Home Theater PCs (HTPCs) have remained a niche market, catering mainly to enthusiasts who love the challenge of setting up and maintaining them. The demand for dumb devices with HTPC capabilities has seen tremendous increase over the past few years, with the success of devices such as the WDTV and other media streamers. Blu-Ray players also end up integrating features such as media streaming and wireless networking. Often, though, users end up demanding things which are difficult for these units to implement. A case in point is Netflix streaming on the WDTV Live, which ended up being implemented in WDTV Live Plus. Torrenting (and other similar PC capabilities) end up making an appearance in the homebrew firmware versions of these products. One of the easiest ways to avoid such disappointments is to invest in a HTPC. These are more future proof than the small media streaming boxes and Blu Ray players for which one has to depend on core firmware updates from the manufacturer.

Over the last 2 or 3 years, with the advent of small form factor (SFF) PCs, and promising chipsets such as Nvidia ION, one sensed the looming convergence of the media streamer and HTPC market. While being much more flexible compared to media streaming boxes, they suffered on the power envelop front. Also, the DRM requirements of Blu-Ray ensured that such PCs could never hope to achieve as much ease of usage and bitstreaming support as the Blu-Ray players unless one invested in costly soundcards. In the last 6 - 8 months, ATI introduced the 5xxx series and Intel introduced the Clarkdale and Arrandale platforms with an IGP (Integrated Graphics Processor), both of which were capable of HD audio bitstreaming. Enthusiasts could easily purchase such products and build HTPCs which could surpass the capabilities of any Blu-Ray player or media streamer.

The HTPC market, unfortunately, can never take off unless pre-built units make an appearance. We have seen the big players such as Dell and Acer create products such as the ZinoHD and Aspire Revo respectively. However, the platforms utilized processors such as the Neo and the Atom, which were mainly geared towards the ultraportable and netbook market. Consumers expecting desktop performance from such PCs were left disappointed. The market needed a fresh approach, and AsRock has come out with the first pre-built SFF PC based on the Arrandale platform for this.

ASRock has gained a reputation amongst us of being innovative in a crowded market, and having come out with pioneering products. Their first play in the SFF HTPC market was the ASRock ION 300-HT. Though it was found to be technically good, it ended up competing against products such as the Aspire Revo from Acer (with a substantially higher marketing impetus). Now, they have stolen a march over the competition by introducing the Core 100 HT-BD. Realizing that the Atom in the nettop was the major cause of concern amongst HTPC customers, they seem to have done their homework by introducing their next play in the market with the Arrandale platform.

The Arrandale platform's performance has been analyzed ad nauseam on various sites, and we will not go that route in this review. In the last few months, we have seen the introduction of many H55 / H57 based mini-ITX motherboards supporting these platforms. Last month, we reviewed the Gigabyte H55 mini-ITX board. We found it almost perfect for a HTPC. It is quite likely that there is a large number of customers in the market interested in a pre-built HTPC based on this platform.

ASRock is the first company to come out with a ready to order PC in the mini-ITX form factor based on the Arrandale platform and they have put together a nice video of the purported capabilities of their product. Let us first get the marketing talk [ YouTube video ] out of the way (in case you are interested), before proceeding to analyze ASRock's claims.

The comments for the Gigabyte H55 mini-ITX review requested HTPC specific testing. Starting with this review, we are taking those comments into consideration and this unit will be analyzed completely from a HTPC perspective. If you are interested in a specific aspect, use the index below to navigate to the section you want. Otherwise, read on to find out what Anandtech discovered while trying to use the Core 100 HT-BD as a HTPC.

Unboxing Impressions
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  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link


    This unit is slightly on the leading edge (The Arrandales were introduced around 6 months back).

    With $100, it is difficult to get a notebook with HD audio bitstreaming and Blu-Ray drive, even second hand.

    For the set of features it offers, we think it is a decent value for money. As for this being mainstream, I am sure there are many who spend $700 or so on a PC once every 4 - 5 years, and this is a perfect system for such people.
  • tmservo - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Pray tell.. if you've got a way to get a case/motherboard/ram/hdd/bluray drive and get 1080P for under $100, I'm interested. Somehow, I don't see that as at all feasible. Hell, even the cheapest AMD CPU + board and a cheap case alone is $100. So, however you shoe horn in all those other components, or then get the software to run them (supplied here) ..

    But, if you'd like.. give me a part list of what you can get that anyone could go buy, NEW, for $100.

    Or, find me a used laptop on Ebay with HDMI output that does 1080P and has a bluray drive for $100. Even if it has no screen. Needs to have a HDD, Memory, BD drive though.. and function.
  • cjs150 - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    53 db!! That is just plain daft.

    I suspect the design of the case does not help.

