The Apple TV was the first media streamer to be based on a HTPC. With a Pentium M processor and the Nvidia GeForce Go 7300, it wasn't long before it was hacked to run custom firmware. When introduced, it could support upto 720p resolution for video playback. Sadly, lack of updates to the core hardware have kept this capability stagnant. The Apple TV deserves mention as a pioneer of sorts, but byeond that, there is nothing much to write home about.

AppleTV - A Pioneer of Sorts

The introduction of the Intel Atom processor in 2008 led to the appearance of net-tops. This processor, despite being woefully underpowered, had the advantage of being based on the x86 architecture, and brought along with it a huge software base. The only missing piece in the puzzle was the fact that it lacked the horsepower to decode and process HD video. Nvidia and Broadcom pitched in with add-ons to offload video processing from the CPU.

Broadcom Crystal HD

Based on BCM70012 for the 2009 Atom processors and the BCM70015 for 2010, the CrystalHD mini-PCI-E card provides acceleration for all mainstream HD media. A multitude of OEMs have started to use this solution in their netbooks as a means of providing HD playback capability. However, from a media streamer point of view, it is difficult to imagine this as a competitor for the Nvidia Ion. Any media streamer worth its salt interfaces with the rest of the AV components using HDMI. With the plain vanilla Atom chipset (using the Intel IGP) providing no HDMI output, and the Broadcom offering being an add-on card, it would be hard to justify tacking this on to a serious media streamer net-top. If the HTPC already has a HDMI output, it probably already has a graphics core capable of accelerating HD video. All said, these Broadcom offerings are probably aimed at the non-techie netbook crowd (who want to enjoy 1080p YouTube videos on a 720p screen!) and not the media streaming enthusiast.

The BCM970012
What is the use of 1080p without HDMI?
[ Picture Courtesy : LogicSupply ]

Nvidia Ion

The GeForce 9400M chipset forms the core of the media streaming capabilities of any Nvidia Ion based HTPC. With VDPAU acceleration under Linux, and excellent driver support on Windows, it is unlikely that you will encounter any mainstream HD media which doesn't get hardware accelerated playback. A XBMC or Boxee install pretty much guarantees an out-of-the-box experience. The chipset also provides for a HDMI output, making it easy to integrate with the rest of the home theater setup. One of the most interesting off-the-shelf HTPC based media streamer is the Myka Ion. With 2 GB of DRAM and a plethora of connectivity options, this is one Ion net-top which would probably never disappoint you as a HTPC option.

Myka Ion
An out-of-the-box Media Streamer with all the HTPC Advantages

Nvidia Ion HTPCs can be built for around US$300. As far as power consumption goes, a typical Nvidia Ion HTPC setup consumes around 30W at full load. Assuming that we have a HTPC with XBMC or Boxee installed, let us analyze how it performs with respect to various media streamer metrics. Connectivity is almost never an issue with these setups. HDMI outputs are usually present for transmitting both audio and video. Media can be obtained from a local hard disk, card reader, USB port or even eSATA in some cases. Ethernet ports are a default too. Some setups may even have wireless capabilities. VOD streaming such as Hulu and Netflix work without much hassle. DRM content, such as those on Blu-Ray disks, can be handled using appropriate playback software. The proper selection of a video card also ensures that most codecs can be hardware accelerated. An important point to note is that there is no GPU capable of accelerating RMVB playback, but the good thing is that there is probably a decent x86 processor (not necessarily Atom) to fall back upon, and HD media (which requires hardware acceleration mainly) is not encoded in RMVB usually.

HTPCs such as the Zino HD which use the AMD Atom equivalent along with a Radeon HD3200 chipset can also act as capable media streamers with XBMC / Boxee. The performance and constraints are similar to that of an Ion net-top. However, the HD3200 is not as powerful as the GPU used in Ion with respect to video decode acceleration. So, we will restrict ourselves to the popular Ion platform while considering HTPC based media streamers for now.

Introduction Blu-Ray Player / Media Streamer Combo
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  • ruzveh - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I forgot to mention USB3 & SATA3 support along with bluetooth3 & new giga connection
  • batmanuel - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    I found the PS3 a little to easily dismissed in this discussion. Yes, the power draw is much higher than a pure media streaming product, but for me the convenience of having one device for games, Blu-Rays, Netflix, and local file streaming outweighs the extra little hit on my power bill. I've also found the PS3 Media Streamer software to greatly increase the usefulness of the PS3 for streaming, since on a reasonably up-to-date computer it can transcode just about any file format, including 1080p MKVs, into a stream the PS3 can decode.

