HTPC Credentials - Network Streaming and Local Playback

Given the ECS LIVA's fanless nature and the presence of Intel HD Graphics, we expect most purchasers to use it as a media playback machine / HTPC. Given the specifications, it is quite clear that we are not looking at a madVR capable machine, but one targeted at the entry-level / average HTPC user or someone looking for a HTPC to put in a second or third room (non-primary HTPC). There are two HTPC aspects that we will explore in this section, one related to network streaming (OTT services), and the other related to local file playback. Prior to that, we have a small sub-section dealing with refresh rate accuracy.

Custom Refresh Rates

We found last year that Haswell provided excellent display refresh rate accuracy, but never tested out Bay Trail systems on that aspect. Fortunately, our experience with the ECS LIVA put any lingering doubts to rest.

The gallery below presents some of the other refresh rates that we tested out. The first statistic in madVR's OSD indicates the display refresh rate. madVR itself drops plenty of frames to keep up with the playback requirements (which is expected given the system specifications), but those are not related to the refresh rate of the display.

Network Streaming Efficiency

Evaluation of OTT playback efficiency was done by playing back our standard YouTube test stream and five minutes from our standard Netflix test title. Using HTML5, the YouTube stream plays back a 720p encoding, while Adobe Flash delivers a 1080p stream. The power consumption at the wall as well as the GPU usage while playing them on Mozilla Firefox are provided in the graphs below.

YouTube Streaming - HTML5

YouTube Streaming - Adobe Flash

Netflix streaming evaluation was done using the Windows 8.1 Netflix app. Manual stream selection is available (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-S) and debug information / statistics can also be viewed (Ctrl-Alt-Shift-D). Statistics collected for the YouTube streaming experiment were also collected here.

Playback using Adobe Flash is leaner on the resources compared HTML5 streaming. This is likely due to the fact that the HTML5 stream delivers a 720p version which needs scaling in addition to decoding for display on a 1080p screen. In any case, the power numbers for YouTube and Netflix streaming are the lowest that we have seen on a desktop machine so far.

Decoding and Rendering Benchmarks

In order to evaluate local file playback, we concentrate on XBMC's native decoding / rendering (used by the average HTPC user) and the combination of native DXVA decoding with EVR and EVR-CP (using MPC-HC v1.7.3). The following table summarizes the GPU usage and power consumption at the wall in various cases. Numbers in bold indicate visible dropped frames.

ECS LIVA - Decoding & Rendering Performance
Stream EVR EVR-CP XBMC
  GPU Load (%) Power (W) GPU Load (%) Power (W) GPU Load (%) Power (W)
480i60 MPEG2 75.44 6.22 69.64 6.14 80.62 7.19
576i50 H264 72.94 5.81 68.85 5.81 42.16 4.91
720p60 H264 74.46 6.87 79.47 7.55 86.32 6.86
1080i60 MPEG2 92.78 8.17 98.44 8.40 87.73 7.82
1080i60 H264 98.78 8.51 95.71 8.44 91.65 8.07
1080i60 VC1 98.03 8.49 97.88 8.52 88.95 7.98
1080p60 H264 80.63 7.39 98.37 8.63 88.63 8.06
1080p24 H264 36.80 5.30 45.89 5.70 43.23 5.20
4Kp30 H264 67.39 6.47 99.13 8.58 70.36 6.59

The ECS LIVA is more than sufficient for XBMC playback of common media files (DVD - 480i60, Blu-ray - 1080p24 etc.). It is only when it comes to high resolution / high frame-rate interlaced videos that problems start creeping in. That said, I do believe that the average / entry-level HTPC user's playback requirements probably don't include such video streams.

HD audio bitstreaming works if one downloads the audio drivers directly off Intel's website. However, with the Netflix Windows 8.1 app in our setup (ECS LIVA + Pioneer Elite VSX-32 + Sony KDL46EX720), attempts to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus resulted in the video completely freezing. This is the same bug that I talked about in the Intel NUC review at the beginning of the year, and it continues to be unresolved to this date. In fact, this problem is not restricted to the Netflix app, but even XBMC, if it attempts to bitstream Dolby Digital Plus in non-WASAPI mode. As a non-primary HTPC, users are probably not going to use the ECS LIVA to bitstream HD audio. Intel should still look into it for using their iGPU in a primary HTPC. The problem is quite clearly in the Intel HD Audio driver, and a fix for that is long overdue.   
   

