Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/6443/asrock-vision-ht-ivy-bridge-carries-the-sff-htpc-forward



Introduction

The small form factor (SFF) HTPC market has been steadily growing over the last few years. As mobile processors become more and more powerful, it is becoming easier for users to be satisfied with their performance even in desktop configurations. The DIY HTPC crowd has a marked preference for mini-ITX motherboards and cases. However, the excessive TDP of desktop CPUs results in complicated thermal designs and noisy results. Thermal designs for systems with mobile CPUs (35W TDPs) are fairly straightforward and not very noisy. In fact, it is even possible to create systems which are fully passively cooled.

Before 2010, ION-based units with anaemic Atom CPUs were the only option for pre-built SFF HTPCs. ASRock was one of the first to buck the trend by introducing the Core 100 using an Arrandale CPU as a mid-range complementary offering to go with their low-end ION-based unit. Currently, ASRock has three HTPC families catering to the entry level, mid-range and high-end markets. While the ION based HTPCs form the entry level, the Core series used to serve the mid-range and the Vision series caters to the high-end. This year, ASRock revamped their SFF HTPC lineup by renaming the Core lineup as Vision HT and the Vision 3D lineup as VisionX. Today, we will be looking in detail at the Vision HT 321B, the third generation mid-range HTPC from ASRock.

First off, let us take a look at the configuration of the review unit sent to us by ASRock:

ASRock Vision HT 321B HTPC Specifications
Processor Intel Ivy Bridge Core i5-3210M
(2 x 2.50 GHz (3.10 GHz Turbo), 22nm, 3MB L2, 35W)
Chipset Intel HM77
Memory 2 x 2GB DDR3-1600
Graphics Intel HD Graphics 4000
650 MHz / 1.1 GHz (Turbo)
Hard Drive(s) 750GB 5400RPM 2.5" HDD
(Seagate Momentus ST750LM022)
Optical Drive Blu-ray/DVDRW Combo
Networking Gigabit Ethernet
802.11b/g/n (5GHz/2.4GHz Dual-Band access) / Bluetooth 4.0 (2T2R Atheros AR5BWB222)
Audio Microphone and headphone/speaker jacks
Capable of 5.1/7.1 digital output with HD audio bitstreaming (optical SPDIF/HDMI)
Operating System Windows 7 Ultimate 64-bit (Retail unit is barebones)
Extras THX TruStudio Pro Audio Certification
IR receiver and MCE remote
Pricing $680

ASRock has two configurations of the Vision HT series available. The lower end model has the Core i3-3110M processor and has a DVD drive instead of the Blu-ray combo drive (Vision HT 311D).



Unboxing Impression

The ASRock Vision HT 321B package contained the following:

  1. Main unit in a 2.5L chassis (195mm x 186mm x 70mm)
  2. 90W AC / DC adapter
  3. Media Center remote with batteries
  4. Support CD with drivers and miscellaneous software
  5. DVI- VGA dongle
  6. SATA and power cables / screws for user installation of second hard disk

Unlike the CoreHT 252B, the industrial design of the Vision HT traces its roots to the Vision 3D series. We have pleasing rounded edges, though the chassis doesn’t have a unibody construction. ASRock deserves credit for bringing the industrial design of the high-end units to the mid-range segment this time around.

When compared to the Core HT from last year, we find that the two USB 3.0 ports and the microphone / headphone jack in the front panel are retained. However, the power button changes from a circular version to a square with rounded edges. A SD card reader also makes an appearance. There are no ventilation slots in the front panel this time around.

Just like a notebook, this unit also supports simultaneous display on two monitors. Testing was done mostly with the HDMI output connected to a Sony KDL46EX720 1080p 3D TV through a Pioneer Elite VSX-32 AV receiver. For non-media playing related testing, the HDMI port was connected to an Acer H243H 1080p monitor. Our review unit shipped with Windows 7 x64 Ultimate and a OEM version of Cyberlink PowerDVD for Blu-ray playback. However, the OEM version doesn't support 3D Blu-rays and is also crippled with respect to the number of audio channels that can be decoded / HD audio passthrough. To test these, we installed the full versions of both Cyberlink PowerDVD 12 as well as ArcSoft Total Media Theater 5.

