Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/3767/media-streamer-platforms-roundup

The advent of digital downloads and music / movie streaming have made the HTPC scene quite popular. While pundits keep on debating the reasons as to why the HTPC remains a niche market, companies have recognized that a new market has opened up, namely, that of the media streamer. While streaming conventionally refers to communication of the IP variety, it is customary to include playback of media from local sources while discussing this market. The selling point of the media streamers lie in the fact that, unlike HTPCs, they do not consume a lot of power and they are supposed to work right out of the box. For the purpose of this article, we will not cover media streamer platforms which consume more than 50W in detail.

Before we get to the nitty-gritty details of the various media streamer platforms available, let us trace the history of media streamers briefly. Towards the middle of the last decade, DVD players started sporting USB ports, off which music, photos and videos (in the DivX and Xvid formats) could be played. One of the pioneers in this space was the DP-500 from KiSS Technology. With the decreasing popularity of optical media, the possibility that the player's size could be shrunk emerged. Starting around the end of 2004, companies like RCA put forward standalone media streamers, which could play local content as well as network media. The first HD capable media streamer was the Roku HD1000, but it received unflattering reviews. and did not have any optical media support. Offerings in the first two years were largely ignored by the public not only because of issues with reliability and user friendliness but also probably due to the fact that optical media wasn't completely out of the picture yet (it isn't even now, and is in fact making a come-back of sorts with the gaining popularity of the Blu-Ray format).

Apple, as is its wont, tried to put its own touch on a device for this market. In early 2007, they introduced the Apple TV. Unfortunately, in probably their only blot of the decade, they failed miserably with their approach. Fundamental to the failure was the fact that they couldn't identify their target market. In its incipient stages, the media streamer market relied heavily on tech-savvy people in order to take off. These were the people who would migrate from HTPCs to new gadgets (or, at least keep them side by side). By taking a not-easily-upgradeable HTPC (more on this later) and bundling it with a proprietary software stack, they took out the main advantage viz. the freedom to tinker around with various hardware and software components without resorting to documentation from the hacking community. It is then no wonder that most of the HTPC community (except for the hardcore Apple fanboy segment), and, as a result, the target market gave the Apple TV a poor reception. However, credit needs to be given to Apple for being the first mainstream company to bring a media streamer into the market, thereby opening the floodgates for more firms to pitch in with their own offerings. The last three years or so have seen products from top tier manufacturers such as Samsung, LG, Netgear, Western Digital, Seagate and others enter the fray in one guise or the other.

Any streamer able to handle HD content is also capable of handling similar content at SD resolutions, while the reverse scenario is not always true. There are dedicated devices for SD media, but it is pretty evident that the market for those devices is going only one way, and that is down. With studies suggesting that 82% of all US households would end up with a HDTV by the end of 2010, it only makes sense to restrict this article to media streamer platforms which support high definition content. Present day HDTVs also support DLNA, local media playback and streaming from sites such as Netflix in the US. However, they do not have the capabilities of dedicated media streamers (such as HD audio bitstreaming). Since the media streamer platform is a minor component of the television system as a whole, we will not cover these in much detail.

Though the term 'Media Streamer' may encompass a wide range of devices, they may all be classified under one of the following categories:

1. HTPC Based Platforms
2. Blu-Ray Player / Media Streamer Combo
3. Pure Internet Service Media Streamers
4. Internet & Local Media Streamers
5. Game Console & PMP / App Processor Based Media Streamers

The rest of this article will cover the various platforms in each of the above categories in detail.

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.

Blu-Ray player manufacturers realized last year that the Internet Age consumers want more from their purchase than just dumb playback of optical disks. The latest players from the top tier companies such as LG and Samsung provide support for VOD (Netflix, YouTube etc.) and streaming of media from the local network, while also adding USB ports to support playback of local media.

The LG BD390 is almost universally accepted as the best Blu-Ray player / media streamer combo. It is noted for its inbuilt Wi-Fi capabilities, and provides support for NTFS drives connected to its USB port. It utilizes the Mediatek MT8520 SOC for the core media streamer functions. The host processor is an ARM1176 core running at 500 MHz. The SOC also integrates  Ethernet MAC, 2 USB 2.0 and 2 SATA II ports with a HDMI 1.3 transmitter. Hardware acceleration is supported for decode of high definition H264, VC1, MPEG2 and DivX videos. All varieties of Dolby and DTS soundtracks are also supported. With an inbuilt hardware cryptography engine (really, a pre-requisite for any chip trying to get into the Blu-Ray market), handling DRM content on Blu-Ray disks is the main duty of this player. The operational power consumption for this player is 21W.