    I have just built a mini-server using a Atom 510 and I am sure the M/B was ASrock, mini-itx format and a PCI-E slot. Easiest build I have done even though the case was not perfect. As a server it is effectively silent

    I do not want an HTPC that creates any more noise other than maybe a slow running 140mm+ fan
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link


    Note that the 53dB is under full load, when all threads are pegged at 100%, and it is just inches away from the unit. The farther you are, the lesser it is, and at 8ft, it was barely discernible.

    Under idle, the unit is advertised as having 25dB noise, measured in an anechoic chamber (Refer YouTube video from their marketing department).

    I would say, for HTPC purposes, the noise from the unit is definitely within limits.
  • tech6 - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Nice work Ganesh - I look forward to further HTPC reviews to see how the AMD platforms compete.
  • shamans33 - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link


    I'm curious as to how the IR receiver is connected to the motherboard...USB and/or motherboard headers? Is it possible to do a force power off (if let's say the system is frozen) or to do a cold boot up?

    Thanks for reviewing more SFF items.
  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link


    I believe the IR receiver is connected to a dedicated NuvoTon chip on the motherboard.

    The power off button on the remote puts the system in sleep mode when the unit is in operation. In my usage scenario, I had the AC adapter connected to the back of the unit, and the system was completely shutdown. The Power button on the remote was able to boot up the unit without issues (even with Instant Boot disabled).
  • johnspierce - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Hi Ganesh,

    Very nice review, extremely thorough, thank you!

    I have a question about how the HDMI handshaking works with the ASRock.

    I have built several HTPC's with both NVidia and ATI HDMI-out video cards and it seems they all have a problem when I have it plugged into my HDMI-switching Onkyo receiver.

    When I switch from HTPC to DVR and don't change back for awhile, it always has a problem with the display coming "alive" on the switch back. Turning the monitor off and on re-establishes the handshake, but this is an annoying trait of the current crop of video cards. Does the ASRock have this problem?

    Also, I wanted to "weigh in" on the lack of a TV tuner -- I really think this is quickly becoming a non-issue since I now use an OTA receiver for local HD and everything else gets streamed. TV Tuners will soon be an anachronism in my opinion.

  • ganeshts - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link


    I have the same handshaking issue with my ATI based HTPC.

    As far as I could see, I didn't have the handshaking issue with the ASRock setup, but the whole testing was done with 2 displays connected to it. I will do a 'standalone' test and get back to you on this.
  • Aikouka - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    A very interesting product indeed, but I've got my own three cents to provide!

    1) The price. Ouch... when I first opened this review, I checked the Egg to see if they had them in. Of course as the review mentions, I ended up finding the DVD-equipped model for $650. Tack on another $130 for Windows 7 Professional (note, I use Pro since it enables remoting in, which I find indispensible for a HTPC) and you've got nearly $800. If the Blu-Ray-equipped model retails for $700, you get $830 with the OS and then you have to consider that the blu-ray playback software will set you back another $100 (unless you can find them on sale... TMT3 has been on sale for $75 before).

    I've spec'd out a few HTPCs in my quest to find the Holy Grail of HTPC devices, and if price were my main concern, I'd still probably go with my own build. I never put my HTPCs to sleep, so I'm honestly not even worried about that aspect and I don't mind a slightly higher power consumption.

    2) The VIA VT2020. Have you noticed a strange amount of memory use from having this? I have an ASUS P7P55D-E Premium motherboard, which also features the same VIA audio chip, and I have god awful levels of memory use from audiodg.exe (Window 7's audio "controller"). At one point before upgrading my BIOS, I would literally see 800MB of memory being used by it. Last night I checked and I had 130MB of memory being used and I only had a single mp3 open. The worst part is that the last time I checked, VIA does not provide audio drivers for that chip. On their website they said that it was manufactured specifically for ASUS and to check their website for drivers.

    But who knows... the strange things I see are possibly just issues with the P7P55D-E Premium... it's a god awful motherboard that was released with buggy BIOS revisions and it's no wonder you can't even buy it from NewEgg anymore.

    3) The Front. Why do people want to see things like USB ports, bright blue LEDs and 3.5mm ports on the front of entertainment center components? The worst offender of the "sleak front" has to be that ghastly Intel i3 Inside sticker. I'd rather the connections be hidden under some sort of flap or door if they absolutely have to be on the front.

    4) The remote. As something to mention, when I was discussing HTPC stuff on the Anandtech forums, a user clued me in on a nice Gyration MPC-capable remote that you could buy off eBay (from Lenovo it looks like) for only $50 that provided some mouse support if you ever needed it. I have to say that I quite like it so far and it might be something to look into if you don't like IR remotes. The only negative aspect is the ugly and obtuse dongle.

    5) The comparison. It'd be nice to see how this item really compares to it's cousin, the ATOM-based version. Given the blu-ray version is available for $500 on NewEgg, does it handle all the necessary playback? A $200 savings for slightly longer application loads might be somewhat advantageous. Right now, I literally just leave my HTPC turned on 24/7 with WMC loaded up, so other than any necessary start-ups/shut-downs, I may see very little difference with the ATOM version.

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