A Better HTPC Card: MPEG-4 ASP Decoding & LPCM Audio

Along with the addition of DirectX 10.1 functionality, the latest members of NVIDIA’s GPU lineup have picked up a couple of new tricks specifically geared towards HTPC use.

The first of these is a newer video decoding engine. Officially NVIDIA is moving away from the VP* moniker, but for the time being we’re sticking to it as we don’t have a better way of easily differentiating the feature sets of various video decoding engines. NVIDIA’s vendors are calling this VP4, and so are we.

Successive VPs have focused on adding support for additional video formats. VP2 had full H.264 decoding, and VP3 (which never made it into a GTX 200 series part) added VC-1 decoding. For VP4, NVIDIA has added support for full decoding of MPEG-4 (Advanced) Simple Profile, better known as DivX or XviD. With this addition, NVIDIA can now offload the decoding of most of the MPEG formats – the only thing not supported is MPEG-1, which as the oldest codec is trivial to decode on a CPU anyhow.

To be frank, we’re a bit puzzled by this latest addition. By no means are we unhappy (we’ll always take more acceleration!), but MPEG-4 ASP isn’t particularly hard to decode. Even an underclocked Nehalem with only a single core (and no HT) enabled can handle HD-resolution MPEG-4 ASP with ease; never mind what even a low-end dual-core Pentium or Celeron can do. This would be a good match for the Atom, but those almost always use integrated graphics (and Ion isn’t slated to get VP4 any time soon). So while this addition is nice to have, it’s not the kind of game changer that adding H.264 and VC-1 were.

The unfortunate news here is that while the hardware is ready, the software is not, and this is something that caught us off-guard since these parts have been going to OEMs since July. NVIDIA has yet to enable MPEG-4 ASP acceleration in their drivers, and won’t be doing so until the release 195 drivers. So at this point we can’t even tell you how well this feature works. We’re not pleased with this, but we’re also not particularly broken up about it since as we just mentioned the cost of CPU decoding isn’t very much in the first place.

On a final note with video decoding, one of NVIDIA’s marketing pushes with this launch is touting the fact that they have been working with Adobe to bring video decode acceleration to Adobe Flash 10.1, and that the GT 220/G 210 series are well suited for this. This is going to be absolutely fantastic to have since Flash Video is a CPU-hog, but Flash 10.1 is still 6 months (or more) away from being released. More to the point, as far as we know this is being implemented via DXVA, which means everyone else will get acceleration too. And notably, this is only for H.264, as VP6 (the older Flash Video codec) is not supported in hardware on any card.

Moving on, the other new HTPC feature is that NVIDIA has finally stepped up their game with respect to HDMI audio on cards with discrete GPUs. Gone is the S/PDIF cable to connect a card to an audio codec, which means NVIDIA is no longer limited to 2-channel LPCM or 5.1 channel DD/DTS for audio. Now they are passing audio over the PCIe bus, which gives them the ability to support additional formats. 8 channel LPCM is in, as are the lossy formats DD+ and 6 channel AAC. However Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio bitstreaming are not supported, so it’s not quite the perfect HTPC card. Lossless audio is possible through LPCM, but there won’t be any lossless audio bitstreaming.

Finally, we’re still waiting to see someone do a passive cooled design for the GT 220. The power usage is low enough that it should be possible with a dual-slot heatsink, but the only cards we’ve seen thus far are actively cooled single-slot solutions with the heatsink sticking out some.

DirectX 10.1 on an NVIDIA GPU? Palit’s GT 220 Sonic Edition
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  • Joe90 - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    Last week I bought a Medion P6620 laptop. It's fitted with an Nvidia 220M graphics card with 512MB of GDDR3 ram. The blurb of the box said it was a DirectX 10.1 card. Have NV released any details about the laptop 220M as well as the desktop 220? All I could find out from Wikipedia & Notebookcheck.net was that the 220M was a 40 micron version of the 9600M GT but the Anandtech review suggests that things are more complicated than this.