Now that the specs are out of the way, let us take a look at how this player holds up to the rigors of usage as a media streamer. LG issues frequent firmware updates, and almost all VOD services have been enabled (except for Amazon Video on Demand). Since the MT8520 happens to be Mediatek's first SOC geared towards the HD market, software support for the product hasn't matured yet. As of December 2009, the unit is unable to play MP4 files even though the internal codec is supported. There are also reports of sluggish picture playback, possibly due to the fact that JPEG decode is not hardware accelerated. Many of these issues may be resolved by future firmware updates. Another Blu-Ray player based on the same SOC is the Oppo BDP-83. Media streaming capability wise, it fares similar to the LG BD-390, albeit at a higher price point. While the Oppo version sells for US $500, the LG player can be obtained for less than US $250 as of June 2010.

The MT8520 Rebadged as an Oppo OP8521G
[ Picture Courtesy : User oppohellas at avsite.gr ]

The Mediatek SOC offering in this arena seems promising and its full capabilities may surface down the road with future firmware upgrades. Mediatek's future roadmap in terms of updates to the MT8520 SOC itself also merits a watch. Broadcom has already released a few generations of SOCs targeted towards the Blu Ray market (most Samsung Blu-Ray players use Broadcom chips), but they haven't made their mark yet with capabilities necessary for the media streaming market.

Devices such as the Vudu and the Roku boxes fall under this category. They aim to do one thing and do it well by restricting themselves to some VOD services and presenting their users with an environment similar to DVD renting, only online. Local media can't be played through them. Some of the SOC platforms which have found traction in this market include NXP STB 236 and Broadcom BCM7401. These SOCs were primarily designed for the IP set top boxes (Vudu and Roku may also be termed IP set top boxes, but at a more basic level compared to what these were originally designed for). These platforms do not support DTS audio, which is pretty much a pre-requisite nowadays for products geared towards the media streaming audience.

The Roku HD streamer introduced recently utilizes the NXP platform with a 320 MHz MIPS32 host processor. The STB 236 platform uses the PNX8336 at its core. H264 and VC1 seem to be supported codecs for hardware acceleration, while MPEG-2 seems to be only partially supported. The SOC has suitable connectivity options including USB, SATA and Ethernet. However, HDMI is not integrated in the SOC. The PNX8336 was released in April 2008. Since then, NXP has released video decoder chips targeted towards the TV and the DVR markets in December 2008 and March 2009. However, they seem to miss the mark as far as the features required for a media streamer device go. It will be interesting to see what Roku has in its roadmap, and whether they would shift suppliers for future products. The Roku HD-XR has a USB port, but it serves no discernible usefulness at present. The unit has an operational power consumption of 6W.

Vudu & Roku
Media Streamers Based on IP Set Top Box Platforms

Vudu, on the other hand, has realized that selling a restrictive IP set top box in this market is not an easy task. It is now striving to remodel itself as a service provider of sorts by integrating their software into the next generation Blu Ray players and TVs. Still, it is interesting to take a look at the platform behind their original device. It is based on Broadcom's BCM7401 (which also happens to have a 300 MHz MIPS32 host processor), which provides support for H264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 decode. Connectivity options include the standard set of USB, SATA and Ethernet. Now classified by Broadcom as a legacy product, this SOC has probably been superseded by the BCM7400 / BCM7400B introduced around the same time. It is also puzzling as to why the BCM7400B which provides support for DivX decoding wasn't used. That would have probably made the box closer to what the media streamer market needs. Vudu, unlike Roku, also provides the ability to purchase and download movies from their collection. This necessiates a hard disk inside their unit, which puts the operational power consumption much higher than Roku's at 18W.

All said and done, the days of these types of media streamers are numbered. They have to evolve themselves to different types of products in the coming years in order to survive in this market.

