Blu-ray Playback: The Big Feature

Intel’s US15 chipset (codenamed Poulsbo) supports full hardware MPEG-2, VC-1 and H.264 decode acceleration. It’s necessary because Atom is too slow to decode high bitrate video encoded in these formats. Without this hardware decode acceleration, Atom wouldn’t be able to playback Blu-ray or HD video.

Most desktops, notebooks and netbooks based on Atom don’t use the US15 chipset; they use 945G and 945G lacks this hardware decode acceleration support.

NVIDIA’s GeForce 9400M addresses the problem using its PureVideo HD engine, providing support for full hardware decode acceleration of all three of the aforementioned codecs. In other words, you should be able to watch Blu-ray movies on an Ion based PC.

On a Core 2 Duo machine, CPU utilization will be in the single digits (double digits for a single core) while playing a Blu-ray movie on a GeForce 9400 motherboard. Despite the hardware accelerated video decode, the initial handling of the data to be decoded is still done on the CPU. Not to mention that getting the encrypted data off of the disc and decrypting it also happens on the CPU. As important as the GPU is in this situation, you still need a fast CPU to watch a Blu-ray movie. But a fast CPU, the Atom processor is not.

Would the 9400M be enough to let you watch a real Blu-ray movie on an Atom based machine?

NVIDIA included a clip from The Dark Knight Blu-ray on the Ion system’s hard drive for us to test CPU utilization. No thanks. As much as we trust NVIDIA to have selected the most balanced content representative of all Blu-ray movies, and included it on the hard drive it shipped with the Ion reference platform, we thought we’d stick with our own content.

Blu-ray Casino Royale on an Ion

We took our Casino Royale Blu-ray disc and ran it through AnyDVD HD. We ripped the disc and copied the resulting ~46GB ISO to the Ion’s hard drive. We didn’t have an external Blu-ray drive so this was the best method of being able to watch a Blu-ray on the machine.

As expected, hardware acceleration worked. Casino Royale was encoded in H.264 and the Ion platform decoded it flawlessly. CPU utilization was high averaging between 40 - 50% on a single-core Atom machine with Hyper-Threading enabled:

There were some scenes where the CPU utilization peaked to over 90%. While we didn’t see any dropped frames, keep in mind that we’ve already decrypted the disc; the CPU is actually doing less here than if we were playing a Blu-ray disc directly from a drive. I suspect that playing back encrypted content it is possible for the Ion platform to drop frames if CPU utilization jumps out of its comfortable 40 - 50% average.

It’s worth mentioning that the Ion machine rarely jumped up that high in CPU utilization, but it definitely did at a few points while playing Casino Royale. A standard Atom platform with the 945G chipset couldn’t even attempt to play a Blu-ray movie. While there may be some cause for concern that Atom, even paired with the 9400M, won’t always be enough to watch Blu-ray movies on it’s too early to tell. At worst I wouldn’t expect to drop more than a few frames every now and then based on how often I saw the CPU spike above 90% utilization.

I tried enabling both cores on the Atom processor (NVIDIA shipped the Ion reference with a dual-core Atom 330, but with one core disabled) to see if that could alleviate the CPU utilization concerns. Unfortunately I seemed to have run into an NVIDIA or Cyberlink software issue because I couldn’t get smooth Blu-ray playback on Ion with both cores enabled on the Atom 330.

Index Gaming Performance: The Other Advantage
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  • Roy2001 - Tuesday, February 17, 2009 - link

    With single chip solution, it costs less than 945G. nVidia should chanrge less for Ion chip.

    Or it would have no chance, Intel is going to integrate chipset in CPU, it already did, but for MID now.
  • Roy2001 - Sunday, February 15, 2009 - link

    Only a few HTPC lover would buy it. Whoelse? Those who want to play games with Atom? No, you can barely play under 800x600 with lowest quality and barely 30fps. So, who will buy it?
  • Aeridyne - Friday, February 13, 2009 - link

    I just had a great idea for one, would work just fine on the regular 945 systems too... plug in 2 usb controllers for a really mobile little machine to play roms on, mini arcade... i think i just gave myself a reason to buy one :)
  • araczynski - Monday, February 9, 2009 - link

    what's the point of adding all that gpu decoding if it only works to be good 99% of the time? and still releasing it as a finished product?

