One of the critical features of any decent home theatre PC is its ability to integrate into the existing home theatre environment. Most people don't construct their home entertainment layout around a single component, except perhaps the TV, so there's little point in introducing a new piece of equipment which isn't flexible enough to slot right in.Most HTPC's do a pretty good job in most aspects of home theatre integration, especially in the audio stakes. But that's because PC audio technology has followed AV technology almost exactly - stereo audio, coaxial and S/PDIF.Video technology hasn't been quite as in parallel, however. True AV hardware has been using high-definition component and HDMI technology for some time, while the best that HTPC's could manage was S-Video. So the options have been to either get a TV which could take RBG/DVI inputs, or put up with a lower quality video signal.Luckily, graphics card manufacturers have addressed this imbalance, with new units hitting the market which support high-definition HDMI standards. We got our hands on three such cards - a RADEON X1300 Pro and X1600 Pro from GeCube, and another X1600 Pro from Sapphire and ran them through their paces. Read on to see how they stacked up.
GeCube X1300 PROfessionalGeCube X1300 PROfessional
The GeCube X1300 PROfessional Slim Edition is the first card in our HTPC GPU review. It's a feature-packed little bundle, guaranteed to fit straight in to your Digital Lounge.
It's a PCI-Express card, powered by an ATI RADEON X1300 VPU, sports 256MB DDR2 graphics memory (512MB HyperMemory) and is Crossfire compatible. There are three video interfaces - RBG, S-Video/HDTV-out/S/PDIF-in and HDMI. The card is natively HDMI-compliant, so the HDMI interface supports both video and audio. It also supports HDCP for Blu-Ray, HD-DVD and HDTV up to 1080i, as well as high-definition gaming up to 1080p.
Being a Slim Edition card, the X1300 PROfessional is a low-rise card. By default it uses a standard bracket but you can unplug the RGB interface, leaving you with a low-rise card with S-Video and HDMI interfaces. Unfortunately, the card bundle doesn't come with a low-rise bracket to suit this configuration - a glaring oversight under the circumstances - so you'd have to source it.
The card itself is nice and compact, with an unobtrusive cooling unit, and no extra power requirements beyond what the bus interface provides. The card bundle includes a HDTV cable, S/PDIF-in adaptor, S-Video-S-Video/Video cable, HDMI-HDMI cable, manual and driver CD. It's also supposed to contain a HDMI-DVI dongle, but the box we received was missing this piece.
To enable HDMI audio, you have to pass through the computer's S/PDIF audio through the card. To achieve this you can use the S/PDIF-in adaptor in the S-Video interface (which means that you can't use the S-Video interface, of course) and plug the computer's external S/PDIF-out port into the adaptor, or you can use an internal S/PDIF cable from an S/PDIF-out port on the motherboard (if supported) to the onboard S/PDIF-in jack on the card. The latter is obviously a much neater arrangement.
GeCube X1600 ProGeCube X1600 Pro
The next card in our HDMI-compliant round-up is the GeCube X1600 Pro.
Sporting an ATI RADEON X1600 VPU, 256MB DDR2 graphics memory (512MB HyperMemory) and also CrossFire-ready, it's a beefier contender than the X1300, offering a better gaming experience. It also has a bigger heatsink to cope with the extra grunt, although it too doesn't require extra power.
Unlike the other two cards in our review, this particular unit doesn't have a HDMI interface. Instead, GeCube have enabled HDCP on the card for HD-DVD and Blu-ray compliance, capable of being transmitted over the DVI interfaces, and a DVI-to-HDMI dongle to connect the card to an HDMI input - up to 1080i.
So it's a bit inaccurate to describe this unit as an HDMI media card - it's really an HDCP gaming card with HDMI capabilities. Because it doesn't have a HDMI interface, it can't handle HDMI video and audio streams - only video. It's also a standard rise card with an S-Video/HDTV interface and two DVI interfaces. Useful for connecting the system to a TV and monitor, for example.The card comes bundled with the DVI-to-HDMI adaptor, DVI-to-RGB adaptor, HDTV cable, S-Video-to-S-Video/Video cable, HDMI-to-HDMI cable, user manual and driver CD.
Sapphire X1600 PRO HDMISapphire X1600 PRO HDMI
Our third card in the review is the X1600 PRO HDMI from Sapphire. This unit sports an ATI RADEON X1600 VPU, 256MB of GDDR3 graphics memory and is CrossFire ready.
It has three interfaces - S/PDIF-in, HDMI and RGB. In this sense it's a true HDMI media card, supporting HDMI video and audio streaming and HDCP compliant. The GDDR3 memory also gives it a slight edge as a gaming card, even though it's not specifically geared towards gaming - it will still produce smooth in-game performance.
