We finally have tons of machines that come in these tiny little boxes, sometimes with pretty interfaces, that hook straight up to our TVs. We’ve been asking for this for years and we finally have it. They’re even downright affordable. In order to make them affordable, they use cheap hardware. In particular, slow CPUs. they’re not that bad. Definitely fast enough to browse a bunch of movies or TV shows, but generally too slow to play back high definition video.

Pine Trail, a great little platform, uses very little power, it just can't play 1080p video

NVIDIA built an entire platform out of addressing this deficiency. It’s called ION, and it mates a fast-enough-for-most-things CPU with a GPU capable of decoding 1080p video. Hooray for NVIDIA. Here’s the problem - ION is not retrofittable.

ION, it's a new system, not an upgrade

If you have a non-ION netbook, nettop, AppleTV, Mac Mini, or other impressively tiny device that you want to use to drive high definition video you can’t. And you can’t upgrade them to enable such support.

It’s not like buying a hard drive or more memory. Well, it wasn’t at least.

In one of my last articles on ION I talked about XBMC being one of the best applications for the platform. It delivers a better UI for watching downloaded content than Windows Media Center does, and the Linux version has full hardware acceleration support for ION. Oh, and it’s free.

Last week it got even better. The next major version of XBMC, codenamed Camelot, came out with a whole bunch of new features. I haven’t had a chance to play with it yet but it definitely looks cool.

And today it just got incredible. Thanks to the efforts of Scott Davilla, the XBMC developers and Broadcom there’s now full support for the Broadcom Crystal HD decoder (BCM970012) in all versions of XBMC. The code has been merged into XBMC as of this morning and will be available in the next release of the project.

The mini PCIe BCM970012 from Logic Supply

The Crystal HD chip is currently available on mini PCIe cards, and is expected to make its way to ExpressCard and PCIe x1 cards in the future. This is huge because many netbooks, nettops and existing devices like the AppleTV or Mac Mini have at least one mini PCIe slot. A $69 mini PCIe card (or $25 on eBay) with the Crystal HD chip on it plus the next version of XBMC can enable full 1080p playback on any of these machines that would otherwise not be able to play high def video. Not to mention that you can get some of these devices second hand or refurbished for much less than the cost of a new ION system.

It’s extra sweet because the driver is open source, so we can expect to see it more than just XBMC. The next official release of XBMC is likely some time away, but support has already been added to the SVN release.

The full press release from XBMC is below.

Broadcom Crystal HD, It's Magic.

1080p HD content playback has always been the Holy Grail for any Media Center application but this has traditionally been difficult; playback using software decode alone requires a very hefty CPU and hardware decoding has only been made available recently using the nVidia's VPDAU technology, available only on Linux. Windows has its own platform specific solutions and poor old OSX has no public APIs available at all. There really is nothing around with a common API that enables hardware accelerated 1080p HD content playback that can also be used under all three major platforms (OSX, Linux, and Windows). Well, that situation is about to change.

Through hard work and the joint efforts of several TeamXBMC/Redhat developers and the Broadcom Media PC Group, cross-platform hardware decoding of mpeg2, h.264 and VC1 video content up to 1080p will be coming to XBMC on OSX, Linux, and Windows via the Broadcom Crystal HD Hardware Decoder (BCM970012). The Broadcom Crystal HD is available now in a mini-PCIE card with ExpressCard and 1X PCIE form factors to follow. This means that the AppleTV and all those lovely new netbooks, Eee Boxes and older Intel Mac Minis have exciting new potential.

This solution has a common programming API, so many 3rd party developers and applications will be able to leverage hardware accelerated video content playback across OSX, Linux, and Windows platforms with minimal source code changes. Best of all, this is an open source solution with full source code for driver and library available for OSX and Linux under a GPL/LGPL license. Wow, this indeed is the Holy Grail and a major score for the open source community as this means no more tainted Linux kernels! Support has already been added to XBMC under the svn trunk. Other media projects such as FFmpeg, MythTV and Xine will soon follow as their developers add

The Linux source code for the driver and library can be found at the Broadcom web site. For OSX, the binaries and source code for the driver and library will be hosted at http://crystalhd-for-osx.googlecode.com. Users in the USA can purchase the Crystal HD mini PCIE card from Logic Supply for $69 and of course, there's always ebay for those outside the USA.

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  • icrf - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    I'm guessing that Flash 10.1 doesn't support this chip for offloading the video decoding. That's an extra bit of software support that has to be added to any application.

    What would have been nice is if they somehow got this chip to implement some piece of the VDPAU or DXVA APIs. I'm guessing Nvidia can do that because they have some generic vector hardware, but this Broadcom chip is more special-purpose and only supports decoding these kinds of video codecs, which means it can't implement those APIs, only decode functions specific to what it supports. These functions then have to be explicitly supported in every piece of playback software.
  • Kermee - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    Taken from: http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/flashplayer10/r...">http://labs.adobe.com/technologies/flashplayer10/r...


    Hardware video decoding of H.264 content in Flash Player 10.1 is supported on the Broadcom BCM70012 video decoding chipset, found in systems with Broadcom Crystal HD Enhanced Video Accelerator hardware. Driver support is available at www.broadcom.com/support.
  • icrf - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    I stand corrected. Sorry to mislead.
  • crim - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    So, let me get this straight, I can buy Intel's new Pinetrail board and then drop this Broadcom chip into for full 1080p playback ability.... but Pinetrail (D510MO) doesn't have ANY SORT of digital connection. Instead, pretty much the only boards that have this are Ion boards which begs the question "why?" if Ion can already do what Broadcom is trying to do?? The only Intel board you can use this on is the D945GSEJT.... which I guess means that I'm probably going to pick one up even though it uses the slower/crappier single core Atom.... Ugh. I just wish Intel would stop trying to screw us and release the D510MO with DVI or HDMI out on it....
  • yuhong - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    I think that is just a limitation of the on-die graphics, which supports only LVDS or VGA output.
  • Kermee - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    Give it time. I'm sure other board manufacturers will come out with miniITX boards based off Pinetrail (i.e. Zotac, ASUS, etc.) -- Intel got theirs out first for obvious reasons and without DVI/HDMI which I agree with you... is stupid.
  • mczak - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    The limitation of no dvi/hdmi output seems to come from pinetrail, not the motherboards (my biggest gripe with pinetrail, long before the no-video-decode). The official specs say lvds (limited to fairly low resolution), and VGA, so it seems to lack TMDS transmitter if true. I can't see how other manufacturers would add digital outputs, short of adding a discrete gpu... This was possible with the old boards at least in theory, since the i945 chipset had sdvo output, which could be used to implement (at the cost of a separate chip) dvi/hdmi.
  • wkeller - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    I have read somewhere (sorry) a review of a thin MSI netbox with the Broadcom BCM970012, which wasn't good in terms of 1080p and Flash playback. There is a new (better?) version called Broadcom BCM970015 announced recently (and certified for Pine by Intel).

    Additionally, we need an available HDMI connector to have a useful upgrade, I think. Both are scarce at netbooks etc. Most netbooks with HDMI already has an ION chip or so.
  • AmdInside - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    The AppleTV should actually be powerful enough to do 1080p. It is likely capped by Apple for heat purposes since it already runs so hot when playing back 720p video.
  • sprockkets - Tuesday, December 29, 2009 - link

    All my worries about no open source drivers for this chip are gone. I didn't think they would be cooperative with their behavior with their wifi cards.

    Frankly, whether it be ION or Pinetrail, all I care about is that the system is fanless, and if at all possible, solid state as well.

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