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Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) are becoming more and more popular due to a number of reasons. The desire of consumers to watch and enjoy their media, be it Blu-rays/DVDs or broadcast content, in an independent manner (i.e. not limited by DRM restrictions such as with Tivo recordings or even just optical media) has enabled the HTPC industry to gain a lot of relevance, as opposed to getting tied down with non-upgradeable consumer electronics equipment. All three major vendors (Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA) pay quite a bit of attention to the HTPC market in their products, but it is universally agreed that AMD represents some of the most economical HTPC building blocks targeted towards budget system builders, so that's our focus for today.

It has now been almost a year since the Llano lineup was launched; by integrating a CPU and GPU into the same die and bringing along AMD's expertise in the GPU arena for HTPCs, these APUs (Accelerated Processing Units) offer a lot to the budget HTPC builders. In today's piece, we will be taking a look at how to build a HTPC system using the Llano platform. We'll cover options based on various form factors, and performance and cost will be analyzed. Note that the Llano processors might not be the latest and greatest, but when it comes to pricing, it is going to be quite difficult to beat--at least until the desktop variants of Trinity come around. We will also assume that you are aware of the technical merits of the Llano APU lineup, as we will not be covering any benchmarks or doing any comparative studies across products from other companies.

The purpose of a HTPC system is to enable one or more of the following activities:

  • Media playback: The media could be either stored locally (on a hard drive, NAS, Blu-ray, or DVD) or be streamed from the Internet (from sites such as Netflix or Hulu). Media files include pictures and music files in addition to videos.
  • Optical disc backup creation: This involves the archiving of Blu-ray and DVD movies onto a physical disk (such as a hard drive or a NAS) after removing the DRM protection. This enables consumers to enjoy the content on their purchased discs without the annoying trailers and advertisements, or the need for a Blu-ray drive (e.g. on tablets or smaller HTPCs).
  • Recording and/or editing video files: This involves using a TV tuner to capture broadcast content and record it onto a physical drive. The recorded content could then be edited to remove commercials or for any other purpose before being stored away. Sometimes, it might be necessary to transcode the video files as well (say, converting from one H.264 profile to another). This is much more computationally intensive compared to splitting/joining media streams with similar characteristics.

Some users might also want to use their HTPC for activities such as:

  • Gaming: This is, by far, the most common extension of a HTPC outside its original application area. Thanks to the powerful integrated GPU, we have seen that the Llano APUs are quite good with almost all games at mainstream quality settings. If a budget gaming+HTPC build is on your radar, you can't go wrong with the Llanos--provided you understand that high quality settings and 1080p gaming are likely too much for the iGPU.
  • Network DVR/IP Camera recording: This is quite uncommon, but some users might like to have IP camera feeds viewable/recordable through their HTPCs.
  • General PC Tasks: These include basic web browsing, downloading and other similar tasks (which almost all HTPCs are bound to be good with)

Readers using their HTPC for any purpose other than those mentioned above should feel free to let everyone know in the comments section.

AMD's Llano lineup includes a range of processors with TDP ratings from 65W to 100W. Note that simple playback tasks are going to be quite power-efficient, thanks to integrated hardware decoding, so the relatively high TDPs shouldn't put one off. There are also plenty of FM1 socket motherboards based on the A55/A75 FCHs (Fusion Controller Hubs). The choice of the Llano APU, motherboard form factor, and other components should be made depending on the desired usage scenario. In the next few sections, we will take a look at the choices available.

APU, Chipset and Motherboard
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  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I think one of the best scenarios to support this need is capture of high definition game play from a XBox or PS3.

    For most legal media, I also suggest grabbing at the encoded source :)
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I do agree about this being a niche market which the major companies wouldn't want to touch..

    I think there are some Hauppauge and AverMedia cards which do what you want (record to hard disk). They can always be burnt on to a Blu-ray if necessary.
    Reply
  • ImThat1Guy - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    I'm so confused in every way. Do any of you think you can explain? Or maybe just point my in the right direction and recommend a good one? I'd like to record maybe 2, 3 channels at a time (at maximum- usually not recording anything), and I have what I guess is standard US cable. The computer will function as a DVR-enabled cable box, correct? Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Definitely :) If you want to record premium content from cable, you will need a CableCard -- and that can help you effectively replace the cable-co supplied DVR box.

    I suggest you take a look at AVSForum for immediate guidance.
    Reply
  • ImThat1Guy - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    AVS Forum is down, at least for me.

    Would something like the Hauppauge WinTV HVR 1250 work, and work with Ubuntu and XBMC (or better yet UbuntuTV)?
    Reply
  • ImThat1Guy - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    No reply? Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    It is down for 12 - 18 hours :) Patience please.. Reply
  • Coup27 - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Is there a reason why Lian Li's PC-Q07, or any of their other PC-Q range of enclosure's dont get much internet traction in these articles? They look to me as some of the most stylish ITX enclosures about. Reply
  • randinspace - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    From the conclusion:
    "High quality madVR rendering is not possible with the integrated GPU (it is not possible with the Intel Sandy Bridge HD 2000 / HD 3000 series either)."

