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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  • Handi P - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Can you please add some comments about these new toys that you are going to line-up, about their ability to handle picture scaling modes for use with a projector and an anamorphic lens?
    Also can you keep an eye if there's any feature on it that can manipulate subtitles location in terms of the use of an anamorphic lens ?

    Handi P.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Handi, Thanks for your feedback. We will note the following points for future reviews:

    (1) Picture scaling modes test
    (2) Subtitle location / size modification ability
  • daskino - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    I would still say that K.I.S.S: Technology was the first company to make media players.

    they launched a player back in 2002 based on the early Sigma processor the 8620
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    daskino, Thanks for the excellent information.

    I would have to say, I didn't pay much attention to KiSS's players since I always had the impression that they were just fancy DVD players :) Also, since their products are long discontinued, I couldn't dig up much information on their specs during market research.

    Thanks again for the eye opener. Just goes to show how much Sigma Designs has been dominating this market in the last 8 years or so!
  • The0ne - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    Haven't read it yet but I'm thankful this has finally come out. Much appreciated!
  • The0ne - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    doh, only a small preview :(
  • DieterBSD - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    > 2. Video codecs (H264 / VC-1 / Real Media / VP8 etc.)

    Don't forget mpeg2.

    > 4. Multiple subtitle formats

    And closed captions (e.g. from recorded broadcast TV) support.
    If you can't make out a word when someone mumbles, how easy is
    it to rewind a few seconds, switch closed captions on, read
    the word, then switch closed captions off again? This could be
    a real pain if buried deep in a menu system. Is it possible to
    put the subtitle/captions in the letterbox black band area
    rather than blocking the picture?

    Quality of interlacing and de-interlacing. Since sources
    come in both interlaced and progressive formats, and AFAIK all
    displays are fundamentally one or the other, everyone has to deal
    with this. Poor quality interlacing/de-interlacing is really
    painful to watch. Add in pull-down and some of the bizzare
    things being broadcast and it is a mess.

    Ability to keep audio and video in sync.

    > What is the use of 1080p without HDMI?

    > Any media streamer worth its salt interfaces with the rest of
    > the AV components using HDMI.

    All the world is not HDMI. Ever hear of DVI or Displayport?
    IIRC component can do 1080. Many people have TVs or monitors
    that they are very happy with that don't have HDMI.
    How is the quality of the output on component, s-video, composite?
    I would love a device that can output s-video with more
    than the DV standard 720 pixels horizontally.

    Measured specs such as signal/noise, distortion, etc. would be nice.

    Quality of scaling, both up and down. I've read that many
    HDTVs have poor quality scalers.

    Ability to seek to a specific spot, skip forward/backward,
    freeze frame, step through frame by frame forward/backward,
    playing slow/fast at various speeds. I've read numerous
    complaints about boxes that do poorly at these things and
    are only good at normal playing.

    Ability to zoom in/out easily (mainly to deal 4:3 vs 16:9
    issues). Ability to compensate for source material that is
    squeezed or stretched. (Amazing how much they get wrong...)

    When you say "local media" do you mean "stored on a computer
    (or NAS) on the local network", or "stored on a device
    (e.g. an e-SATA/firewire/USB disk) connected directly to the media streamer"?
    Perhaps scrap the term "local" and using:

    attached (e-SATA, firewire, USB, ...)
    internal (inside the box: hard drive, CD/DVD drive, ...)

    How well do these streamers deal with the variety of
    computers, protocols, filesystems, found on LANs? (FreeBSD,
    OS-X, Plan-9, Linux, ...)

    Network: wired 100 Mbps Ethernet is more than fast enough for
    a single stream of compressed 1080 or less. If you have a
    lot of stuff happening on your network you'll want a gigabit
    switch and probably gigabit ports on the computers. The
    wireless stuff is problematic, I'd advise against it. A cat6
    cable is dirt cheap and far more reliable, As far as I'm
    concerned, wireless built into a video streamer is a *negative*
    feature. Runs up the cost just to pollute the airways.
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    DieterBSD, Thanks for your extensive comment.

    We will keep your points in mind. Ability to keep A/V sync is a really important feature which many streamers fail at.

    While I agree with almost all of your points, I beg to differ with respect to HDMI. DVI and DisplayPort are not aimed at the multimedia market. DVI is unable to carry audio signals, while DisplayPort connectors are not present on TVs / AV receivers which are common parts of a home theater system. Like it or not, home theater enthusiasts seem to be stuck with the HDMI standard rather than the royalty free DisplayPort :|
  • UltimateKitchenUtensil - Monday, June 14, 2010 - link

    "the main advantage viz a viz the freedom to tinker around"

    "Viz." is an abreviation for the latin videlicet. It means "that is to say". The French expression meaning "relative to" is "vis à vis".
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, June 15, 2010 - link

    Thanks for bringing this to my notice :)

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