This segment of the market is dominated by two main semiconductor companies, namely, Sigma Designs and Realtek. Now, Nvidia has jumped into the fray with the Tegra 2 chipset. Undoubtedly, the most famous products using the Sigma chip are the WDTV and the WDTV Live. However, the most powerful ones are the Networked Media Tanks (NMTs) such as Popcorn Hour's PCH-A110 and PCH-C200. With some add-ons, the PCH-C200 can also be considered as a media streamer / Blu-Ray player combo. A slew of media streamers using the Realtek platform have been released in the last few months. The most famous one is the Asus O!Play series. Other interesting offerings include the Xtreamer and the AC Ryan's Playon! HD. The Boxee Box was revealed to be based on the Tegra 2 chipset in CES 2010.

At the end of 2009, Sigma Design had two generations of products going into succesful media streamers, namely the 863x and 865x / 864x series. In all probability, the 865x and the 864x are from the same silicon, with the DRM segments and some video processing units disabled in hardware in the slightly underclocked 865x series. All the products have a MIPS32 processor, with the 863x series sporting a 333 MHz version, while the 865x and 864x sport 500 MHz and 667 MHz versions respectively. The standard USB, Ethernet and SATA connections are available in all the three SOCs, with the 864x also supporting SDIO. In addition to the usual acceleration for H264, VC-1, MPEG-2, DivX and MPEG-1, the Sigma SOCs also supports China's H264 competitor, AVS (864x and 865x only). The only missing piece is support for RMVB. With dedicated audio DSPs, audio codec support is also excellent. Depending on the end-product (whether a hard drive is included in the unit or not), power consumption may vary. While the WDTV (which uses the 8635) has an operational power around 8W, while the WDTV Live (which uses the 8655) has an operational power around 7W. On the other hand, the PCH-A110 (using the 8635) with an internal hard drive has an operational power of 15W. The PCH C-200 (which uses the 8643) is also rated for for a typical operational power of 15W. However, with internal hard drives and the optional Blu-Ray drive, the power draw may momentarily go as high as 70W.


The WDTV - Based on the SMP8635 Chipset

Though Realtek has had multiple generations of SOCs geared towards this market (RTD1061, and now RTD1073 / RTD1283DD), they have not been as successful as Sigma Designs. The first well-known player using Realtek was from Asus, namely, the O!Play HDP-R1. This uses the RTD1073. Xtreamer, which made waves within the media streamer enthusiast community, when it first arrived on the scene, claims to use a specifically designed RTD128x (the 1283DD), which is nothing but a overclocked version of the RTD1073 with probably some unused PVR functionality built in. From the media streaming viewpoint, the technical capabilities of all these products are the same. The RTD1073 utilizes a 400 MHz MIPS32 host CPU with hardware support for decoding Real Media videos. Realtek provides connectivity options similar to the Sigma Designs SOCs. The Asus model goes one step further and exposes one of the SATA interfaces outside the unit as an eSATA port. The Realtek SOC happens to be not as power efficient as the Sigma SOC, with the Asus O!Play's operational power weighing in at a little less than 10W.

The Realtek RTD1283DD
Xtreamer's Secret Sauce
[ Picture Courtesy : User LeFric at mundodvd.com ]

One of the hotly discussed upcoming media streamer is the Boxee Box based on the Tegra 2 chipset. The SOC is based upon a much more powerful dual core ARM Cortex-A9, with a ARM 7 added in for host processor purposes. Standalone, this would beat the MIPS processors in the Realtek and Sigma Design chips hands down. However, Nvidia's HD decode engines have so far been restricted to the PC space, which do not call for a low power implementation. As yet, it is not known what shortcuts have been taken by Nvidia when implementing the decode engine in this space. It has already been reported that high bitrate videos are not supported. How will it stack up against the decode engines of Sigma Designs and Realtek? It will be known soon enough, once the Boxee Box lands in the hands of the reviewers.

Yuixx was one of the highly anticipated local media streamers which never saw the light of day. Based on Intel's CE3100 platform, it represented Intel's one and only shot in this space. Intel has since come out with the CE4100, which is one of the first platforms on which Google TV will run. Though Intel hasn't had much success in the dedicated media streamer market, they now seem to be succeeding at integrating their chipsets into other consumer electronic devices such as TVs and Blu-Ray players. The yet-to-be-released Amino Freedom media streamer is also based on the Intel CE4100. It will be interesting to see how the platform will fare when it reaches the hands of the consumers.

