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The popularity of Intel's HD Graphics amongst HTPC enthusiasts and the success of the AMD APUs seem to indicate that the days of the discrete HTPC GPU are numbered. However, for those with legacy systems, a discrete HTPC GPU will probably be the only way to enable hardware accelerated HD playback. In the meanwhile, discrete HTPC GPUs also aim to offer more video post processing capabilities.

In this context, both AMD and NVIDIA have been serving the market with their low end GPUs. These GPUs are preferable for HTPC scenarios due to their low power consumption and ability to be passively cooled. Today, we will be taking a look at four GPUs for which passively cooled solutions exist in the market. From AMD's side, we have the 6450 and 6570, while the GT 430 and GT 520 make up the numbers from the NVIDIA side.

Gaming benchmarks are not of much interest to the HTPC user interested in a passively cooled solution. Instead of focusing on that aspect, we will evaluate factors relevant to the AV experience. After taking a look at the paper specifications of the candidates, we will describe our evaluation testbed.

We will start off the hands-on evaluation with a presentation of the HQV benchmarks. This provides the first differentiating factor.

While almost all cards (including the integrated graphics on CPUs) are able to playback HD videos with some sort of acceleration, videophiles are more demanding. They want to customize the display refresh rate to match the source frame rate of the video being played. Casual HTPC users may not recognize the subtle issues created by mismatched refresh rates. However, improper deinterlacing may lead to highly noticeable issues. We will devote a couple of sections to see how the cards handle custom refresh rates and fare at deinterlacing.

After this, we will proceed to identify a benchmark for evaluating HTPC GPUs. This benchmark gives us an idea of how fast the GPUs can decode the supported codecs, and whether faster decoding implies more time for post processing. We will see one of the cards having insane decoding speeds, and try to find out why.

Over the last few months, we have also been keeping track of some exciting open source software in the HTPC area. Aiming to simplify the player setup and also take advantage of as many features of your GPU as possible, we believe these are very close to being ready for prime time. We will have a couple of sections covering the setup and usage of these tools.

Without further ado, let us go forward and take a look at the contenders.

The Contenders
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  • casteve - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    I hope to see a review of the HD 6670, now that (at least) Sapphire has released a passive version. Reply
  • Drae - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    ... it'd be nice to see more use of Linux please. I realise there are a lack of "testing" and "evaluation" tools under Linux but that shouldn't prevent the testing of basic media needs. What's this about no bit streaming support under Linux? Boxee would disagree - as would:

    http://phoronix.com/forums/showthread.php?27348-Tr...

    along with XBMC's audioengine (involving work by the guy in the above link). Maybe Windows 8 will sort out the mess that is WMC and all the messing (or bypassing with MPC-HC) that is required to get it working solidly. But right now if you want something that approaches a plug and play media experience XBMC (and its off-spring Openelec) under Linux is a lot closer than Windows. Equally the more coverage such solutions get the more likely greater time will be spent fixing the remaining issues under the Linux OS - hello there Intel and AMD.

    Finally there is a great move now - go look at AVS' fora for examples - away from large media center pc's to small, quiet (silent) systems. These don't require 300W or 500W power supplies and huge cases with twelve fans and fifty million led's. They are ITX based systems sitting in small ITX sized boxes running 65/80/90/120W PicoPSU's with much greater efficiency and thus lower power use/running costs/silence. Placing these discrete cards in such systems would be a nice test of these picopsu units - given the apparently low power draw shown in the articles (something I'm very interested in seeing right now given the poor support of Linux by Intel on Sandybridge - the GT430 would be a good interim solution for me).

    TLDR: Please don't limit yourselves to Windows testing and ATX/mATX sized systems when writing HTPC articles
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    Drae, Thanks for the info and the link.

    The issue with Linux HTPCs is the fact that there is a semblance of support from only NVIDIA.

    Don't get me wrong! I am a huge Linux fan, and always prefer free / open-source software. But, from a video perspective, is there a multi-GPU platform similar to DXVA ? Every vendor has their own flavour (NVIDIA - VDPAU / Intel - VA-API / AMD - XvBA). From the audio side, it looks like the link you mention is the only avenue available for bitstreaming, and that too for NVIDIA GPUs only. I will keep close tabs on what is happening in this area, and when the time is right, I will definitely post a piece on Linux HTPCs, considering one card from each of the vendors.
    Reply
  • cjs150 - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    As always it depends on what you want from an HTPC. For me I want to play Blu rays, stream HD movies from file server, watch and record TV and do some web browsing but in total silence (or as close to as possible).

