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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  • Goty - Monday, July 19, 2010 - link

    Unfortunately, the lack of even the ability to include a TV tuner in this system kills it for me. If all I am going to do is use it as a Blu-Ray player and DLNA client, I've already got a PS3 that handles both admirably. Reply
  • Allio - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    I agree. I don't understand the niche this system fills - if your needs aren't met by the existing set-top devices, you probably want to do serious gaming on it or use it as a DVR. What exactly does this do better than an ION system, other than be more expensive? Is anyone really encoding video on their HTPCs? That's what my power hungry quad core is for. Reply
  • RamarC - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    ditto. as soon as i saw the external power supply, i immediately started the laptop comparison. it's bigger than a laptop but still has the same limited expansion capability. considering i just got similar a i3 based laptop for a niece going to college for only $550, i can't see why i wouldn't go with the lappy over this mini box. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    RamarC,

    After having used this unit for 2 weeks in the process of writing the review, I do have to say that the same thought crossed my mind.

    However, ASRock does have some compelling points:

    1. HTPC centric features such as Instant Boot
    2. MCE Remote + I/R Receiver
    3. AiWi gaming feature
    4. Expansion slot for 2nd hard disk
    5. Better audio codec
    6. Blu-Ray drive (may also be on the laptop)

    Basically, the laptop's monitor & keyboard / trackpad get exchanged for the above features and the unit ends up at the same cost as the notebook.
    Reply
  • quiksilvr - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    That's not worth it. I suggest you return it and get a notebook. There are laptops out there with quick launch, an IR receiver, discrete graphics for actual gaming, usb ports for that 2nd hard disk, and expresscard slots for better audio codecs.

    And on top of all that, you get a screen, a keyboard and a trackpad and mobilitiy.

    If this HTPC had discrete graphics and a $500 price tag instead of a $600-$700, then it would be pretty cool. But given that it doesn't, it's not worth it.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    quiksilvr,

    This HTPC is supposed to be a companion box for a TV, and as such its 'non-mobile' nature is supposed to lend itself to tasks such as running downloads overnight, and recording TV programs with external tuners and so on and so forth.

    For a laptop with the specs you mention, the cost is probably going to be in the $900 - $1000 range. We have done the cost analysis, and it looks like ASRock is just charging a $90 premium (probably lesser if you go with the DVD drive). I believe this will be a compelling investment for people thinking about streamers such as the C-200 from PopCornHour or the Dune and other similar products. They can get an exponential rise in performance and available utilities for a couple of $100s more.

    Yes, I agree that notebooks could be a great choice.. provided they fit your usage scenario.
    Reply
  • Milleman - Wednesday, July 28, 2010 - link

    I use the Zotac MAG Ion w. Intel 330, together with XBMC. Works just great as a streaming device for all my movies on the media server.

    ganeshts...
    You should consider to include XBMC Live (dedicated SBMC Linux installation) in your reviews as well.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Wednesday, July 28, 2010 - link

    Milleman,

    Thanks for your suggestion. XBMC Live doesn't support HD audio bitstreaming, which is fast becoming one of the most important aspects for HTPCs.

    I will definitely keep in mind your suggestion for future reviews.
    Reply
  • doxxius - Wednesday, July 28, 2010 - link

    Well, I use the separate optical audio output jack on the rear which I connect to the audio receiver. Works great for me. But maybe some prefer to have it inside the HDMI cable. Reply
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    For HTPC enthusiasts:

    1. This box can bitstream HD audio to the A/V receiver, while the ION can't.

    2. The CPU is much more powerful than the Atom, and the user has the option to let the box run overnight to do tasks (such as downloads and encodes) without running their quad cores. This is a greener alternative.

    The opinion that people don't run encodes on their HTPCs is because of the fact that such form factor machines (usually based on Atom) aren't capable enough. With this Arrandale offering, that possibility is getting opened up.

    Usage as a DVR is possible using an external USB TV tuner.
    Reply

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