    like putting sexy tires on a car and saying, every few days they'll go flat on you, but that's ok.

    oh, and try to keep your opinions of what looks ugly and what doesn't to yourself anand, your ego is getting up there with tom's and too many others. stick with the numbers and facts.
  • Penti - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    I don't feel to excited about the Atom any more. 9400M is overrated, mainly because of Apple, a Conroe-L would be so much better too. Atom will never cut it for multimedia. Even the AMD Neo is a bit weak but at least it's powerful enough for Vista Business. Atom is a nice chip for embedded computing but I don't care for it any where else. Netbooks is fun but I don't care much for XP Home or linpus/xandros (I would just install a distro my self) and Netbooks with hard drives or a bit bigger SSDs aren't cheap. So they don't feel like the right device for me.
  • nubie - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    Is the Celeron 430 really a 1MB level 2 cache?

    I have two and they are most certainly 512mb cache.

    (I can't tell if you are using the mobile Celeron 430 or not.)

    Yet another reason the D201GLY2 motherboard should never have been killed.

    I would rather see a 2Ghz Core2 Solo and the 9400m paired up on a mini-itx board.

    Actually a Pentium Dual Core 2.2-2.4Ghz with 2 or 3 MB level 2 cache sounds perfect. And it may even be affordable if the 9300 Itx board comes out.

    The real problem is the case, we need better slimmer cases with heatpipe cooling (no moving parts). Lian Li needs to get on it and make a Mini-itx case.

    (I understand that this is smaller than mini-itx, but I don't care, mini-itx is a better standard for general purpose machines, the Ion project is for netbooks and appliances, not enthusiasts.)
  • sprockkets - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    There are fanless cases, you just need to know where to look.

    Gen ITX news:
  • nubie - Saturday, February 7, 2009 - link

    I have been building ITX systems for 6 years, I am well aware of the cases available.

    Re-read what I said:

    The real problem is the case, we need better slimmer cases with heatpipe cooling (no moving parts). Lian Li needs to get on it and make a Mini-itx case.

    As I said, the current crop of cases is too bulky and stupid looking with not enough cooling.

    If you allowed the unit to be only as tall as the rear panel I/O and used a good heatpipe to one side of the motherboard PCB, with room for either an expansion card to the other side with a 90° header you could get a 9800GT and a 3.2Ghz dual core into a case a little bigger than a Eeepc 904, with a heck of a lot more power.

    If you want to tell me there are sexy mini-itx cases save your breath, I haven't seen one half as compelling as this:">

    That case can hold a full ATX board with a dual-slot pci-e card, a full hard drive (or two), and isn't all that much bigger than most ITX cases.

    I have some requirements:

    Slim (as mentioned, only 2-3cm more than the rear panel header opening)

    No moving parts (no fans)

    Heatpipe cooling (for the video card too.)

    Room for an 9800GT (or the new 9600GT with the reduced power requirements).

    If I had a couple thousand to spend I would assuredly design my own and start prototyping it on some of the services that make custom cases. (sorry, cant' find it now, but they offer a free CAD program so you can design your case)

    My problems with current cases?

    CD Drives block heatsinks and make the case too big, put them under the motherboard in an additional expansion, so you can remove it if you don't need it.

    Cases are too deep, front to back I haven't seen one that is the same size as a standard VCR/DVD player (AKA they won't fit around my TV in the entertainment cabinet). Fix this by making the motherboard abut the front of the case with a small gap of 1-2cm and then make the front panel modular so that the RAM slots/Headers are still usable.

    Lack of good cooling solutions. Not one case has a good heatsink that comes with it. What use is a small PC if you need a freaking 1U fan that screams at 13,000RPM? Or you are forced to use a (shudder) Atom CPU?

    Lack of proper space for add-on card. The only case I know of with proper add-on card space is the Morex Cubid series, unfortunately they are obscenely deep and look like a DirecTV box.
  • sikahr - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    You see, Pineview is first Intel CPU with integrated GPU, available first quarter 2010, and after that there will be no "simple" atoms without graphics. Result, bye bye Ion.

    Nvidia is out of chipset business very soon.
  • Slappi - Wednesday, February 4, 2009 - link

    You are a nutjob.

    AMD is going bust as we speak.

    INTC's chip combo will be weak.

    NVDA has 1.3 billion dollars.

    NVDA is making money.

    You are a moron.

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