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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  • StormyParis - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    I'm disappointed by your excluding AMD. I seem to remember a test in which Dell's Zino HD played Bluray perfectly, and HD Flash almost perfectly with a beta flash player. That makes it "good enough" in my book, and I'm contemplating either a Zino or an AMD Zbox for my next Office PC. Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    I did mention the Zino HD in the final paragraph on Page 2 (HTPC based platforms). In our opinion, the Ion / Atom based nettops are somewhat better than the AMD based nettops. If the ZinoHD or the Zbox had a HD 4xxx series based motherboard, things could have been a little different. As is, the Ion series gives same video decode capabilities as the GeForce 9400.. while the Zbox / ZinoHD tend to not have the same capabilities ; All said, it depends on the usage scenario, and if Blu Ray and flash playback is all that you need, then the Zino / Zbox might be well suited. Reply
  • Hubble70 - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    The Zino HD has an available 4330 graphics card if you want HD audio and better video performance. Also, the Zino's deinterlacing performance is subpar not because of the onboard graphics, but because it uses an Athlon based CPU that uses hypertransport 2.0 instead of an Athlon II CPU that has hypertransport 3.0. The onboard graphics is memory bandwidth starved, and the 3200 graphics in the Zino is perfectly capable of good deinterlacing if you drop in a CPU with hypertransport 3. Either way, its still able to do full acceleration of BD and other formats. Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Thanks, fixed :) Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Sorry, my bad! Fixed :) Reply
  • JPVann - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Although they are hacked using existing APIs, there are two different projects that now stream both Music and Video to your TV via the ROKU. Both install extremely easily and require no hacking or programming skills.

    Coupled with all the current 'Channels', Netflix, MLB Baseball, Facebook etc the ROKU is one capable box. Upgrades have been constant and full of content since I bought mine last Nov.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    JPVann, Thanks for the info. Since local media playback is not officially supported, we classified Roku as a Internet only media streamer. Hopefully, the new Roku box will officially support streaming media through its USB port.

    The problem with the original Roku is that there is no USB port. So, the user is at the mercy of his network connection speeds for high definition Blu Ray videos. Local content 'streamers' usually have USB or eSATA ports, and that is our criterion to classify a player as a local media streamer.

    Another issue with both Roku and Vudu is that they utilize chipsets originally intended for set top boxes and not dedicated media streamers. As such, the experience delivered from the WDTVs and the OPlays are quite different from the restricted environment of the IP set top box platforms.
    Reply
  • CorrND - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    I agree, Roku is quite capable, very affordable and already has the Channel Store (aka App Store) model that is a leading contender model for future content delivery. They have an installed base of 500k (as of January '10), expected to increase to nearly 1M this year, and a non-exclusive (but preferential) partner in Netflix. For a relative newcomer, they're sitting on pretty good ground for now.

    The thing that is going to kill Roku is the rumors that Apple is going to re-release Apple TV with the iPhone/iPad OS. That will place Apple TV in direct competition with the Channel/App Store model that Roku already uses. The difference will be the additional Apple clout and industry connections that Roku can't possibly compete with.
    Reply
  • flamethrower - Sunday, June 13, 2010 - link

    Is support for Asian characters. Basically does the thing support unicode in subtitles and filenames.
    That is probably not something many people in the Anandtech audience would like to see tested though. It might be included in "multiple subtitle formats" but I think you had something else in mind for testing this.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    flamethrower, Thanks for the pointer. We will keep this in mind. In fact, we already have a sample file with subtitles in more than 20 different languages (though this particular file is not related to the 'multiple subtitle formats' we mentioned). We will report languages which don't display correctly in the review. Reply

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