It has been quite a while since I last went under the hood of my current Home Theater PC (HTPC), but judging by the gradual degrading performance that I was beginning to see when watching the latest movies, it was pretty clear that an upgrade was in order.
While 720p HD video content plays back relatively well, action-packed and even regular scenes in 1080p HD content struggle quite a lot - the GIGABYTE H971 Home Theater PC, which we reviewed back almost exactly two years ago (here), still impresses us 'till this day with completely rock solid stability. But when it comes to current day video and audio, it is now sadly dated. Don't get me wrong, it's perfectly fine for DVD playback and DVD quality audio, but now with Blu-ray HD audio from Dolby and DTS tracks out and in truck loads on Blu-ray discs, this HTPC has seen its day when it comes to high-end HTPC features.
With way too much Intel chip action in this office, we decided it was time to get some AMD silicon in play around here. So, we contacted our friends at AMD to see if they would hook us up with a processor to use in our new HTPC build. They obliged rather nicely with not only one, but four of their latest processors to try out - ranging from dual-core all the way up to quad-core - we'll pick one today based on a range of tests.
We also have a bunch of other hardware to show you in this article, which go into building this AMD based HTPC. We searched long and hard for the right hardware for this Blu-ray playing beast and not only does it do it well, it does it probably better than any other HTPC that you have seen before. For one, it is able to output Blu-ray DTS-HD MA and Dolby TrueHD as it were intended by the movie studios (using bitstreaming). It also does it in style.
Let's take a look here and see what we recommend for an AMD HTPC build in 2009 and then we'll put it to the test and see just what it can do and exactly how much power it is going to suck out of your wall, all while entertaining you in your lounge room.
Hardware selected for the Job
- GIGABYTE GA-MA790GP-DS4H
($138.99 USD at Newegg)
We'll start off with probably the most important part of the system and that is the motherboard.
Since we decided to go with an AMD AM2+ processor, the choice was made easier with lesser selection than what is available when it comes to Intel platforms. We went with GIGABYTE's GA-MA790GP-DS4H motherboard which is based around AMD's newish 790GX chipset.
Originally we chose this chipset since it included onboard graphics - ATI Radeon HD3300 graphics with DirectX 10 support to be exact. Not only that, but it also includes 128MB DDR3 1333MHz SidePort memory, meaning you don't have to share your main system memory with the IGP.
We decided to go with a large HTPC case, so we weren't limited to choosing a motherboard with a Micro-ATX form factor or smaller. This means we get a full-sized ATX motherboard with all the bells and whistles that would normally go into a desktop gaming system or the like. The other good news with this board is that it supports all AM2+ processors (including the new Phenom II), even 140-watt types. It has onboard HDMI output, however, we won't be making use of it for this particular build.
- Assortment of AMD AM2+ models
AMD sent us a full assortment of AM2+ processors to play around with and work out which is best for our HTPC.
The top dog that AMD sent us was the 65nm Phenom X4 Quad-Core 9950 which comes clocked at 2.6GHz and has a rated wattage level of a high 140-watts. Next down the line was the 65nm Phenom X3 Triple-Core 8750 which comes clocked at 2.4GHz with one less core and has a rated wattage level of 95-watts. Further down, we have the recently released 65nm Athlon X2 Dual-Core 7750 which comes clocked at 2.7GHz and has a rated wattage level of 95-watts also. And finally we have the 65nm Athlon X2 Dual-Core 4850E which comes clocked at 2.5GHz and has a rated wattage level of just 45-watts.
Which did we end up using? You'll have to read the following pages to find out.
- Corsair TWIN2X4096-6400C4DHX (4GB kit)
($74 USD at Newegg and $39 after $35 Mail-In Rebate)
Since we would not be overclocking the CPU in this HTPC, our decision was to find memory that would run relatively fast at stock, but feature low latency attributes. So basically, what we're after is a very decent pair of memory modules that run fast out of the box.
So, for the memory we went with two sticks of Corsair's 2GB XMS2 PC2-6400 memory with default SPD timings of 4-4-4-12.
What is nice about this particular memory from Corsair is that it also features its Dual-Path Heat Xchange (DHX) technology, which helps keep the memory cool which is also important in our HTPC case as it won't have an extreme amount of airflow inside it in order to keep it quiet.
Hard Disk Drive
- Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB SATA-II
($119.99 USD at Newegg)
We did have thoughts of going with a Solid State drive for the storage with this new HTPC, but that would have added to the cost and with capacity still an issue with SSDs, we opted for a regular hard disk drive.
