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

    Aikouka,

    Thanks for your insights.

    1. Customers should hopefully be able to salvage some stuff from their previous setups (Blu-Ray playback software, keyboards and mice etc.)

    2. We didn't do exhaustive testing on the VIA codec. Most of the time, it was disabled since we were using audio over HDMI.

    3. The sticker is optional ( It comes as a separate label with the package, but you can choose whether to stick it in the front or not :) )

    4. The build quality of the remote is not that great and there are better options out there as you observe.

    5. Major drawback of ION is the lower general performance, higher power consumption and absence of HD audio bitstreaming. I think the $200 extra is worth it.
    Reply
  • Aikouka - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    1) It'd definitely be nice to harvest a few extra items from previous builds, but maybe a blurb about the overall cost of the software might be nice. I'm not sure, but it might help people sway toward or against the unit as being their Blu-Ray player, since you can easily just buy a decent separate unit for $100 or so. Another aspect that might sway some users is that the BR software will only truly integrate into WMC (last I checked). TMT3 has a plug-in for MediaPortal, but it isn't true integration (just loads the player and minimizes MP).

    I guess that all kind of goes with your talk on how it can be a pain to get all of the formats working, which let me tell you... I definitely agree with you on that! I had a point where using my laptop as a HTPC, I could get sound while playing MKVs through WMP, but not with WMC. It was the strangest thing :P.

    3) Alright, that's good that the sticker is optional ;). I just wish manufacturers would push to not showing the rest of those connectors. It seems the consumer's desire is to have components that are PCs that don't look like PCs, but not many devices have those connections and if they do, they're typically hidden (except the PS3, but they're out of the way).

    5) I think the main point I was trying to drive is that even though the ION is inherently weaker, does it still perform the tasks properly? I mean, you can take the kids to school in a Porsche 911 Turbo, but is it a tad bit overkill compared to a Prius? Do you really think the bitstreaming matters that much? I don't think most people would even be able to tell the difference between a good encode output from a SPU and the bitstream... I know I can't! :)

    ------------------

    I like the articles though... I think the HTPCs are going to become more and more popular as people look for non-standard ways to get content. I've actually gone back to using my server as a quasi-HTPC to help alleviate the stress I was putting on my M1530. It's a little better now that I replaced some of its noisy components :).
    Reply
  • vlado08 - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    " 5. Major drawback of ION is the lower general performance, higher power consumption and absence of HD audio bitstreaming. I think the $200 extra is worth it. "

    And what about picture quality? HQV v 2.0
    The ION does the 23,976 but the Core 100HT - does not.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    Good point, vlad08. The point mentioned was the drawbacks of the ION. Of course, if one wants to give the advantages of ION, they are as you mention.

    I think the average users just set the display refresh rate to 60 Hz and forget about it.. so the 24fps bug doesn't affect those.

    Picture quality.. yes, maybe ION is better. We haven't done benchmarking on that platform yet (and will probably not do because it is a product from last year, and we have more exciting Nvidia stuff coming up) to confirm.
    Reply
  • pirspilane - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    Good point about the software costs. This is really a $900+ machine.

    The Mac Mini competes well with this machine when you consider:
    - It comes loaded with some very nice software
    - It's light years ahead, aesthetically
    - It beats the AsRock on noise and power consumption
    - Most people already have a Blu-ray player and don't want the aggravation of dealing with Blu-ray playback on an HTPC. I rarely use my HTPC (Corel WinDVD) to play Blu-rays because of the hassle factor.
    Reply
  • tmservo - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    While this seems like a good train of thought, it isn't. The poster above points out he uses pro (which is fine, I do too) but there is no reason why Home Premium, which has media center, wouldn't be used by the majority of users. So, $645 + $91. That's it, for anyone wanting the DVD model. Or, about $736.

    Your comparison at $900 is based on a comparison with a model featuring a Bluray Drive and Bluray software. This is not valid, because you're now comparing apples to oranges ;) The mac mini doesn't have, won't have, and doesn't support a bluray drive. So, the two aren't the same, at all. There just isn't a comparison.

    Whether or not people have a seperate player already, there are lots of people who like the idea of 1 single box doing everything, like DVR, DVD, BD, Media Management, etc.

    So, let's say you do a comparison on that front. So, the Mac Mini is $699. DVD only. Yes, it comes with software, but not really a front end for this.. so you download Front Row, which was last updated almost 2 years ago. You then go about hacking it to get your supports you need.

    And you add a remote control, because the Mac Mini doesn't come with one. So, even if this remote is "flimsly and crap" you add a remote control that is say $50 (and don't say "iPhone" because then you're adding $300 in expense for a remote for everyone who doesn't have one).

    So now the cost of your Mini with a remote is basically the same as this with a copy of Win7HP. Except, oh yeah, even if you get the DVD one of this, your ability to later convert to BD is there. Not at all on the other front. Remote wakeup? Yep. Since neither have tuner slots, both would be using say a network tuner. So, Silicon Dust HDHomeRun for both. So a wash on the cost here, except Front Row can't natively manage those tuners for anything, meanwhile Media center can.

    You can buy software to do that on the mac.. now you've spent more money.

    The Mac Mini is a good unit as a desktop. But for an HTPC, you spend a lot of money for almost no bang. You can get an ION based unit at about $350 that is DVD based that gives you the exact same features.... plus LPCM for your MKVs that the Mini doesn't do worth a damn.

    Nothing against the Mac, but not every purpose works out for it. This just isn't one where you say "wow is that a great solution for a Mac". And AppleTV is a laughable product that should die a slow death.
    Reply
  • Guspaz - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    One reason that ASU *cough* I mean ASRock is always the first to put these out is probably that all of their SFF machines use the exact same case, nearly the same packaging, and mostly the same pack-in material.

    They've used this exact same case all the way back to their first Atom machines. Their ION machines also used this case, as did their bluray machines.

    Now that they've introduced some CULV machines, surprise, same case again.
    Reply
  • kwrzesien - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    True.

    And why is it narrow and tall? Why can't they put this in a DVD-sized case with the industry standard width? The front should look just as clean as a nice DVD player, with the front ports, buttons and maybe even the drive behind a fold-down door.
    Reply
  • whartsell - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    "Unfortunately, there is no single unified interface (from XBMC or MediaPortal or any other similar program) which could successfully play back all the files from within. "

    Cant SageTV play back all the tested formats?
    Reply
  • dukero - Tuesday, July 20, 2010 - link

    I wish I seen this coming last month Just about finished building one ECS itx mobo and i core 3 530 in jetway 101 case and mines going to end up at about grand after software and tuners. And as far as tuners go for the asrock get a USB or homerun Ethernet. Reply

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