    Similarly, not mentioning the Media Center Extender capabilities of the 360 also does it a great disservice. It seems like a power drain was used as too big a criteria, when it honestly doesn't cross my mind when selecting home theater equipment. I'm fairly sure the power drain of my PS3 isn't quite that big when you compare it to the drain of the HDTV,surround receiver, and TiVo (withe external hard drive) combined.
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    Both PS3 and XBox are good media players, and PS3 has some great features such as bitstreaming.

    However, the intent of the article was not to cover all-in-one platforms in great detail.

    In our gaming platform reviews, we will also touch upon the media capabilities.
  • ruzveh - Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - link

    My friend PS3 is good but it lacks file format support by way big margin and todays codec r suppose to accelerate power from cpu and graphics card for better smoother experience. but still PS3 has many things lacking..

    I forgot to mention that media streamers can come equipped with some game emulators to play on our HDTV like this product "multimedia-mp6-player-sound-system-and-game-console" on chinavasionDotCom
  • balancebox - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link

    max reframe rate for 1080p h.264/x264 mkv playback should be tested

    I purchased an asus o player air recently it plays 720p fine even with 10 reframes but for 1080p it is having problems with 10 reframes, 5 reframes plays fine

    its probably do to hardware memory limitation. I would like to confirm if the WD TV Live can play 1080p with 16 reframes with video "planet earth from pole to pole 1080p" <--- this video says it can but being youtube it isn't reliable

    also WD TV have a larger linux modding community than asus o player =(
  • ganeshts - Thursday, June 17, 2010 - link


    This is definitely a part of our test suite (The 16 reframe video is one of the files). That said, almost all modern chipsets can handle 16 reframe (32 reframe for interlaced H264).

    Personally, I can confirm for you that WDTV Live indeed plays the 16 reframe Planet Earth sample, but only if it is off the local hard disk connected to USB. It doesn't play well over wired ethernet.

    I will include the following in our reviews:

    (1) Homebrew firmware / community development support
  • NeBlackCat - Friday, June 18, 2010 - link

    Excellent article and follow up, once again showing why AT is in a class of it's own. Really looking forward to the next instalment!

    One major (imho) omission though, and it's very important to many people - the extent to which software is open and has active third party development. This keeps the bug count down and feature count up, promotes choice and innovation, makes your investment go further, and gives you a whole new way to have fun if you're a hacker. Ask Dreambox owners.

    For example, you could categorise each as:

    Closed: runs manufacturer software only, or perhaps semi-FLOSS (eg. Linux plus a proprietary manufacturer SDK that is closed, buggy and feature limited - are you listening Realtek/Sigma?).

    Customisable: mainly closed, but has been hacked in a limited way, allowing some end user customisation (eg. NMTs and their plugins and customisable UIs)

    Hackable: not fully open, but has been hacked enough to make most things possible, even complete firmware replacements.

    Open: anything goes - IONs, Dreamboxes, etc.
  • NeBlackCat - Friday, June 18, 2010 - link

    > (1) Homebrew firmware / community development support

    Bah, that'll teach me to not hit the post button quick enough!
  • Colin1497 - Saturday, June 19, 2010 - link

    Seems like a pretty big oversight. I stream from my PC and Netflix on my S3 TiVo quite a lot.
  • scJohn - Saturday, June 19, 2010 - link

    I found this site useful for audio test clips: . Scroll down to see the Dolby, DTD and THX sections. I used the audio clips to see what audio the WD Live would pass thru to my A/V receiver.

    When testing a wired/wireless connection a lot of times a short clip (< 3-minutes) will play fine but when you try and stream a 2 hour movie all kinds of problems seem to crop up. I guess I'm recommending that your test suite have a good selection of run times.

    Another area that needs to be addressed is filmware updates. Does the company have a good history on updates? Not sure how one would about assigning a grade to a company in this matter. Also, what problems, uprgades, etc. can a company do on it's own and what a company is dependent upon the chip manufacturer's SDK.

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