When it came to selecting a HDD for this HTPC build, there was really only one choice - and that was WD's Caviar Green. We went with a 1TB model, but there are also 750GB, 640GB and 500GB drives available. Since you're probably going to store a lot of music and movies, you'll probably want to go with at least one of these 1TB drives and maybe add extra later.
This drive is perfect for our HTPC needs - it doesn't offer mind blowing performance, but what it does offer is reduced power consumption by up to 40 percent compared to standard desktop drives as well as cooler operation. Measuring the temperature of this drive with the old touch method, we had to double check the system was even turned on - it was that cool and quiet.
Blu-ray Optical Drive
- LITE-ON SATA 4X Blu-ray Disc Triple Writer
($229.99 USD at Newegg)
Our friends over at LITE-ON were good enough to send us on over one of their DH-4B1S Blu-ray SATA optical drives. This particular model is a burner too, and hence costs more.
It is not the fastest model out with a 4x BD read speed and 350ms access time, but it does come with 8MB cache and uses the SATA interface, which we love. IDE ribbon cables, be gone, forever!
If you want to save money and don't require BD burning capability on your HTPC, you can go with a regular Blu-ray drive from LITE-ON which starts at around $85 USD at Newegg.
Graphics Card (optional, but recommended!)
- ASUS EN9600GSO MAGIC/HTDP/512M
($86.24 USD at Buy.com)
As for the graphics card, initially we didn't think we would need to use one, as we thought we could get away with using the onboard IGP on the GIGABYTE 790GX motherboard - but that was not to be. It turns out the ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe doesn't like the AMD 790GX chipset at this stage.
ASUS were friendly enough to kick us on over one of their EN9600GSO MAGIC/HTDP/512M PCI Express 2.0 graphics cards, which is perfect for our AMD HTPC build. It features all the requirements we need such as HDCP compliancy and NVIDIA PureVideo HD technology, as well as a generous 512MB of GDDR2 memory, which is more than most other GeForce 9600 GSO cards.
It won't mean we can play all the latest games on this HTPC with all the settings turned up, but it does feature DX10 and Shader Model 4.0 hardware support as well as PhysX support for some casual gaming when the system is not being used to playback the latest BD. It's not a silent operating card and doesn't include a native HDMI port, but the Glaciator cooler isn't loud and the ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe audio card package comes with a DVI to HDMI adapter cable anyway.
If you are a ATI Radeon fan (and really want to stick with the whole AMD theme), you could go with something like a Radeon 4650 or 4670, which will do the job just as well as this one.
Hardware selected for the Job - Continued
Hardware selected for the Job continued
HTPC Case / Chassis
- Thermaltake DH 104 Home Theater Case
($599.99 USD MSRP)
Possibly one of the finest HTPC cases we have ever seen is the Thermaltake DH 104. It isn't cheap coming in at close to $600, but you'll see why right now.
Featuring a very classy piano mirror coating with aluminum front panel design as well as built-in 7-inch touch screen on the front, it is a sight to be seen.
The built-in touch screen as you can see above is very bright and responds rather well to finger touch. It can be used as a secondary display (connects via USB and VGA) or you can install the software that comes with the DH 104.
Toward the front right of the case are a bunch of easy access controls as well as a small door which reveals audio ports, two USB ports and one FireWire 1349 port. Just one of the small touches of this case is the optical drive door which has a mechanical device in it and when you close your drive tray, it slowly closes with plenty of style.
As you can see above, Thermaltake also packs in a fairly standard IR remote control.
Audio Card (highly recommended for Blu-ray playback!)
- ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe
($239.99 USD at Newegg)
Again, this is not a cheap part for this HTPC system, but it is highly recommended if you are going to be using it for Blu-ray movie playback.
Currently this is the only AV card on the market which gives your PC the capability of playing back real HD audio from Blu-ray discs, just as the studio intended. That's right - the Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe allows your PC to bitstream DTS HD / HD-MA and Dolby TrueHD to your amplifier.
In the past, the best a PC has been able to do is downscale to DVD level audio quality. Where is the real enjoyment in that? ASUS did have some issues at first when this product was released onto the market, but with a lot of heart and dedication, ASUS has managed to get Blu-ray HD audio output working fully now and continues to make advancements to the product.
The Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe is bundled with a special version of ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre Blu-ray playback software and this must be used to experience the non-downsampled 192kHz Blu-Ray audio goodness. It may later work with other playback software such as CyberLink's PowerDVD, but not at this moment. ASUS pack in all the HDMI 1.3 certified cables you need as well as an additional audio bracket (not pictured here) which allows you to output 7.1 channel analog.
- Thermaltake Toughpower 700-watt Cable Management
($179.99 USD MSRP)
I'm never one to scrimp when it comes to power supplies and for that reason I selected the Thermaltake Toughpower 700-watt PSU with cable management for the job.
It comes with a big sized 140mm cooling fan that spins at 1900 RPM and only generates a noise level of 16 dBA according to Thermaltake and in our tests, we can say that it is basically silent. 700-watts is more power capacity than we actually need, but if you have the budget, it is always better to give yourself some headroom. You might opt for something closer to the 500 - 600-watt range which puts a few pennies back in your pocket, but we wouldn't recommend going any lower.
The other thing we love about this PSU is that it features a modular design, or "cable management" as Thermaltake likes to call it. That means we only need to plug in the power cables that we need for the system and the others can stay in the box. This means less cable clutter inside the case and that is super important when it comes to a desktop HTPC style case like the one we are using.
CPU Cooler and Cooling Fans
- Noctua NH-U12P CPU Cooler and Noctua fans
($59.99 USD at Newegg - not including fans)
For our cooling requirements for this AMD HTPC system, we turned to Noctua, who were more than happy to send on over some cooling equipment.
While for one of the processors that AMD sent us we could have got away with a passive cooling solution (no fan), we opted to use the Noctua NH-U12P CPU cooler which is capable of cooling a whole range of processors, including all AM2+ processors, which is perfect for us.
What we like about this cooler is the quiet factor - with all Noctua products, the Austrian company bundles in two acoustical noise adapters (one blue and one black). If you select the black L.N.A (Low-Noise Adapter) cable, the fan RPM is adjusted down to 1100 RPM or 16.9 dBA. And if you select the blue U.L.N.A (Ultra Low-Noise Adapter), the fan RPM is adjusted down to 900 RPM and just 12.6 dBA.
When playing around with these adapters, be sure to monitor your CPU and case temperature to make sure things are under control.
Keyboard and Mouse
- IOGEAR Long Range Media Center Desktop
($69.95 USD MSRP)
I normally turn to Logitech when it comes to keyboards and mice, but this time around I opted for IOGEAR's Long Range Media Center Desktop combo, with little prior knowledge about the product before buying.
I am pleased to say that I made a good decision when buying this product. In the past, I used a Logitech wireless combo and while I was happy with the actual keyboard and mouse, the range was shocking - anything over a meter or so and the devices crapped out.
One of the big things that IOGEAR is pushing with this product is the range and on their product website they claim its 2.4G wireless bi-directional connectivity USB receiver is able to work at a range of up to 33 feet or a stunning 10 meters. After only a little testing, it was clear that this product from IOGEAR absolutely has it over the old Logitech combo I was using. It worked throughout our lounge and even out of it!
Moreover, the USB receiver is of the nano kind and is really tiny and doesn't stick out from the case much at all, as you can see above. And the Media Center (MCE) hotkeys give you quick access to My TV, My Music, My Video and My Pictures, which is obviously perfect for a HTPC system.
Other bits and pieces
Besides all the parts we have recommended over the last two pages, you will also need to have the following for real Blu-ray HD audio playback:
- All HDMI 1.3 or above cables (ASUS includes them)
- HDCP capable monitor or HDTV
- Modern amplifier / speakers capable of DTS-HD MA and TrueHD
Test System Setup and Blu-ray CPU Usage
Test System Setup
First of all, we will provide a summary of the system and then get right into the tests.
Processor(s): Various 65nm AMD processors
Graphics Card: ASUS EN9600GSO MAGIC/HTDP/512M (Supplied by ASUS)
Cooling: Noctua NH-U12P (Supplied by Noctua)
Motherboard(s): GIGABYTE GA-MA790GP-DS4H (F3 BIOS) (Supplied by GIGABYTE)
Memory: 2 x 2GB Corsair TWIN2X4096-6400C4DHX
Hard Disk(s): Western Digital Green 1TB SATA-II (Supplied by Western Digital)
Optical Drive: LITE-ON DH-4B1S Blu-ray Burner SATA (Supplied by LITE-ON)
Audio Card: ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe (Supplied by ASUS)
Power Supply: Thermaltake Toughpower 700-watt Cable Management (Supplied by Thermaltake)
Operating System: Microsoft Windows Vista SP1 64-bit (with latest updates)
Drivers: NVIDIA ForceWare 181.20, ASUS HDAV1.3 188.8.131.52.57Beta and PLX fireware update Ver 1.1
Now we have summarized the test system specifications of our brand spanking new HTPC, we are ready to hit the benchmarks.