    For me ITX systems are the way to go using a 150W PICO-pSU but critical is that they have to work with appropriate IR remote (Logitech DiNovo looks interesting)

    I am happy to use Linux or Windows but it just has to work
    Reply
  • alfredska - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    This kind of quality review is what made AnandTech a name to remember early on. I'm glad to see such thoroughness and well thought out presentation of information. Looking forward to more reviews by Ganesh. Reply
  • UrQuan3 - Wednesday, June 15, 2011 - link

    Agreed, this is an excelent article. I tried cross referencing to the "Zotec Zbox" article from the 9th (I own an E-350) and the earlier benchmarking was useless. I already know the E-350 won't do full processing, but I wanted to know where it sits compared to these platforms that pull 3-10 times the power.

    Think a 'software mode' might have been useful? An i5 could have done a fair amount of this processing without a hardware assist, saving the 70watts the cards were pulling and avoiding some of the integrated's compatability issues.
    Reply
  • Shadowmaster625 - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    I dont get the video card focus in the realm of HTPC. It seems that software is a far more important piece of the picture than a video card. Windows media center and XBMC both work like crap, and/or are unacceptably slow and clunky when it comes to browsing media. I do NOT tolerate that kind of lag, especially on a 3 ghz quadcore with an ssd/hdd drive setup. I dont expect miracles when trying to browse through a gigabyte of media, but still it should be faster. And then there's audio sync problems that like to appear out of nowhere. But you'd never know any of these problems exist from reading these articles. Shrug.

    I have found that VLC media player and windows explorer are the most reliable combination. But using windows explorer on an htpc is ugly and painful.
    Reply
  • JasonInofuentes - Tuesday, June 14, 2011 - link

    I think part of the problem is the degree to which there's news. A thorough review of Media Center might be warranted, the next time it changes, but was pretty thoroughly covered here (http://www.anandtech.com/show/2864/) and here (http://www.anandtech.com/show/2760). XBMC has a more frequent update cycle than Windows, and there's obviously interest so this might be an idea to explore further.

    As far as the difficulties with each of these platforms, a Z68 platform and SRT might be the solution here. So the size of the files is not really the problem, it's that when you browse to a folder the user wants to be able to scroll around the list or grid and have all of the information pertinent to those files readily available. You don't want to scroll over to a file in your West Wing Season 5 folder and wait for the Title to load so you know whether it's the episode you were looking for, you want that information to be up the instant you scroll to it, or even better for it to be glanceable before you even start scrolling. In order to achieve this the OS's load all of the information for all of the files in the folder. So if you have a few dozen files in a folder that's the metadata for each files, the thumbnail preview and then the usual file system queries the OS would do anytime it accesses the drive. That can add up to a lot of small reads, and that leads to that big stall as you scoot around your media.

    Now, the throw money at it solution is move to ALL SSD storage. But I've got 4TB of media and don't have that kind of money to throw at the problem. SRT should help though. If I recall, the metadata and thumbnail files are stored locally in the folder with the files, but since SRT caches the frequently accessed files, then for a system used exclusively for media the only thing that should populate the SSD cache is going to be these small reads that otherwise slow down your system.

    I am suddenly overwhelmed with an urge to get my hands on a Z68 to try this out! And you are quite right that VLC and Windows Explorer are the most reliable programs for browsing and playing back media, but the price you pay for pretty is often performance.
    Reply
  • vailr - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    As an exercise in "possibility thinking", I'd be interested in a sub-category of a complete "solar powered" desktop-format PC review. Designed (theoretically) for someone living in a remote area, off the electrical grid, yet still having internet via satellite, cell phone signal, or otherwise connected. Designed for ultra low power consumption, mostly dependent on solar and/or wind power produced on site. Yet maximal possible performance (under such power restrictions) for either: generic gaming desktop PC, and also for a HTPC. Using SSD's and/or laptop HD's for storage, and with an energy sipping CPU (dual-core Atom vs. Intel i330, for example), combined with either: on-CPU chip video or a "PCIe bus only" powered video card, and yet somewhat viable as a gaming PC or as a HTPC.
    Maybe even qualify for an article in Home Power magazine? http://homepower.com
    Reply
  • Penti - Monday, June 13, 2011 - link

    Why? Running a 100 W PC of batteries is pretty pointless.

    Just install FTTH and a powerline if you like to game or do other intensive tasks needing GPU-power, fast cpus or ridiculous amounts of memory (workstation type stuff). It would be the most efficient solution any way. You don't even need any power for any modems. You certainly can run a PC of battery power off grid, but why destroy your work with that. It would be hard to store much electrical power.

    Otherwise you would pretty much had to get by with a low-powered laptop. No monitor.

    Do the unabomber type guys need any gaming? If so they need to install a good damn power line or at least a diesel-generator. They don't have the money and skills to build energy storage and buy panels thats enough to power a modern home any way.
    Reply

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