We will conclude this section with a table to summarize the data and A/V connectivity options for the ASRock Vision HT 321B HTPC.

A/V Connectivity Options for the ASRock Vision HT 321B
Option Status
   
HDMI Yes [v1.4a]
Component No
Composite No
VGA Yes
SPDIF Yes [Optical]
Stereo Yes
Data Connectivity Options for the ASRock Vision HT 321B
Option Status
   
Optical Disk Drive Yes [Blu-Ray / DVD-RW]
USB Yes [4 x v2.0, 4 x v3.0]
eSATA Yes [1 x v3]
LAN Yes [ 1000 Mbps GbE ]
Internal HDD Yes [ 500 GB ]
WiFi Yes [ 300 Mbps 2T2R 802.11n (Dual band)]
Bluetooth Yes (v 4.0)
Card Reader No

 



System Teardown and Analysis

The ASRock Vision HT 321B is primarily built out of notebook components, and it is quite difficult for the average enthusiast to build such a system with off-the-shelf components.

Motherboard & Chipset : mini-ITX Intel HM77

The motherboard used in the CoreHT series is based on the Panther Point Intel HM77 chipset. There are three SATA headers on the motherboard, with one connected to the hard drive, one to the optical drive and another left unconnected for a second 2.5” drive. The unit also has a mSATA slot. In addition, we also have an eSATA2 port on the rear side of the chassis.

The motherboard exposes four PCIe 2.0 x1 lanes, of which one is connected to the Atheros 9462 WLAN / Bluetooth solution, and the other is connected to the Realtek 8168 GbE controller. As seen in previous ASRock HTPCs, the two sides of the chassis are used as antennae. The two DIMM slots are on the right side of the board, next to the CPU.

CPU : Intel Core i5-3210M

The Core i5-3210M is a 35W TDP processor belonging to the 22nm Intel Ivy Bridge family. Clocking in at 2.50 GHz, it is capable of going up to 3.1 GHz in Turbo mode. The instruction and data caches are 32K each, with a 256 KB common L2 cache. For L3, we have 3MB of Intel Smart Cache shared between the two cores and the integrated GPU.

GPU : Intel HD Graphics 4000

The integrated GPU in the Ivy Bridge processors come in two varieties, namely, HD Graphics 2500 and HD Graphics 4000. The Core i5-3210M uses the latter. It has a base frequency of 650 MHz, and is capable of going up to 1.1 GHz in stressful conditions. It supports full 3D video capabilities, QuickSync v2.0 and WiDi. However, WiDi is not supported by the Vision HT 321B. WiDi makes sense for laptops, but not much for SFF HTPCs. So, we don't fault ASRock for avoiding this feature.

DRAM : ASInt 2 x 2GB DDR3-1600

Compared to the 2x2GB ASInt DDR3-1333 DIMMs used in the CoreHT 252B, ASRock has gone in for an upgrade with a 2x2GB ASInt DDR3-1600 kit for the Vision HT. The memory modules operate at 1.5V with a CAS latency of 11-11-11-28.

Hard Disk : Seagate Momentus Spinpoint 750GB 5400 rpm 2.5"

While the CoreHT 252B used a 7200rpm 500 GB drive, ASRock has opted to increase the storage capacity while bringing down the rotational speed for the Vision HT 321B. The hard drive in the unit is the Seagate Momentus ST750LM022. This drive actually belongs to the Samsung Spinpoint lineup, but Samsung’s hard disk business unit was acquired by Seagate in 2011.

The ST750LM022 isn’t going to win any hard drive benchmarks, but that is acceptable for most HTPC scenarios. Users can always install an additional SSD or mSATA drive as a primary drive for speedy storage.

Optical Disk Drive : Philips Lite-on Blu-ray / DVD RW Slot Loading Drive

The ASRock Vision HT 321B ships with the Philips Lite-on DS-4E1S BD Combo Drive. Unlike last year’s mid-range model, this one sports a slot-loading drive similar to the Vision 3D series. In fact, the drive model is the same as the one shipped with the Vision 3D 137B.

