Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) have remained a niche market, catering mainly to enthusiasts who love the challenge of setting up and maintaining them. The demand for dumb devices with HTPC capabilities has seen tremendous increase over the past few years, with the success of devices such as the WDTV and other media streamers. Blu-Ray players also end up integrating features such as media streaming and wireless networking. Often, though, users end up demanding things which are difficult for these units to implement. A case in point is Netflix streaming on the WDTV Live, which ended up being implemented in WDTV Live Plus. Torrenting (and other similar PC capabilities) end up making an appearance in the homebrew firmware versions of these products. One of the easiest ways to avoid such disappointments is to invest in a HTPC. These are more future proof than the small media streaming boxes and Blu Ray players for which one has to depend on core firmware updates from the manufacturer.

Over the last 2 or 3 years, with the advent of small form factor (SFF) PCs, and promising chipsets such as Nvidia ION, one sensed the looming convergence of the media streamer and HTPC market. While being much more flexible compared to media streaming boxes, they suffered on the power envelop front. Also, the DRM requirements of Blu-Ray ensured that such PCs could never hope to achieve as much ease of usage and bitstreaming support as the Blu-Ray players unless one invested in costly soundcards. In the last 6 - 8 months, ATI introduced the 5xxx series and Intel introduced the Clarkdale and Arrandale platforms with an IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor), both of which were capable of HD audio bitstreaming. Enthusiasts could easily purchase such products and build HTPCs which could surpass the capabilities of any Blu-Ray player or media streamer.

The HTPC market, unfortunately, can never take off unless pre-built units make an appearance. We have seen the big players such as Dell and Acer create products such as the ZinoHD and Aspire Revo respectively. However, the platforms utilized processors such as the Neo and the Atom, which were mainly geared towards the ultraportable and netbook market. Consumers expecting desktop performance from such PCs were left disappointed. The market needed a fresh approach, and AsRock has come out with the first pre-built SFF PC based on the Arrandale platform for this.

ASRock has gained a reputation amongst us of being innovative in a crowded market, and having come out with pioneering products. Their first play in the SFF HTPC market was the ASRock ION 300-HT. Though it was found to be technically good, it ended up competing against products such as the Aspire Revo from Acer (with a substantially higher marketing impetus). Now, they have stolen a march over the competition by introducing the Core 100 HT-BD. Realizing that the Atom in the nettop was the major cause of concern amongst HTPC customers, they seem to have done their homework by introducing their next play in the market with the Arrandale platform.

The Arrandale platform's performance has been analyzed ad nauseam on various sites, and we will not go that route in this review. In the last few months, we have seen the introduction of many H55 / H57 based mini-ITX motherboards supporting these platforms. Last month, we reviewed the Gigabyte H55 mini-ITX board. We found it almost perfect for a HTPC. It is quite likely that there is a large number of customers in the market interested in a pre-built HTPC based on this platform.

ASRock is the first company to come out with a ready to order PC in the mini-ITX form factor based on the Arrandale platform and they have put together a nice video of the purported capabilities of their product. Let us first get the marketing talk [ YouTube video ] out of the way (in case you are interested), before proceeding to analyze ASRock's claims.

The comments for the Gigabyte H55 mini-ITX review requested HTPC specific testing. Starting with this review, we are taking those comments into consideration and this unit will be analyzed completely from a HTPC perspective. If you are interested in a specific aspect, use the index below to navigate to the section you want. Otherwise, read on to find out what Anandtech discovered while trying to use the Core 100 HT-BD as a HTPC.

Unboxing Impressions
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  • spddemon - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    This system is capable of dobly truHD and DTS HD. A ION system is not capable of decoding of those sounds format...

    So this system will appeal heavily to someone that wants a small nettop type system with a BD and good encoding performance. With any nettop you are going to have to use NAS storage anyways, but this system will allow more internal expansion than most others.. But if you wanted to, you could pair it with an external drive cage.. I wouldn't want that in my living room / theater room though.

    biggest problem with this system is price.. You can build a great system for a couple hundred less if you are willing to take hours of researching the components and integration. A successful HTPC build will take considerable more time in planning/research than a typical PC/Gaming PC Build....

    If you are wanting a powerful, small, efficient, prebuilt nettop, this is the best out there right now!

    That is really the only thing i wish Ganesh would of pointed out a little more clearly. The capabilities of the "iGPU" vs an ION.. with the growth of this field, I would love to see a followup review that would pit a custom built (but comparable build) HTPC.. like a Core i3 530 (or maybe an e7200) / H55 with and without an ATI/NVIDIA (non ION) card. This would really give some people something to look at as far as capabilities..

    and really, who cares what the remote looks like.. get a Logitech harmony or some other home automation remote... most people will only care about if the IR or RF functionality is already there...
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    spddemon,

    Stay tuned for more HTPC reviews in this space. Their performance will be pitted against this solution.

    However, ION is passe right now. We will be testing with the ATI 5xxx series and upcoming Nvidia cards.
    Reply
  • Furuno - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    Upcoming nVidia cards...

    Hmm I wonder what it is... A low-cost version of fermi or another rebranding of GT2XX cards?
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    We already published reviews of the GTX460 from the gaming perspective.

    The card is good from a gaming HTPC perspective because it also supports HD audio bitstreaming.

    There are some rumours that Nvidia has lower priced cards coming out in the next 2 months, so we will cover them when they get released :) At the least, we will cover the GTX460.
    Reply
  • spddemon - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    Thanks for the updates Ganeshts!

    It looks like your time frame will be perfect for my new HTPC project.

    I really hope Nvidia can get some low powered cards out to offer a true HTPC card that covers all the current HD formats/codecs.
    Reply
  • mindbomb - Wednesday, July 21, 2010 - link

    Ion can only bitstream LPCM, but I assume the atom cpu is powerful enough to decode truehd in libavcodec.
    So that only leaves DTS-HD MA as a problem.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Goty,

    The user can always opt for a USB TV tuner.

    If we had an expansion slot for a TV tuner inside this box, the unit wouldn't be based off the HM55 chipset, and wouldn't fit in the sub-50 W power envelop which is a coveted mark in this space.

    Further, including a TV tuner in the box would drive up the cost of the system in some areas, as it would be taxed as an entertainment device, rather than a computer.
    Reply
  • bearxor - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    No one that is serious about using this as a HTPC is going to string USB TV tuners off this thing. You want 2 USB tuners hanging off the back of the machine? How about 4?

    My HTPC has 7 tuners total. 2xHauppage 2250's, 2xCats Eye 150's and a ATi DCT. Tell me exactly where I'm going to be able to put those on a machine like this.

    There needs to be some kind of market differentiation between a HTPC and a Living Room PC. One is for serious use as a DVR and the other is to hook up to the TV and watch some videos/play games/surf the web/Facebook/chat, etc. They are two different markets.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    bearxor,

    You have got an impressive set up.

    However, I believe your type of setup is more the exception rather than the norm. The sort of arrangement which will remain a niche for a long time to come. With the advent of IP streaming and availability of TV shows and live sports broadcasts online, I am not even sure people will require so many tuners.

    I also think that your sort of setup isn't amenable to the silent, power efficient HTPC that people want (particularly from the viewpoint of media streamers and boxes such as the upcoming Google TV). The latter 'living room PC' that you mention has more potential to explode as a market for manufacturers to exploit, rather than the DVR-centric PC that you envisage.
    Reply
  • hughlle - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Exactly, 7 tuners is hardly the norm. I make do without a single one on my HTPC, i have the likes of iplayer if i really feel inclined to drop into the fantastic realm that is daytime television :S Reply

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