What we are aiming to do is work out which AMD processor will work best for us - not only in terms of Blu-ray playback performance, but also with a heavy influence laying on power consumption.
As you can see above, the ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe had no issues passing through the HD audio from Blu-ray movies to our Onkyo TX-SR705 amp, once we installed the latest drivers and firmware.
Let's get started!
Blu-ray CPU Usage
In our first test we measure CPU usage whilst playing back the "hospital" scene from the Blu-ray movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
The swear-happy hospital scene is not super intensive, but it's probably a good indication of standard movie playback in a typical conversation type scene. Hardware acceleration was enabled in TotalMedia Theater, which means that some of the work was off-loaded to the GeForce 9600 GSO and its NVIDIA PureVideo HD engine. We measured CPU utilization (maximum and average) using Vista Performance Monitor.
Naturally the X4 9950 is out in front with the least amount of CPU cycles being required to playback the movie. The 45-watt X2 4850E does rather well for its price and power attributes and only uses up to 47% CPU, whilst also providing smooth playback.
We also tested with a few other Blu-ray titles such as Casino Royale (second scene, which is packed full of action in the dockyards!) and some music videos and playback was smooth with each CPU. Good start so far.
Benchmarks - PCMark Vantage 64-bit
PCMark Vantage 64-bit
Version and / or Patch Used: Nov 2007 Hotfix
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/benchmarks/pcmark-vantage//
Buy It Here
PCMark Vantage is the first objective hardware performance benchmark for PCs running 32 and 64 bit versions of Microsoft Windows Vista. PCMark Vantage is perfectly suited for benchmarking any type of Microsoft Windows Vista PC from multimedia home entertainment systems and laptops to dedicated workstations and high-end gaming rigs. Regardless of whether the benchmarker is an artist or an IT Professional, PCMark Vantage shows the user where their system soars or falls flat, and how to get the most performance possible out of their hardware. PCMark Vantage is easy enough for even the most casual enthusiast to use yet supports in-depth, professional industry grade testing.
The results are very consistent of what we would expect here with the X4 9950 on top and the X2 4850E rounding out the pack. No surprises at this stage.
Benchmarks - 3DMark Vantage
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.01
Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com
Product Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmarkvantage/
Buy It Here
3DMark Vantage is the new industry standard PC gaming performance benchmark from Futuremark, newly designed for Windows Vista and DirectX10. It includes two new graphics tests, two new CPU tests, several new feature tests, and support for the latest hardware.
3DMark Vantage is based on a completely new rendering engine, developed specifically to take full advantage of DirectX10, the new graphics API from Microsoft.
A little bit of a surprise here is that the 3DMark performance preset score between all four processors is really close, but when we take the separate CPU score into consideration, things are again as we expect them to be.
Benchmarks - Super PI
Version and / or Patch Used: 1.5 Mod XS
Developer Homepage: http://pw1.netcom.com/~hjsmith/Pi/Super_Pi.html
Product Homepage: http://pw1.netcom.com/~hjsmith/Pi/Super_Pi.html
Developed by some folks from the University of Tokyo (yes, Japan), Super PI is a small utility that does just as the name implies. It figures PI to a set number of decimal places. Since PI is an infinite number to the right of the decimal point, the utility measures the time it takes to figure a set number of places. It runs the calculations a set number of times and gives a time for the completion of the task. This is a simple and effective way to measure the raw number crunching power of the processor being used to compile the results.
Our Super PI 1M results here are a little all over the place, thanks to a range of different CPU clock speeds in play.
Benchmarks - CINEBENCH R10 64-bit
CINEBENCH R10 64-bit
Version and / or Patch Used: Release 10
Developer Homepage: http://www.maxon.net/
Product Homepage: http://www.maxon.net
CINEBENCH is a real-world test suite that assesses your computer's performance capabilities. MAXON CINEBENCH is based on MAXON's award-winning animation software, CINEMA 4D, which is used extensively by studios and production houses worldwide for 3D content creation. MAXON software has been used in blockbuster movies such as Spider-Man, Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia and many more.