In the meanwhile, the battle between the Sigma and Realtek SOC platforms will become very interesting in the near future. Will Sigma bow down to the requirements of the Asian market and include Real Media support in the future? Will Realtek's roadmap include SOCs with support for dual HD decode? How long will Realtek take to deliver a SDK as stable as Sigma's? It looks to be a pretty busy year ahead for the two companies as they try to encroach upon each other's market share and try to stave off future competition from Nvidia in this space. Sigma already seems to have taken the lead over Realtek with the recent announcement of chips which are 3D enabled.

No discussion on the subject of media streamers will be complete without mentioning the two game consoles, XBox and PS3. The XBox core hardware (with respect to media playing capabilities) hasn't changed much over the years. Firmware updates now enable it to play H264 files with a maximum bitrate of 10 Mbps, which is really not sufficient for most 1080p HD media out there. The PS3 is a little bit better (with a Blu Ray drive built in), but start throwing in some MKVs, and you realize that the firmware is wofeully inadequate for anything other than actual Blu Ray stuff. In any case, the Xbox 360 consumes around 140W while playing HD videos, while PS3 Slim uses around 80W (The original PS3 used around 170W for the same!). The usage of the Xbox and the PS3 models as media streamers (and the underlying hardware which enable them to be used in such a scenario) deserves a detailed article by itself. However, such power consumption numbers put these devices beyond my criteria for a media streamer (their original intent was to act as a game console after all), and I will not discuss them any further in this article.

On the other end of the power spectrum lie the portable media players (PMPs) and smartphone application processors. Advances in chip design have enabled even dimunitive devices to play HD video. Though the latest version of the most popular PMP (iPod Touch 32GB) is unable to play HD content, its competitor (ZuneHD) supports upto 720p video playback. Coupled with a dock near the television, the ZuneHD can potentially replace many a media streamer in the market right now. Agreed, the software ecosystem for these PMPs need to improve to match the offerings using the Realtek and Sigma SOCs, but it is still worth looking in detail into the SOC platforms that these are built on. After all, these are the platforms which will probably take over all the other platforms a couple of years down the line by delivering the same capabilities in a much smaller form factor and power envelop. I will not discuss the iPod Touch since it doesn't do HD playback, but will solely concentrate on the ZuneHD.

Nvidia Tegra inside the ZuneHD
A Sign of Things to Come (Convergence of the PMP / App Processor & Media Streamer Markets)
[ Picture Courtesy : iFixit ]

The ZuneHD utilizes the NVidia Tegra platform. The good news is that the second generation of the Tegra platform is already in the hands of the manufacturers and I have covered it in the previous section. It is only fair to expect the next generation PMPs to use this platform. In the PMP space, Nvidia will have to look into is power consumption as they move forward. Nvidia GPU cores do not use the Tile Based Rendering approach used by the SGX cores from Imagination Technologies. Tile based rending reduces power consumption which is of paramount importance in portable devices. Whether Nvidia decides to tweak the ULP GeForce core for use in the Tegra platform remains to be seen. Power consumption numbers for the Tegra SOC are low compared to the other offerings in the media streamer market, but that is a given considering the number of features that are skimped on and the fact that it is meant to be running on batteries! All in all, this platform loks like a promising start for PMPs to move towards the media streamer market as proved by the Boxee Box which uses the Tegra 2.

Many PMPs in the Chinese market have also started to boast 1080p playback over HDMI from handheld devices. An example is the Chuwi P7, which utilizes the TCC8901, an offering from Telechips, a South Korean multimedia chipset company. The TCC8901 uses a ARM11 host processor with a 3D core from ARM (the Mali 400) for the aesthetic GUI. However, the core IP for decoding video has been licensed from another South Korean company, Chips&Media. This company provides the ubiquitous Boda / Coda series of video IP which is present in almost all low cost, low power HD codec solutions in the Chinese market (as well as some application processor platforms in the US). In addition to the usual H264 and VC-1 decoding, this IP also has the ability to process HD RMVB content. Telechips TCC8900 (probably a minor variant of the TCC8901) is used in the HDX Bone, which claims to be the first media streamer product capable of dual booting into Android, as well as the primary media browsing OS. Industry insiders believe that a leading media streamer chipset company has also shifted to using Chips&Media IP for their future generation products.

