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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  • tdnelson - Saturday, January 2, 2010 - link

    If only Broadcom Hardware Decoder would work with Adobe Premiere CS4 and AVCHD video, it would save me a lot of money on an editing system. I could just get the BHD and put it in my laptop and have a marginally functional editing system to edit the footage from my Canon Vixia HF20. Instead, my only option now is to buy a new computer with a CUDA supported video card. If I want accelerated rendering, I'll have to buy a Quadro FX. Someday somebody will figure out how to bring HD video editing to the masses at an affordable price.
  • aleutia - Thursday, December 31, 2009 - link

    Great post. We've always used Zotac Ion boards to run XBMC but the dual core version requires a fan and the single cores are expensive.

    The Intel D945GSEJT just has an N270 but it's a) fanless b) has a Mini PCIe slot and c) has a DVI port. You'd still be stuck with mediocre sound.

    Has anyone tested this?
  • office boy - Thursday, December 31, 2009 - link

    You could still get good sound (not trueHD etc but 5.1), There is a S/PDIF header just above the pci slot and ALC662 should do 5.1.
  • marc1000 - Thursday, December 31, 2009 - link

    I guess it's the age of "good enough" really.. LOL!
  • marc1000 - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    It was not clear if this card will work on windows. Linux is fine, but a great part of the atom PC's sold are running windows XP (only the absolutely newest of them will run win7). what about support for this OS?
  • T2k - Saturday, January 2, 2010 - link

    All Atom-based netbooks run Windows 7 just fine, I personally installed it on at least 3-4 diff brands.
  • stmok - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    Your question will be answered when you click on this link...
    => http://www.broadcom.com/support/crystal_hd/">http://www.broadcom.com/support/crystal_hd/
  • marc1000 - Thursday, December 31, 2009 - link

    yeah, I found lots of information on their website. It's funny that a media player for Xbox 1 gre "self living".. hehe
  • JNo - Wednesday, December 30, 2009 - link

    "We finally have tons of machines that come in these tiny little boxes... that hook straight up to our TVs... Definitely fast enough to browse a bunch of movies or TV shows, but generally too slow to play back high definition video."

    Did I read this correctly? I presume you're only talking about devices that fit the traditional PC build (eg nettops)? Seeing as there's mention of Apple TV though, there's loads of other good stuff out there that has been able to decode 1080p for ages...

    Even my *year old* WDTV was able to play all but the highest bit rate 1080p files.. and the newer WDTV Live should be even more capable.

    Currently have and Xtreamer. It's made by a v enthusiastic korean company. No distributors, just direct sale from internet to keep costs down (€99 or £99). Much more powerful chip than original WDTV and there is now a passive cooled version.

    Plays 1080p mkvs no probs. And it can decode DTS and output it either 5.1 or downmixed to stereo over HDMI (or spdif/optical). No more converting. And get this: it can also output DTS-HD MA, DTS-HD HR and Dolby True HD too. Supports BluRay ISO format plus supports multichannel FLAC on movies.

    Plus has ethernet adaptor +wireless-n optional adaptor antenna, plus internal 2.5" HDD bay. Can use uPnP, SAMBA, FTP. Uses internet for youtube, flickr, bbc.co.uk, internet radio, has iphone remote app +much more (though this side a little unrefined at moment).

    Active forums with developer participation. Google "xtreamer mavvy" for a comprehensive review.
  • TheNuts - Monday, January 4, 2010 - link

    Uh, I do not believe either the WDTV or the Xtreamer can passthrough Dolby True HD or DTS-MA (non core)

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