit Ethernet. Looking at your background, I would suggest that you go with something you already have experience with, i.e, a Slim PS3, since you are already aware of its limitations. Any other product you purchase is probably going to present you with new challenges to overcome.
    Reply
  • papaki - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    You should definitely test LG's BD570. It doesn't have to do with the fact that I bought it just 1,5 month ago and even after 2 updates it's wireless speed continues to drop to ~1Mbps when streaming through the provided Nero's Essential version of Media Home (grrr), it's just that its wired speed and the wireless as well, when streaming from Win7's own streaming setup, is perfectly adequate (~20Mbps from a 802.11g modem/router - perfect for even a 1080 mkv file)... (Btw, Win7's streaming service is lower in capabilities that Media Home's, so this is why I'm writing these) (Also, the player shows the exact same behavior when it tries to stream via wireless from other programs, such as TVersity. Mezzmo etc.) Of course, I don't expect Anandtech to become the technical support of my player - just pointing out an issue for you. Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    papaki,

    Thanks for the pointers.

    I have personally played around with the LG-BD390, and while it may not be the best media streamer, its feature set when considering that it is a Blu Ray player, is indeed very good.

    We will try to review the LG-BD570, but no guarantees :)
    Reply
  • wiak - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    AMD 780G aka Radeon HD 3200 was the FIRST chipset that had hardware acceleration of Blu-Ray Disc codecs in full 1080p and is still a good chipset, 2 years after its release

    and ION is basicly a renamed Geforce 9300 chipset for atom
    Reply
  • wiak - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    AMD 780G: Preview of the Best Current IGP Solution
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/2475

    oooh the irony
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Ion is a renamed GeForce 9400 ; It is not a IGP per-se ;

    The 3200 is a very good IGP, but it simply lacks a lot of hardware acceleration modes that Nvidia users take for granted. [ http://imouto.my/watching-h264-videos-using-dxva/ ]

    This is why I would personally recommend the Ion over the 3200 IGP right now. Maybe, in 2008 (when the Anandtech article you have cited below was posted), HD 3200 was the best IGP in the market, but not any more.
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I'd highly recommend comparing available features (in your list) to how much the device costs. Usually people are willing to settle and remove a feature if it means a significantly lower cost.

    It also might be worthwhile to compare a custom HTPC, maybe with your own list of components to try and compete. That concept might possibly even become something completely different.. evaluations of available software for HTPCs. I know I've had quite a hellish time working with Windows Media Center and videos of certain sizes. Awhile back, I simply gave up and just used the normal Explorer GUI with Media Player Classic, because at least it didn't crop videos making me unable to read the subtitles.
    Reply

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