WLAN : Qualcomm Atheros AR5BWB222

ASRock has gone in for a 2T2R dual-band Wi-Fi solution with an integrated Bluetooth 4.0 radio for the Vision HT 321B. In the previous Core series solutions, the sides of the chassis were used as the antennae, but, for the Vision HT 321B, we see that the leads are soldered to the rear end.

As we will see further down in the review, users are in for a much improved wireless performance when the system is used with a capable router.

MCE Remote

ASRock doesn’t include a wireless keyboard / mouse combo with the system. However, we do have an IR receiver in the system, which is taken advantage of by the bundled MCE remote. Unfortunately, the quality of the MCE remote is a big letdown. The keys are quite small and the unit feels cheap in the hand despite being pretty decent in appearance. ASRock has been hesitant to include a better remote despite our repeated requests. Given that the Vision HT series is Bluetooth-enabled, this would have been ideal for ASRock to experiment with a new type of remote.

In the next few sections, we will take a look at the performance of the ASRock Vision HT 321B.



General Performance Metrics

The ASRock Vision HT 321B is basically a notebook solution. It wouldn't make sense to compare it with full blown desktop Ivy Bridge solutions (or for that matter, any system with a power consumption of more than 100 W). In the comparative benchmarks provided in the rest of this review, we will provide the scores obtained by the Vision HT 321B and other similar SFF HTPC solutions.

Windows Experience Index

This metric is often considered meaningless, but we feel it serves as an indicator of what could be the bottleneck in a system for pre-built HTPCs. Surprisingly, it is not the HD 4000 GPU which is responsible for the score of the system. Both the RAM and the hard disk weigh in at 5.9.

Compared to the CoreHT 252B, the graphics department moves up from 6.4 to 6.5, but the rest of the scores (including that of the primary hard disk) remain the same.

Miscellaneous Performance Metrics

The graphs below give an idea of where the ASRock CoreHT 252B stands with respect to performance when compared with other SFF HTPCs. PCMark Vantage's PCMark score gives a general idea of the system's capability.

Futuremark PCMark Vantage

We also ran the 3D Mark Vantage and 3D Mark 06 benchmarks and the graphs below show how the Intel HD Graphics 4000 fares when compared to the GPU capabilities of other pre-built SFF HTPCs.

Futuremark 3DMark Vantage

Futuremark 3D Mark 06

Intel HD Graphics 4000 is quite an upgrade over the HD Graphics 3000 in the CoreHT 252B, but it still doesn’t manage to beat the GT 425M in the first generation Vision 3D. In terms of the PC-centric scores, the Vision HT scores slightly less than the CoreHT 252B from last year, mainly because of the 5400 rpm drive which has replaced the 7200rpm version.

In addition to the above synthetic benchmarks, a couple of common HTPC workloads were also benchmarked. We have some data on the x264 encoding performance using the i5-3210M. Note that we are unable to utilize QuickSync for this test because QuickSync is unable to provide any support for accelerating x264 encode.

x264 Encoding - Pass 1

x264 Encoding - Pass 2

Given the similarities between the Sandy Bridge and Ivy Bridge architectures, and the fact that the Core i5-2520M and Core i5-3210M operate at the same clock speeds, it is not surprising to find that there is almost no difference in the x264 benchmark results for the CoreHT 252B / Vision3D 252B and the Vision HT 321B.

An estimate of how well WinRAR performs, particularly with respect to processing split archives, wraps up this section. To evaluate this, we take a 4.36 GB MKV file, compress it in the 'Best' compression mode into a split archive (97.1 MB each), which results in 44 files on the hard disk. The time taken to decompress this split archive is then recorded. The performance in this benchmark is heavily influenced by the hard disk in the system. Despite the 5400rpm disk, the Vision HT actually manages to deliver results similar to what we got for the last generation HTPCs with 7200rpm disks.

WinRAR Benchmarking

We have deliberately refrained from dealing with gaming benchmarks in this review. Serious gaming enthusiasts know that Intel's integrated GPU is not going to pass muster. For readers interested in finding out how good Intel's HD Graphics 4000 fares in our gaming benchmark, I would suggest looking at Jarred's mobile Ivy Bridge launch piece.

In terms of video quality, we reran the HQV 2.0 benchmarks, but found no discernible differences when compared with what was obtained with the Ivy Bridge launch drivers.

