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 info. WDTV Live Plus is currently in our labs, and a review will be up soon :)
  • DieterBSD - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link

    > 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.

    That's too bad, since the whole point of a media streamer is
    to get the noisy disk away from the TV/stereo. A conspiracy
    theorist might say that WD wants you to buy a disk.

    Two more things to test: (1) How well do these boxes deal with
    input that is less than perfect? Some mpeg decoders crash.
    (low quality programming) An easy way to generate a less
    than perfect test file is to record some OTA TV using a
    lame indoor antenna. Using the file allows testing all the
    boxes with the same input, so that the test is fair.

    (2) Also, closed captions crash some of the CECBs:
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 21, 2010 - link


    Thanks for the link.

    Is it possible for you to link us to some 'faulty' OTA TV recorded videos? We can add them to the test suite.

    Currently we have no plans for testing converter boxes with our test suite, as the requirements for those vary greatly from that of the media streamers that we are trying to cover in this particular section.
  • DieterBSD - Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - link

    > Is it possible for you to link us to some 'faulty'
    > OTA TV recorded videos? We can add them to the test suite.

    I am not aware of any available online. Thus my suggestion
    that it is easy to generate a test file by recording some
    OTA TV using a lame indoor antenna. Or add attenuation
    until the signal/noise drops low enough. This assumes you
    have a computer connected TV tuner card/box available.

    fixed attenuator (available in a variety of values)

    variable attenuator (knob):\

    variable attenuator (switches (thus repeatable, but more expensive)): Equipment&sku=

    These are just examples, not recommendations for these specific products.

    A two-way splitter adds about 3.5 dB of attenuation, a four-way about 7.4 dB, ...

    The harder way would be to start with a good mpeg2 file
    and corrupt it with a binary editor.

    > Currently we have no plans for testing converter boxes

    Sorry, I wasn't clear. Since some CECBs crash attempting
    to decode and display closed captions, perhaps the media
    streamers have similar bugs.

    You could set up a tuner card/box with a multicast/broadcast
    to the media streamers with closed captions on and let them
    run overnight. For completeness both the "analog" and "digital"
    captions should be tested.
  • average_joe - Tuesday, June 22, 2010 - link

    The last time I looked at this product class, I believe I liked the Netgear EVA9150 for it's extensive media support, including DVD ISO. At the time, IIRC, almost nothing could read Bluray ISO, including the EVA9150, which would have made it perfect. Can you include this device in you evaluations?

    My long term goal is to have a media player that can pull from my home NAS and the internet seemlessly, without the need of an additional server (HTPC).
  • ruzveh - Wednesday, June 23, 2010 - link

    Todays media players are also lacking built in tv tune capability. I understand we have different device for the same but still its a good thing to have.

    And i personally dont own a media player of my own but would like to know does the following file format which is shown on the catalog works for file copied on CD's, DVD's, BD Disk Drive via USB or directly via pen drive?

    I would like to connect my Blu Ray drive to media player via usb and has it play all the collection that i have stored on my cd, dvd & blu rays
  • LuxZg - Wednesday, July 7, 2010 - link

    I'd have one addition for testing - PLEASE test the non-English character support in the subtitles. For example "accented" characters in different European languages.

    As for the other things, which have already been listed, do make sure you test the MTS/M2TS container format, and 1080/60p playback. If you'll need "heavy duty" 60p samples, just look for "raw" Panasonic HDC-TM700 videos (MTS, 50p/60p, 1080, H.264, with 5.1 surround).It chokes most software players, so I'm personally very interested in how these stream players support it :) Besides, it's future BluRay spec (well, 60p/1080/H.264 part at least)
  • johnlannock - Saturday, September 25, 2010 - link

    When will you start posting reviews of different streamers so that I can purchase my next few?

    I have one patriot and am not happy with it.

    What do you think of the Argosy products?

    I need 5 of these devices in the near future and do not want to get fooled again.

    I rely on Anandtech to steer me in my purchasing decisions so that I do not suffer from "buyers remorse"

    Thank you
  • turbobeta - Thursday, January 27, 2011 - link

    In regards to the 360 and PS3, you stated:

    "However, such power consumption numbers put these devices beyond my criteria for a media streamer (their original intent was to act as a game console after all), and I will not discuss them any further in this article."

    I think that's a terrible reason to exclude them. These two devices are the most widely available, have modern av hookups, have modern internet connectivity, and have the largest install base.

    Its as if you were stating something ludicrous like "I'm not including pencils in my roundup of greatest writing utensils of all time, because they need to be sharpened, and I will not discuss them any further in this article."
  • dpbrick - Monday, July 18, 2011 - link

    I'm really impressed by your approach in this article: looking at product capabilities and limitations on the basis of their chipsets. This is the first article of its kind I have seen of its kind. Unfortunately, it is over a year old at this point. Has any progress been made in updating it?

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