Performance Metrics Power Consumption and Thermal Performance
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  • dylan522p - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    Yes Vent is not demanding at all unless you are getting DDOSed or you have like hundreds on it. Reply
  • coburn_c - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    I'm going to shamelessly plug OpenELEC for nettops. I'm running it on an old e-350 and it's fantastic. I tweeted them about steam streaming support and they said its a mid-term goal. It really is excellent. Reply
  • Rocket321 - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    Would love to see a model with 2x Gigibit LAN + Wifi AC as a x86 router offering. They could drop the eMMC down to 8GB or include an empty SD slot to help with cost. Reply
  • varg14 - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    I think it is way overpriced....now if it had 64gb of memory and just another gb of ram for a total of 3GB and then costed $150 I think it would be a great system to just surf the net and stream movies from your network. I would get 3 of them for the other 3 TV's I do not have a HTPC hooked up to.
    Heck 2 years ago I purchased 2 Gateway refurbished computers for a total of$560 with operating systems included. Both were Sandy based..I picked these up when it was on sale for 329$ that included a 7200rpm 1TB HDD 6GB of DDR3 1333 a wireless card and a great I3 2120 cpu i added a 7750 his icooler video card for $80 and it games very well considering the power supply is only 300 watts and has no pci e power connector, but not a problem the silent dual slot his 7750 icooler takes all its power from the pcie 16x slot....a great HTPC and light gaming rig to compliment my 2600k EVGA GTX 770 Classified 4gb ACX sli gaming/server tower along with another gateway slim u11p i picked up for 229$ that had a g530 CPU on a h-61 chipset 4GB of DDR3 1066 and a 5000GB 7200rpm drive then added a asus 6570 1gb LProfile card for $40 and clocked it to 800mhz games ok too :) I also picked up a i3 2125 for $40 since I use The Smooth Video project that ups the 24fps MKVs to 60 FPS and also uses madvr and MPHC I had to add the discrete video cards. It was well worth it since the picture is better on my Panasonic VT30 55" Plasma then a discrete Blu ray player. I highly suggest Trying the SVP project if you have not yet tried it. It comes in a neat easy to install package with everything included MPHC, MADvr and SVP. Movies and TV shows look a heck of a lot better at 60fps then at 24 or 30 fps. Also when it installs it detects your hardware so it does not overpower your system which is inportant since If I turn everything up to the max it can bring my 2600k @ 4.8ghz to its knees. MADvr I set up to use around 80% of my GPU also on all 3 of my rigs.
    Reply
  • Rocket321 - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    Keep in mind $180 is the MSRP, it may retail around there for a couple of months and then drop based on demand. Plus all your used stuff takes the 1-year warranty out of the mix. Reply
  • jospoortvliet - Friday, December 12, 2014 - link

    And there is the power usage, size and noise side of things... You pay more for this and live with its limitations because it is small, quiet, and uses little power. Reply
  • HangFire - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    I'm really saddened to read the comment " As consumers realized that they could get much better performance per watt from other platforms, the shift to tablets well and truly buried the old nettops and netbooks." It's a shame no one at AT remembers the role of Microsoft in making netbooks what they were, by pushing out Linux and imposing debilitating hardware restrictions on the low-cost models. We could all be typing on 9" micro-laptops with hi-rez displays and quad core CPU's for under $400 right now if it wasn't for the old thrice-convicted monopolist and monopoly abuser Microsoft. Reply
  • kmmatney - Friday, July 18, 2014 - link

    The problem was that not enough people wanted the Linux netbooks... It was too much of a niche market. Reply
  • zepi - Monday, July 21, 2014 - link

    I don't think this is true. There are multiple Chromebooks in Amazon.com top 10 most sold laptops.

    Chromebook is exactly what you are referring to: a small laptop with minimal Linux + browser combination for dummies.
    Reply
  • wireframed - Saturday, July 19, 2014 - link

    As kmmatney said, no one wanted Linux. Sure, everyone wanted a cheap nettop, and they bought the Linux one. Then they got home, tried to install their Windows programs, and none of them worked. When people were told "Oh, you can't run any of your apps on this, you have to find other (often crappier) ones instead", back it went.

    Linux/AltOS advocates seem to forget the OS is, for most people, completely beside the point - the apps are what matter. Linux could be the finest OS in the world, and it STILL wouldn't matter if the apps we need don't run.
    Reply

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