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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  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    Thanks for the link. We already have 2 files from that link which are L4.1 compliant H264, but fail on the WDTV as well as the WDTV Live.

    We will pick up more files from that site, as you have suggested.

    Points from your comments for our reviews:

    (1) Add long clips to test suite
    (2) Frequency of firmware updates (assign grades to company)
    (3) Difference between reference platform from chip manufacturer and the product platform ; Missing / Additional features between chip manufacturer's SDK and product platform's firmware base.
  • darkeyes909 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    Before anyone else there was Avel Link, a Philips dvd that played divx etc. and a Plextor unit that played various media files.
  • gigahertz20 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    I just want to know what product is the best for videos with high bit rates. Right now I have a Popcorn Hour A-110 and it has worked pretty good for the last year and a half or so. I've never really stressed it though with a super high bit rate movie though.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    Off a local drive mounted on USB, there is probably no difference between different products based on the same chipset. As of now, both Sigma and Realtek are comparable as far as high bit rate videos are concerned (Both can play Blu Ray compliant clips easily). I think your A-110 will probably not have any trouble with high bit rate movies, and if it does have, it probably fails on current generation chipsets too.

    As long as you stay away from the Chips & Media IP products like the HDX Bone (which are mainly for PMPs), you should be fine :)
  • stormcrow216 - Sunday, June 20, 2010 - link

    Something that matters a lot to me in a streaming box and that I'm not seeing a lot about in your articles, is the ability to display web content. I don't mean youtube or netflix, I mean random web pages without video attached. Do all of these devices support this? None of them? A true HTPC would do this of course, and that's kind of my default circumstance right now. But I'd rather have something more streamlined.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    This is something many people would like, but it blurs the distinction between HTPCs and media streamers. As embedded processors become more and more powerful, we will see improvements on media streamers such as Tegra 2 based Boxee TV. Right now, they are in a 'neither here - nor there' situation, as they supposedly don't support Blu Ray compliant clips and also don't have a full featured web browser. A year or so down the line, I am sure things will improve to where we want them to be right now!
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    Do peruse this link:

    It looks like we may get web browsing on Realtek based products in the near future (However, I am sure it is going to be severely crippled by the lack of horsepower, since all it has is a MIPS processor inside, clocked pretty low compared to the traditional HTPC).
  • daskino - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    Ganesh T S do you happen to have a email i can contact you on?
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    You can contact me at: ganeshDOTfilesATgmail
  • Modelworks - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    A few bits of information about the Live. WD has a new version called the WDTV Live Plus. This version uses similar hardware but uses the sigma chip with macrovision support . It was necessary to support netflix. The pricing seems to be about $120 so not much different from the earlier one.

    The WDTV Live has custom firmware available. The box runs linux and with the curstom firmware users can access it just like any other linux system. People have added torrent, web services, OSD mods, and more . You can run things in the background like torrents, ftp and more and it doesn't effect the video performance thanks to the offloading of the decoding to the hardware. On board ram is 512MB, with about 180MB for user programs. Changing firmware is as easy as using a usb flash drive and you can change it back to retail easily if you want.

    The plus version of the box does not have custom firmware yet.

    This forum has more info:

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