    What's your definition of "high quality" here? I hadn't even dreamed of trying to utilize madVR with an APU until last week actually, but on my A8-3800 the more or less default settings for madVR in MPC-HC with LAV filters installed (long story short: I spent a day on Doom9), yields better results than CPU/software acceleration on otherwise large/annoying files...

    This is revealing a bit more about my tastes than I would like, but the "annoying files" I'm thinking of are episodes of anime encoded in 1080p at 10 bit color depth (AKA hi10/hi10p) with FLAC audio and as many as 4 subtitle streams (dialogue in english, background song in english, karaoke for said song in both romanized japanese and actual japanese...) displaying at a time during a flashback (grainy filtering placed over the top of everything) scene. On my old junk setup I would occasionally have to turn the subtitles off even in (really poorly encoded) 720p in order to avoid MASSIVE lag, but madVR runs anything I throw at it with a few caveats:

    (images safe for work, BTW)

    http://bayimg.com/aapGDaaDA madVR, windowed even though it doesn't particularly like being run in windowed mode in order to display the AMD sysmonitor readout. Feel free to note the 0 dropped frames, but ignore the delayed frames which were almost entirely resultant from PEBKAC as I kept hitting pause break instead of prtscn and had to reload the scene a bunch of times until I realized it...

    http://bayimg.com/aaPGBAADa same scene in EVR (with xy-VSFilter for subtitles so I don't have to resort to EVR custom Pres./MPC-HC's internal subtitle renderer).

    Note the ridiculous gulf in GPU utilization between the two scenarios (also that I probably should've upgraded my RAM instead of buying an SSD). I can't do math since I majored in Liberal Arts, but a 12% load when the GPU is chilling out at 282 mhz (as low as it clocks itself while still running, I believe) is obviously better than 76% load at 600mhz which causes the cpu/apu fan to all but max out. I can only imagine how loud this would get with the 95-100w+ (through overclocking) APUs, and quite frankly madVR doesn't look THAT much better than EVR when you're using the same (LAV) filters otherwise.

    Still, after setting things up I ran all kinds of crap I had (which I suppose is an important distinction from all kinds of crap period) using madVR to check for stability and never saw GPU usage go too far past 80% for long, and more typically saw numbers in the 40-70% range which again I could see as being a bit below ideal depending on one's intended hardware configuration (noisy fans, aiming for low temps to stick with passive cooling, etc.). Conversely GPU usage in madVR is unsurprisingly much more comfortable when rendering standard/8-bit color depth encodes than hi10p, in 720p files instead of 1080p, etc. but the entire point of having the hardware in the first place is making the most of it yeah?

    Of course either way I never watch anything that surpasses the baseline 24x FPS (because Japanese are cheap :P) so if your definition of "high quality" is above that (I'd certainly be bummed if I spent a lot of money having my wedding digitally filmed and encoded in 1080p60p and then couldn't play it back on the TV with my usual profile...) then fair enough. I just found the comment unusual since I considered my experience with madVR to be a relatively pleasant one. More importantly was my realization that if desktop A8 Llano could run madVR then it seemed to follow that (particularly at 720p) mobile Trinity would be able to. Obviously the downside of mobile Trinity is going to be the junk ram and so/so audio that one finds in laptops, but madVR running at 35 or potentially even 17watts? If you're crazier than me (bought an HP Pavilion desktop just to get my hands on an A8-3800) and can't wait for the desktop parts I could see a case made (literally) for gutting a ~$5-600 laptop for the sake of building a low profile HTPC...

    Pfft... now that I think about it, I suppose this is ultimately one of those "posts from an irate reader who has other requirements" that you were trying to avoid. I'm not really irate though, just loquacious and taking the opportunity to procrastinate from editing...
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 05, 2012 - link

    Your post is quite informative :) In fact, these sorts of comments are what makes AnandTech articles even better for the rest of the readers out there.

    madVR vs. EVR : For all Llano lovers out there, better learn not to fall in love with madVR :) Personally, I don't mind either of the renderers (and actually love EVR because it is so lean on the system resources).

    You caught me out on the point that the iGPUs are not good enough for HQ madVR rendering. I should have qualified that with the fact that HQ madVR rendering is not advisable with the Llanos for interlaced videos.

    Can you repeat your tests with some 480i60 / even 720p60 (where 720p must get upscaled in both luma and chroma components to 1080p) / 1080i60 content (quite common in US broadcast recordings) ? I believe the iGPUs should start to hiccup under those circumstances.
    Reply

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