    My only contribution to the debate is that I picked up this laptop for a paltry £399. Given that my machine has a T6500, 320GB HD, all I can think is that NV has be giving away the 220M to OEMs for pennies!

    Finally, has anyone seen any signs of Windows 7 drivers for the 220M? I got a freebie upgrade but I'm a bit scared of using it just in case there were no drivers for a graphics card that NV don't recognise on their own website.

    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    I'm assuming http://www.nvidia.com/object/notebook_winvista_win...">these won't work? I know they don't list 220M, but they're the latest official drivers from NVIDIA; otherwise you're stuck with whatever the notebook manufacturer has delivered. I'd guess NVIDIA will have updated mobile notebook reference drivers relatively soon, though, to coincide with the official Win7 launch. Reply
  • Joe90 - Tuesday, October 13, 2009 - link

    Many thanks for the link. I think you're right. Although this NV driver page refers to the '200 series', it doesn't explicitly mention the 220M card. Until it does, I'll hang back from doing the Windows 7 upgrade.

    As it happens, I've only just made the leap from XP to Vista. Despite all the bad stuff I've read, Vista seems ok so I might just stick with it for a while. I'm finding I can play games ok with the Vista/220M combination. I'm currently playing FEAR 2 at 1366 x 768 with all the detail settings on maximum and the game plays fine. Given the low price of the laptop, I'm more than happy with the graphics performance.

    Reply
  • JarredWalton - Tuesday, October 13, 2009 - link

    I've never had a true hate for Vista, but there are areas I dislike (several clicks just to get to resolution adjustment, for example). Windows 7 is better in pretty much every way as far as I can tell, although it's not like Vista is horrible and Win7 is awesome. It's more like Vista reached a state of being "good enough" and 7 addresses a few remaining flaws.

    Now, if someone at MS would fix the glitch where my laptop power settings keep resetting.... (Every few tests, my battery saving options will reset to "default" and turn screen saver, system sleep, etc. on after I explicitly disabled it for testing. Annoying!)
    Reply
  • plonk420 - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    it's AMAZING for this gen's "lowest end" (at retail)... beats the pants off my 9400GT currently in my HTPC. probably even equals or betters my once only 2 generation old nearly high end HD3850.

    this is going in my HTPC in a heartbeat when it hits $30-35 (unless power consumption is stupid high, which i don't think it is. i THINK i read about this somewhere else, and someone was moaning about it using 4 watts more than some ATI part it was being compared to).
    Reply
  • ltcommanderdata - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    Given the more competitive desktop landscape, these new 40nm DX10.1 chips are not impressive at all. However, their mobile derivatives were announced months ago, and in the mobile space where mainstream GPUs seem to be made up of many, many combinations of nVidia's 32SP GPUs, a 40nm 48SP DX10.1 GPU would actually bring something to the table. It'd be great if we can get a review of a notebook with the GT 240M for instance. Reply
  • JarredWalton - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    It looks like there are laptops with GT 240M starting at around $1100, and the jump from there to a 9800M card (96SPs, 256-bit RAM) is very small. Unless you can get GT 240M laptops for around $800, I don't see them being a big deal. Other factors could change my mind, though - battery life perhaps, or size/form factor considerations. Reply
  • apple3feet - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    For some people, the most important detail of any new NVIDIA card is the CUDA Compute Capability. Will it run my scientific simulation code? Only if the CUDA Compute Capability is 1.3 - so that it supports double precision floating point arithmetic. Could we have just one line somewhere to tell us this vital info? Reply
  • jasperjones - Monday, October 12, 2009 - link

    LOL,for dgemm (double-precision matrix multiplication) the GTX 285 is only about twice as fast as a Core i7 920 (using CUBLAS and Intel MKL, respectively).

    This suggests you shouldn't run your double precision code on a GT 220. Hell, even running CUDA code on your CPU using emulation might be faster than running on the GT 220..
    Reply
  • apple3feet - Wednesday, October 14, 2009 - link

    You're wrong. Given the right problem, tackled using the right algorithm, and well-written code, TESLAs can do 20x the throughput of a Nehalem - even in double precision. Reply

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