The Almost Perfect HTPC Card

When AMD told us that the Radeon 5000 series would offer bitstreaming audio support, our first thought was “this will make an excellent HTPC card.” Unfortunately since AMD started the launch at the high-end, we’ve had to wait some time for bitstreaming audio to cascade down to the passive cards best suited for an HTPC. With the launch of the 5450, that has finally come to fruition.

This in turn has lead us to reexamine the HTPC situation in order to see if the 5450 is really powerful enough for video-only HTPCs. While the Radeon 4350 and 4550 raised the bar for HTPC cards by offering 8-channel LPCM audio, problems ultimately surfaced with their video capabilities. Since deinterlacing and other AVIVO post-processing actions are done by the shader hardware, the limited shading capabilities of these cards meant that AMD couldn’t offer the full suite of AVIVO abilities at once. It was still enough to get perfect scores on the HD HQV test, but these deficiencies became apparently under the wrong situations.

The chief complaint here was that AMD’s best and most computationally intensive deinterlacing mode - Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing - wasn’t always made available for HD resolution video. This has waffled back and forth depending on the driver version, but right now AMD’s drivers lock out this feature (and most of the other AVIVO features) if Smooth Video Playback is enabled. So 4350/4550 owners had to choose between VA and other features without being able to have it all.


AVIVO Control Panel

When doing the research for this review we came across these complaints, and also a very interesting test for the issue: a specially crafted heavily interlaced 1080i MPEG-2 file called Cheese Slices, made by blaubart of the AV Science Forum. Cheese Slices is what amounts to an stress test that has more noise and interlacing artifacts in it than any real video would have, and is more than deinterlacers today can handle. It’s an unfair test – but that’s by design – as it does a very good job of highlighting when Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing is in use. With Cheese Slices, we can easily tell if Vector Adaptive mode is being used, or a lesser mode like Motion Adaptive is in use by what happens to the angled lines inside the geometric figures. Smooth lines are Vector Adaptive deinterlaced, jagged lines are deinterlaced with a lesser mode.


Reference quality: non-interlaced


Radeon 5670 Deinterlacing


Radeon 5450 Deinterlacing

For the sake of reference, the Radeon 5670 and higher pass this test. Cards at that performance level have more than enough shader power to process all of the AVIVO effects and provide Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing at the same time, and this is the same case for the 4600 series. The 4550 on the other hand fails this test so long as Smooth Video Playback is enabled, as it’s outright disabling Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing.

As for the 5450, the results aren’t quite what we were hoping for. AMD believes that the 5450 is powerful enough that they allow it to use all of the AVIVO processing features at once, which means the drivers allow us to turn on things like Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing and denoising even when Smooth Video Playback is enabled. However in our tests with Smooth Video Playback enabled, Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing isn’t used even when we force it through the drivers. Everything else works with Smooth Video Playback enabled, just not Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing. If we disable Smooth Video Playback, then Vector Adaptive Deinterlacing will kick in.

We’ve informed AMD of our findings, and they’re still looking in to the issue. However we believe that the problem is ultimately a lack of resources on the 5450 to handle all of this, so we’ll see what they come up with.

It also wouldn’t be fair on our part to harp on this too much, as by no means is the 5450 a bad HTPC card. Everything else works correctly and AMD’s Motion Adaptive mode is quite good. In fact the only practical reason that Vector Adaptive mode matters is that it handles one thing better than Motion Adaptive: angled lines. The lines on sports fields suffer badly from interlacing artifacts, and Motion Adaptive mode can’t completely reconstruct them correctly; you need Vector Adaptive to accomplish this. So the only issue with the 5450 as an HTPC card is that it’s not a great choice for watching sports on a large TV where Motion Adaptive Deinterlacing would result in jagged lines on the field.

     
Sports field lines: Non-interlaced on the left, 5450 Deinterlaced on the right

It’s a small edge case, but it’s something that keeps the 5450 from being the perfect HTPC card. Most people should be fine with Motion Adaptive deinterlacing, but if you need perfect AVIVO performance from an AMD card, you’re going to need a Redwood card such as the 5670 at this point in time. This stands as something AMD can improve for videophiles for their next series of low-end cards, similar to how they improved things for audiophiles by adding bitstreaming audio support for the 5000-series.

We also quickly tested NVIDIA’s lower-end cards here to see how they fare. NVIDIA doesn’t offer as many post-processing controls as AMD does, instead leaving it up to the drivers to decide on most things. NVIDIA’s hardware is capable of similar deinterlacing abilities as AMD’s hardware, it just isn’t user-selectable.