Chips&Media is not the only player in town supplying IP for HD decoding. Companies such as SiliconImage (the HDMI pioneer) and Imagination Tech (of the PowerVR SGX series 3D GPU fame) are also quite active in this space. ImgTech has been claiming HD decode for many years now with the PowerVR VXD line, while SiliconImage claims the ability to decode even UltraHD streams. However, we are currently not aware of any product in the media streamer space shipping with either IP in silicon. The Apple A4 uses the PowerVR VXD for HD encode / decode, but it doesn't find itself in a media streamer yet. Both the iPad and the recently released iPhone place too many restrictions on files which can be played back, compared to other products in the media streamer space.

Tegra 2 may also be classified as a smartphone application processor (if the term may be stretched) based on the number of tablet designs which utilize this platform. Many of the application processors introduced at the 2010 Mobile World Congress also claim to support HD decode (We will cover the app processors which deserve to be watched in a separate article). Towards the end of last year, Samsung quietly slipped in a smartphone app processor similar to the Apple A4 (Cortex-A8 with a PowerVR 3D engine), only with better HD capabilities. At CeBit 2010, Asus introduced the first product based on the Samsung S5PV210, the EeeMedia EM0501. The surprising feature of this product is the support for high definition RMVB playback, with the other features similar to that of the Boxee Box. The exact capabilities of this product will only be known when it lands in the hands of the reviewers.

EeeMedia EM0501 at CeBit 2010
Samsung's S5PV210 Application Processor in a Standalone Media Streamer
[ Picture Courtesy : Slashgear ]

A majority of the consumers in this market have been spoilt for choices since they come from a HTPC background, and stress their media streamers to the limit (even beyond the officially supported specifications). Sometimes, they are pleasantly surprised by some available unadvertised feature (like the TrueHD bitstreaming in WDTV Live, which wasn't part of the initial specifications). Most of time, though, various limitations start showing up, both in terms of hardware capabilities and software support. These are dealt with in the reviews of the individual products. The end consumer needs to look at his requirements before choosing a media streamer. In addition, reviews on the net should cater to what the market really wants, and not rehash the marketing speak from the companies. Anandtech is working on creating a comprehensive suite of test streams to identify the capabilities as well as shortcomings of the various media streamer platforms. Towards this, we have identified the following features which differentiate the various platforms, both from a hardware as well as software perspective.

  1. Audio & video container support (MKV / MP4 / MOV / AVI / FLV / WebM etc.)
  2. Video codecs (H264 / VC-1 / Real Media / VP8 etc.)
  3. Audio codecs (Dolby / DTS / FLAC / Ogg Vorbis / WMA Pro / HD Audio - Decoding / Bitstreaming)
  4. Multiple subtitle formats
  5. Interlaced video streams in different codecs
  6. Specific video & audio codec quirks (such as weighted P-frame prediction & unreasonable number of reference frames for H264)
  7. Maximum video & audio bitrate
  8. Maximum video frame rate

Readers are welcome to suggest other aspects which need to be added to this test suite.

While this roundup article may not have an analytical conclusion, I will bring it to a close by listing out the platforms which we will closely follow in the coming days with respect to the above features:

  1. Atom + Ion / Ion2 [ x86 + Nvidia custom HD decode engine ]
  2. Mediatek 8520 Series [ ARM11 + Mediatek custom HD decode engine ]
  3. Sigma Designs 86xx Series [ MIPS + Sigma Designs custom HD decode engine ]
  4. Realtek 1073/1283 Series [ MIPS + Realtek custom HD decode engine ]
  5. Nvidia Tegra2 [ ARM Cortex-A9 + Nvidia low power custom HD decode engine ]
  6. Samsung S5PV210 [ ARM Cortex-A8 + Samsung low power custom HD decode engine ]
  7. Telechips TCC89xx [ ARM11 + Chips&Media Boda series HD decode engine ]
  8. Intel CE4100 [ x86 + Intel custom HD decode engine ]

Stay tuned for exclusive analysis of the capabilities of each of the above platforms from Anandtech in the near future!

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