MAXON CINEBENCH runs several tests on your computer to measure the performance of the main processor and the graphics card under real world circumstances. The benchmark application makes use of up to 16 CPUs or CPU cores and is available for Windows (32-bit and 64-Bit) and Macintosh (PPC and Intel-based).
Again, our results here under CINEBENCH almost perfectly show us the difference in performance with each CPU in this multi-threaded benchmark application.
Power Consumption Testing
Now we come to probably one of the most important sections of our testing and that is power consumption!
It is all good and well to have the fastest performing computing system under the sun, but one of the key factors we didn't want to forget about whilst building this AMD based HTPC was power consumption.
Using the power tester you can see in the picture above, we measured power coming from the wall - it is measuring the full system, everything inside the box. It doesn't include our LCD HDTV, speakers, amplifier and so on.
We used prime95 to fully load each CPU processor core with every tested AMD processor and a score was recorded after five minutes of loading. We recorded the highest wattage level hit and rounded up to the nearest decimal point. An idle wattage level was recorded after staying idle on the Vista desktop for five minutes and here again we also rounded up to the nearest decimal point.
Do note that AMD's Cool'n'Quiet green processor technology was enabled in the BIOS, so when active, CPU clock speed and voltages drop automatically to reduce power consumption.
As you would expect, the X4 9950 part chews up the most amount of power using up to 234-watts, while the low-end X2 4850E only uses up to 146-watts.
That will add up to a large power saving over time and is going to go a long way in deciding which processor we end up using in this system. We did want to note that the idle power consumption of the X2 4850E moved from 102-watts up to 114-watts during our testing, but stayed mostly in the 107-watt range.
Total Cost and Final Thoughts
Total Cost of the AMD HTPC System
Here we will summarize the total cost of the AMD HTPC system which we built and also reveal which AMD processor we decided to go with.
CPU: AMD Athlon X2 Dual-Core 4850E ($53.99 USD at Newegg)
Motherboard: GIGABYTE GA-MA790GP-DS4H ($138.99 USD at Newegg)
Memory: Corsair TWIN2X4096-6400C4DHX (4GB kit) ($74 USD at Newegg)
HDD: Western Digital Caviar Green 1TB SATA-II ($119.99 USD at Newegg)
Optical Drive: LITE-ON SATA 4X Blu-ray Disc Triple Writer ($229.99 USD at Newegg)
Graphics Card: ASUS EN9600GSO MAGIC/HTDP/512M ($86.24 USD at Buy.com)
Case: Thermaltake DH 104 Home Theater Case ($599.99 USD MSRP)
Audio Card: ASUS Xonar HDAV1.3 Deluxe ($239.99 USD at Newegg)
PSU: Thermaltake Toughpower 700-watt Cable Management ($179.99 USD MSRP)
CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-U12P CPU Cooler ($59.99 USD at Newegg)
Keyboard and Mouse: IOGEAR Long Range Media Center Desktop ($69.95 USD MSRP)
TOTAL COST = $1853.11 USD (or about $2860 AUD)
Obviously this is not a super cheap system, as we have gone with some rather fancy parts (case, BD burner and PSU). Keep in mind you're also going to need to invest in the rest of your home theater setup and that means an amplifier capable of HD audio playback, speakers and of course the display, be it LCD, plasma or projector.
You could reduce the price somewhat by going with a smaller WD Green HDD such as the 500GB version, drop the Blu-ray burner for a normal ROM drive, go with a 500-watt power supply and of course, go with a much cheaper HTPC case. We also haven't included the price of Windows Vista, assuming you already have a copy.
We hope you enjoyed this look into our guidance in building an AMD based HTPC capable of playing back Blu-ray HD audio.
We had an incredibly large amount of fun researching this article and getting the parts in from all the friendly companies who helped out here. It wasn't much of a decision when it came to deciding which processor to use - of course the X4 9950 offers the best performance, but that is at the expense of much more power usage. We ended up picking the X2 4850E since it is more than powerful for solid and smooth Blu-ray playback, uses the least amount of power out of all parts we tested and is also the cheapest of the bunch. The choice was easy in the end.
Enough writing, now it's time to sit back on the lounge and enjoy the system I have just finished putting together. And I've got to tell you, I am totally impressed with the system and what it is capable of - the picture and audio produced from this setup is amazing and should impress all.
Is it your turn to build a new HTPC or your first HTPC now?
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