GeForce 210 Deinterlacing


GeForce GT 220 Deinterlacing

The GeForce 210 fares better than the 5450 with Smooth Video Playback here, but it still produces a rough output. Once we move up to the GT220, NVIDIA’s deinterlacer fully catches up and perfectly deinterlaces the angled lines on Cheese Slices.

Finally, if you’d like to see the full 1920x1080 resolution screenshots of our tests, you can get them here.

Meet the Sapphire 5450 The Test
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  • Taft12 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Replying to my own post to say I reread the 5670 article and indeed the 5500 series is mentioned there and I am VERY sure this is what Ryan was referring to earlier when he said "wait a week" Reply
  • juampavalverde - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I dont see the improvement over the past generation 4550. DX11 is useless in such slow cards (is almost useless for a 5670!). I expect this level of performance from a next gen IGP, not a discrete chip. AMD should have raised high the performance bar for this generation, releasing something like 5450 (120 sp), 5670 (640 sp, like 4770), 5770 (960 sp), and 80 sp for the IGP. Reply
  • Taft12 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    The improvement is purely in power consumption. They can't improve performance of these lowest-end discrete cards or IGPs too much or they will eat into the value of the next step up (4670, 5670). You may "expect this level of performance" but you aren't gonna get it. Reply
  • Rick83 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I'd be rather interested in seeing a differentail analysis of power consumption of the two ATI cards (5450/5670) at rendering a h264 encoded 1080p movie with dts out via the card, as well as blu-ray with "HD".
    And a video benchmark, to show how much bitrate/fps the respective cards manage, before desync/framedrop/freeze.
    Power during furmark (or gaming) is of course higher on the 5670, because it has five times as many shaders to feed - depending on how smart ATI's power management is, the two cards might not differ a lot, if used in an HTPC.
    And frankly, the 50 dollars extra would be probably worth the extra rendering/decoding horsepower, especially in an HTPC, where you want buttery smooth performance, and not worry about bitrate.
    Oh - any news on passive 5670's? If they can do 5750's, I'm sure there'll be a few 5670's someday?
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    This isn't something we tested since it really isn't an issue. The Cheese Slices test peaks at 35MBps MPEG-2, and I have an H.264 version that peaks at a similar bitrate.

    The 5450 has enough power for anything up to 1080p Blu-Ray.
    Reply
  • Rick83 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Well, considering the extra shader load added by filters, apparently it may not be - or the proper algorithm for deinterlacing would have been available.

    And that also leaves the question of the power draw of a 5670 at 5450 levels of performance - I'm pretty sure that in an HTPC, unless you use it as a console replacement for gaming, there will ever be a situation where the gpu is fully loaded, hence power input should be lower than the full-tilt number you published.
    Reply
  • dagamer34 - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    Most HTPCs are meant to be small, and there's no way you're going to be able to fit a 5700 series card into a low-profile space. I know they had 4650s last generation, but there aren't any 5650s yet. =/ Reply
  • Redstorm - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    I just cant see how reviewers are claiming this card is the perfect HTPC video card. Not everyone uses Microsofts Media Centre. Lack of VDPAU support for Linux is a glaring hole in all ATI cards, If I were building a gameing PC today I would probably buy an ATI 5870, But if your building a low power HTPC you cant go past nVidia and VDPAU support. Take their ION platform will do 1080p in hardware on Linux for less than 30Watts this beats this ATI offering hands down when you add in Motherboard and CPU.

    Best HTPC card I think not...
    Reply
  • CiNcH - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    XvBA is also said to be working, which also acts as a backend to VA-API, just like VDPAU. They are even examinig the legal situation and whether the UVD specs can be opened to be support within the OSS (xf86-video-ati) driver. Of course nothing that will be done by tomorrow.

    What I think would be worth mentioning, when it comes to HTPC comparing nVIDIA and ATi, is that UVD won't play H.264 higher than level 4.1. nVIDIA's PureVideo is capable of decoding up to level 5.1.
    Reply
  • milli - Thursday, February 4, 2010 - link

    The Evergreen series does apply angle independent anisotropic filtering. Also the fixed function interpolators have been removed and moved to the shaders.
    Considering the limited power of the HD 5450, this causes a bigger performance drop compared to the other Evergreen products.
    Reply

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