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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  • spddemon - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    That is great news ganeshts.

    34.5db at 2ft is very quiet to me... with my theater setup you can not even hear my xbox so this would be no problem.

    i still want to see the core i3 330 vs 530 tests. I wonder how much faster the 530 is since it is a faster CPU and GPU, but I also wonder how much more power it will consume in typical home theater use.
    Reply
  • omems - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    This is a really great article, Ganesh. My HTPC is getting a bit old at about 6 years, so I'm definitely ready to upgrade and take advantage of some of the newer technologies which are finally being combined usefully. I have a few questions about how this assembly sleeps:

    1. When you put it to sleep, which components remain on? Just RAM? Any fans?

    2. I believe the Atheros AR9287 supports what they call wake-on-wireless. Does that work in this implementation, from sleep? How about from hibernation?

    3. Did you try coming out of Hibernation and seeing if the handshakes were maintained?

    4. I am confused by what's going on when you say in the Ease of Use section:
    "...ASRock supplies an Instant Boot utility. Using this, whenver [sic] the Core 100 HT-BD is shut down, it boots up once again and shuts down before the power can be safely removed."

    Does the instant boot utility bring the machine into the main OS (say Windows) or is it a stripped-down linux environment for simple access to things like music and DVD playback?
    If it's the former, what's the point--what does it do that just waking up doesn't? Or is it some kind of middleware to keep maybe the IR and WiFi active?
    If it's the latter, what sorts of playback support is there?

    I'm mostly concerned with limiting hard drive and power usage, but also being able to quickly resume from a wireless connection. With my current setup (almost 7 years old at its core), I like to send it to Hibernate, and then wake it up via WOL with my iPod or another computer to send new files to over. I avoid sleep because the something (CPU fan and hard drives, if I recall correctly) is still active and it's kind of loud and I worry the drives will wear out faster. I probably could sort it out but why bother when such cool new toys are coming out?

    Thanks!
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    omems,

    I will try to handle your queries in a series of replies. In this one, I will let you know things which I know off the top of my head without accessing the unit:

    1. Sleep : The fans are completely off. I heard nary a sound from the unit when in sleep mode. I think cross ventilation slots on either side of the RAM modules help. The blue front LED keeps blinking slowly on and off in sleep mode, but you can turn that OFF in the BIOS by Enabling the 'Goodnight LED' option (see BIOS pictures set).

    2. Wake on wireless using AR9287 hasn't been tested. I will get back to you on this ASAP.

    3. Handshakes are maintained much better than in my ATI based HTPC. My power on sequence when unit is in sleep or hibernate or complete shutdown mode (as long as AC adapater is connected to unit) is as follows: Power on TV and put it it in AV receiver input mode -> Power on Receiver -> Press Power button on MCE remote. Display comes out perfectly on TV every time I followed this sequence.

    4. InstantBoot : Look at the coverage on ZDNet here: http://www.zdnet.com/blog/hardware/asrock-4-second... ; I think their explanation and analysis would be much better than what I can do in this space :)

    Will provide more info within a day or so.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    omems,

    ASRock reports that only the AR9280 and AR9281 support Wake-On-Wireless. Unfortunately, the add on card in Core 100 is the AR9287.

    I am not sure how you wanted to use the 'wake on wireless' feature, but I would say that using the MCE remote to wake up the unit is the easiest and most simple.
    Reply
  • omems - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    Thanks, Ganesh, for all the additional info.

    I plan to use the wake on wireless when the HTPC is asleep and I'm at another computer in the house and want to move newly-acquired media to the HTPC without having to go to that room and wake it up.
    I suppose it's not a deal breaker though if the included card doesn't support it. I could use encouragement to get off my butt now and again.

    The insantBoot sounds like an interesting hybrid concept. Thanks for the link.

    Cheers
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Monday, July 26, 2010 - link

    omems, I did see an option in the BIOS to enable / disable 'Wake-On-LAN'. So, if this unit is going to be connected to a wired network, you might still find it hard to get off your couch / chair / bed :D Reply
  • vlado08 - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    Ganesh on page 5 you say:

    "We did observe red spikes, but disabling the C-states, as well as SpeedStep in the BIOS Advanced CPU configuration helped in alleviating the issue."

    On page 11 you say:

    "At idle, the system consumed around 18 W."

    1) Is this DC power or is this AC power measured at wall outlet?
    2) Is 18W idle power with enabled C-states and SpeedStep?
    3) And if yes then what is the idle power when disabling the C-states, as well as SpeedStep?
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Thursday, July 22, 2010 - link

    vlad08,

    The quoted power numbers are measured AC power using Kill-a-Watt over a 6 hour usage period.

    18W idle power is with C-state and SpeedStep enabled. I will quote idle power numbers with them disabled after testing out tonight.
    Reply
  • ganeshts - Friday, July 23, 2010 - link

    vlado08,

    The idle power consumption with both C-states and SpeedStep disabled is 21.6W.

    The CPU wasn't overclocked (it idled at 2.14 GHz).

    Regards
    Ganesh
    Reply
  • vlado08 - Friday, July 23, 2010 - link

    Thanks Ganesh.

    So it is still less than the ion 330 idle power - 28,6W according to:
    http://www.anandtech.com/show/2828/8

    If only Intel team resolve the 23,976hz issue .....

    I am still waiting because for me this is more important than bitsreaming
    Reply

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