HQV 2.0 Benchmark Scores



Networking Performance and  Streaming Aspects

In this section, we will take a look at the networking capabilities of the unit and also our standard HTPC streaming tests (involving YouTube and Netflix). ASRock delivered dual-band Wi-Fi in the Vision HT 321B. The 5 GHz band is able to practically deliver more than double the throughput of the 2.4 GHz band when used with an appropriate router.

Dual Band Wi-Fi

We used Ixia's IxChariot to check the TCP throughput in the 2.4 and 5 GHz bands using Western Digital's MyNet N900 router with default settings. We tested at two locations, one right next to the router and the other across a wall, separated by around 30 ft. The gallery below shows the throughput graphs obtained. While the 2.4 GHz band is able to deliver around 65 Mbps real-world throughput, the 5 GHz band delivers around 160 Mbps.

Under these circumstances, it becomes possible to even stream uncompressed Blu-ray rips over the wireless network. Unlike 2.4 GHz, the 5 GHz band is not prone to interference. However, the range is smaller.

YouTube and Netflix Streaming

The drivers for the Intel HD 4000 enable hardware accelerated decode and rendering for both YouTube and Netflix streams in Flash and Silverlight respectively. Screenshots of our standard test streams in action are provided below. In addition, we are also providing power consumption graphs over time for the full YouTube clip and a segment of the Netflix clip.

Adobe Flash Hardware Acceleration (YouTube)

The power consumption graph for the YouTube clip above shows that the unit consumes more power in the beginning as the video is streamed over the Wi-Fi network, but, later, settles down to a lower value corresponding to the decode and rendering steps.

Hardware Acceleration for Netflix in Microsoft Silverlight

Unlike YouTube, Netflix doesn't seem to buffer the full movie during playback on a PC. After filling up a pre-determined buffer size, the download rate seems to throttle down to maintain it. The power consumption graph shows the unit's characteristics during playback with simultaneous download over Wi-Fi.



Despite claims to the contrary, Intel doesn't seem to have delivered perfect 23.976 Hz refresh with the 23 Hz setting yet. We tested out with the driver release on Sep 1st, 2012 (v9.17.10.2849). In fact, with the Vision HT 321B, the accuracy is slightly reduced compared to our Ivy Bridge HTPC testbed.

Other refresh rates follow a pattern similar to what we saw in the original Ivy Bridge HTPC review. Refresh rates such as 24 Hz, 30 Hz and 50 Hz show improved accuracy, but 29 and 59 Hz settings are not as accurate as we would like them to be.

One of the improvements we saw in the Vision HT 321B with the latest drivers was the fact that the 50 Hz capability of our Sony KDL46EX720 was correctly recognized. However, our complaints pertaining to ease of use of the custom resolution settings still remain.



HTPC Decoding and Rendering Benchmarks

In our Ivy Bridge HTPC review, we had covered the CPU / GPU utilization during playback of various types of clips. In the Vision3D 252B review, we had graphs of CPU and GPU loading with various renderers and codecs. Unfortunately, AMD doesn't provide similar data / sensors for use with their APUs. Hence, we had to resort to power consumed at the wall along with GPU loading in the Trinity HTPC review. In order to keep benchmarking consistent across all HTPC reviews, we will be adopting the Trinity HTPC review methodology in our future HTPC articles.

The tables below present the results of running our HTPC rendering benchmark samples through various decoder and renderer combinations. Entries in bold indicate that there were dropped frames which indicate that the unit wasn't up to the task for those types of streams. The recorded values include the GPU loading and power consumed by the system at the wall. An important point to note here is that the system was set to defaults in the BIOS, but Windows power settings were set for maximum performance instead of the default balanced profile.

madVR

madVR was configured with settings similar to what we used for the Ivy Bridge HTPC review. Full screen windowed mode gaved the best performance in terms of avoiding dropped frames. In our first trial, we configured LAV Video Decoder to use avcodec (software decode). As expected, Intel's GPU / memory bandwidth is not enough for madVR processing of some types of content (namely, 720p60 H.264 and 1080p60 H.264).

