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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  • Lostclusters - Sunday, July 25, 2010 - link

    I know the review mentioned things like "Perfect Blu-Ray playback with bitstreaming", and "able to play back all Blu-Rays with bitstreaming to the AV receiver", but there is no mention of whether the sound is at 24 bits or 16 bits. I am sure that the same limiting factors as any other PC comes into play. But as I am currently not very well informed on Windows 7, I'd like to see some mention of this in the review. Both with LPCM and native codec. Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    Lostclusters,

    The bitstreaming is perfect. This means whatever bit resolution is present in the soundtrack is passed on as-is, with no downsampling of any sort.

    Its HDMI can pass through Dolby True HD and DTS HD Master Audio up to 192KHz/24-bit , whereas absence of passthrough would mean support for only Dolby or DTS 48KHz/16-bit audio quality.

    Even on the other sound channel, i.e, VIA VT2020 codec, there exists support for Blu-ray audio up to 7.1ch 192KHz/24-bit audio with content protection.
    Reply
  • Lostclusters - Sunday, July 25, 2010 - link

    I forgot to mention that this should be examined not only when playing off a Bluray disk but when playing files off the hard drive as well. Reply
  • Lostclusters - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    Another item not addressed (maybe in the bench marks) is was how it performed an SD media. I know the screen resolution is locked in at 1080. But how well does it play SD media? Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    Lostclusters,

    While I agree that the majority of the streams in the test suite were HD (after all, that is the future), we do have 5 - 6 SD streams (evident from the file names).

    What you may be looking for is the upscaling capabilities of the GPU / software. I didn't pay much attention to this, but things didn't look horribly wrong. So, I would say that it is good enough to play SD media also. I am unable to think of a metric which will give you a quantitative view of the capability.
    Reply
  • Lostclusters - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    Check out this link at the bottom of the post under the heading of "My Pick of HTPC":

    http://www.avsforum.com/avs-vb/showthread.php?p=18...
    Reply
  • LNCPapa - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    This device really appeals to me - I was seriously considering going with a Mac Mini + Plex but with the price changes I figured I might as well not give Apple any more my money. By the way - great link post LostCluster - That thread was an awesome read and that guy has done an incredible amount of research.

    If this device had/would launch at a $500 price point I would purchase it now and ask the wife for forgiveness later.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    NewEgg seems to have the non-BluRay model for $580 + shipping:

    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N8...
    Reply
  • Lostclusters - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    I have been following Rene's work since his first recommendation on hardware. I have even donated to his work. He is one dedicated individual and has several threads on that forum. Many many good threads there. Chocked full of info. Reply
  • Decaff - Tuesday, July 27, 2010 - link

    I really enjoyed reading through this article, as I am myself looking for a media streamer solution. I do, however, have some points of inquiry.

    First of all, the picture quality testing should be figured out. I have seen television review sites who do regular testing of the picture quality. I know that much of this is a often subjective, but I still think it is paramount that this is analysed, as many home theater enthusiasts are highly sensitive to the picture quality. I do think the use of the HQV test is a good starting point, but I still think subjective measures are in order, as a means of relating the numbers to any percieved loss of quality.
    In essense, the people investing in HTPC's of media streamers will probably also have a quality TV-set/projector attached to it. So the framerate issue could naturally be a killer for many enthusiasts, as I know this particular issue has been discussed on many TV forums, where they are very concerned with configuring the TV properly to the correct framerate in order to achieve the right picture quality.
    Perhaps an alliance with a site that specialises in reviewing picture quality of TV sets?

    Secondly, I think you should be more aware of what software you are using on the machine. Naturally, Anandtech is largely a hardware site, but when dealing with a media streamer/HTPC it is essentially the software that defines the final user experience of the setup. Essentially, if I have just bought a HTPC, I don't want to be pestered with 3 different programs in order for the box to do its job. Rather I (and presumably almost everyone else) wants a nice interface that can handle all the tasks the box it built for, preferably using only the remote control, and the occasional keyboard/mouse when performing tasks that are PC-centric.
    So my suggestion is to make a large article with HTPC software, where you look at the features it offers, ease of use, and naturally and in relation to my first point, the output quality of them.

    Lastly, I'm really looking forward to seeing some reviews of more dedicated (smaller and cheaped) streamer boxes, such as the WDTV live, A.C. Ryan Playon!HD or the Popcorn machines and naturally also a comparison with the gaming consoles as the Playstation 3 or the Xbox 360 and how they fare in comparison, regarding codec support, and of course in the area of picture quality and ease of use.
    These last are at the moment those that interest me the most, as I just want a box that can play my movies from an external HDD or a NAS/Home Server, without all the extra stuff (although it is of course nice to have), and I suspect a great deal of people have similar demands and can use another PC to rip their movies.
    Reply

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