LAV Video Decoder Software Fallback + madVR
Stream GPU Usage % Power Consumption
     
480i60 MPEG-2 78 35.46 W
576i50 H.264 64 25.92 W
720p60 H.264** 98 44.52 W
1080i60 H.264 86 47.40 W
1080i60 MPEG-2 84 42.55 W
1080i60 VC-1 86 47.10 W
1080p60 H.264** 98 48.81 W

madVR takes up more than 80% of GPU resources while processing 1080i60 material. However, the unit is quite power efficient on the whole, consuming less than 50 W for 1080i60 material using software decode. In the next trial, we configured LAV Video Decoder to use hawrdware decoding in the form of Quick Sync. Unfortunately, the results are quite similar to what we obtained with software decode (just that the power consumption is slightly lesser than software decode for the HD streams).

LAV Video Decoder QuickSync + madVR
Stream GPU Usage % Power Consumption
     
480i60 MPEG-2 79 36.16 W
576i50 H.264 64 27.45 W
720p60 H.264** 96 43.17 W
1080i60 H.264 90 45.23 W
1080i60 MPEG-2 87 42.86 W
1080i60 VC-1 88 44.66 W
1080p60 H.264** 94 46.32 W

EVR-CP and EVR

With the Enhanced Video Renderer (Custom Presenter) and Enhanced Video Renderer, native DXVA2 acceleration can be used. Here, we are able to process all our test streams without dropped frames. EVR is very efficient in terms of power consumption also.

LAV Video Decoder DXVA2 Native + EVR-CP
Stream GPU Usage % Power Consumption
     
480i60 MPEG-2 32 22.28 W
576i50 H.264 29 21.74 W
720p60 H.264 45 26.01 W
1080i60 H.264 47 26.87 W
1080i60 MPEG-2 47 25.48 W
1080i60 VC-1 43 33.46 W
1080p60 H.264 62 29.42 W

 

LAV Video Decoder Software Fallback + EVR
Stream GPU Usage % Power Consumption
     
480i60 MPEG-2 27 20.75 W
576i50 H.264 24 20.56 W
720p60 H.264 49 25.23 W
1080i60 H.264 35 23.44 W
1080i60 MPEG-2 35 22.23 W
1080i60 VC-1 33 30.45 W
1080p60 H.264 58 27.04 W

 



Before proceeding to the business end of the review, let us take a look at some power consumption numbers. We measured power drawn at the wall when the unit was idle (with the display still being driven over HDMI and without), one hour after subjecting the unit to Prime95 and Furmark simultaneously and when playing back a 1080p24 Blu-ray movie from the optical drive with HD audio bistreaming. In all cases, the Wi-Fi was active (no wired Ethernet). A wireless keyboard and mouse was also connected to the unit.

ASRock Vision HT 321B Power Consumption
Idle (Display off) 12.66 W
Idle (Display on) 14.3 W
Prime95 + Furmark (Full loading) 58.68 W
1080p24 Blu-ray Playback using CyberLink PowerDVD 12 28.04 W

The thermal solution used in the Vision HT 321B is very similar to the one used in the CoreHT 252B. We have already covered the thermal performance in detail in the previous reviews of ASRock HTPCs, and I found no discernible difference in the actual performance of the units. Full loading produces less than 35 dB of noise, and this is as good as what one can get with an actively cooled system.

The Vision HT 321B is definitely a good upgrade over the CoreHT 252B. By increasing the hard disk capacity, moving to DDR3-1600 for the DRAM and including dual-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, ASRock has put in some thinking before doing an upgrade to the CoreHT lineup. Intel's advancements with Ivy Bridge (particularly, increased GPU capabilities and lower power consumption) also serve ASRock well in the upgrade.

It is almost impossible to avoid a comparison with the Mac mini which comes in with comparable specs for $599 (although it doesn't have a Blu-ray drive and has only a 500 GB HDD). At $680, there is a $80 premium for the ASRock unit, and all said, the PC ecosystem is preferred by more users for HTPC duties compared to the Mac mini. For readers looking to purchase the unit, I would advise a look at the Newegg reviews where there have been reports of internal components getting burnt when power is supplied. Our review unit has had no such issues in the last four months that it has been continuously on. However, such an issue is definitely possible and ASRock indicated that they are looking into it. Quality control and thermal design are aspects that ASRock need to pay more attention to in the future product lines.

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