Like the GeCube X1300, the X1600 PRO is a low-rise card. The default mounting bracket is standard-rise, but the card comes with two low-rise brackets, which allow you to mount the card with the S/PDIF-in interface next to it in its own bracket, effectively becoming a double-width unit. The S/PDIF-in interface is only necessary if you're using the computer's external S/PDIF-out port to pass through digital audio for HDMI audio streaming. Otherwise, disconnect the S/PDIF-in port entirely and use the internal onboard connector.The card comes bundled with a HDMI-to-HDMI connector, an internal S/PDIF cable, user manual, driver CD, Cyberlink PowerDVD 6.0 and a Sapphire Select DVD with one free game from a choice of four - Brothers In Arms, Prince of Persia Warrior Within, Richard Burns Rally or Tony Hawks Underground 2. This makes this card the most complete bundle of the three.
How We TestedHow We Tested
Each card was tested on an AMD-based system: AMD Athlon 64 3500+, BioStar 6100-M9 motherboard, 1GB RAM and 80GB Seagate SATA HDD running Windows XP Professional SP2 and all the latest drivers.Each card was run through a series of three benchmarks - 3DMark05, 3DMark06 and F.E.A.R. - at 1024x768 attached to a standard 17" LCD screen. Each card was then plugged into a Sony Bravia KLV-V40A10 LCD TV using the HDMI input to get an indication of image quality, then using the RGB input for comparison.The KLV-V40A10 has a native resolution of 1366x768. The synthetic 3DMark tests were re-run at the closest resolution to this native resolution - 1360x768 - to get an indication of graphics performance when attached to the TV. F.E.A.R. doesn't support this resolution, so the game test wasn't re-run.
Benchmarks - 3DMark053DMark05Version and / or Patch Used:
Build 120Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark05/Buy It Here
3DMark05 is now the second latest version in the popular 3DMark "Gamers Benchmark" series. It includes a complete set of DX9 benchmarks which tests Shader Model 2.0 and above.For more information on the 3DMark05 benchmark, we recommend you read our preview here
The X1600-based cards were the standouts here, as expected, with the Sapphire X1600 edging out the GeCube X1600 by about 6% in both tests. These two cards took an 11% performance hit moving to 1360x768, while the GeCube X1300 dropped by 17%.
Benchmarks - 3DMark063DMark06Version and / or Patch Used:
1.02Developer Homepage: http://www.futuremark.comProduct Homepage: http://www.futuremark.com/products/3dmark06/Buy It Here
3DMark06 is the very latest version of the "Gamers Benchmark" from FutureMark. The newest version of 3DMark expands on the tests in 3DMark05 by adding graphical effects using Shader Model 3.0 and HDR (High Dynamic Range lighting) which will push even the best DX9 graphics cards to the extremes.3DMark06 also focuses on not just the GPU but the CPU using the AGEIA PhysX software physics library to effectively test single and Dual Core processors.
In this super-intensive benchmark, the X1600-based cards performed at least twice as well as the GeCube X1300. Again, the Sapphire edged out the GeCube X1600, but by a lesser margin of just 3%. As before, the X1600-based cards took a hit of around 11%-12% when benchmarked at 1360x768, while the X1300 dropped by 16%.
Benchmarks - F.E.A.R.F.E.A.R.Version and / or Patch Used:
1.07Timedemo or Level Used:
In-game Performance TestDeveloper Homepage: http://www.vugames.com Product Homepage: http://www.whatisfear.com/us/Buy It Here
F.E.A.R. (First Encounter Assault Recon) is an intense combat experience with rich atmosphere and a deeply intense paranormal storyline presented entirely in first person. Be the hero in your own spine-tingling epic of action, tension, and terror...and discover the true meaning of F.E.A.R.
Both the X1600-based cards performed quite well in the F.E.A.R. test, providing reasonable minimum frames and very decent average frames. The Sapphire did a bit better in minimum performance, but the GeCube X1600 was able to crank out a bit more at the top end of the spectrum. The X1300 wasn't too bad in average gameplay, but dropped back substantially in the minimum frame test, bordering on unplayable.
Image Quality TestingImage Quality Testing
Attaching the cards to the TV via the HDMI input produced some interesting results. The Bravia LCD TV supports high-def video up to 1080i, and over the HDMI standard the cards detect this capability as 1920x1080x60 resolution. However, the TV's native resolution is nowhere near this, at 1366x768 (which is actually very good for an LCD TV). Normally the TV's internal scaler deals with any incoming signal and fits it to the screen. Additionally, the TV is designed to cope with signal overscan, as is the AV component sending the signal. So the high-def signal fits the screen well and is nice and sharp.Graphics cards on the other hand, can't natively sort out overscanning. That's actually handled by the graphics driver, and not automatically either. We had to manually apply overscan correction to get the computer desktop to fit, but then sending through video content like a DVD, which already has overscan correction inbuilt, a black area was visible on either side of the screen.
1080i desktop - right off the screen
Manual overscan correction
So in other words, the HDMI input is generally fine for sending through media content, although the results can be variable given the card/driver's inability to correct overscanning on the fly.
Tweaking the screen is a manual process
The best desktop images were provided by the RGB/DVI inputs from the card to the RGB input on the TV, which detected the resolution properly and displayed a clear sharp image. The desktop provided by the HDMI input was never as crisp, with slight blurriness around icon edges. Interestingly, the best desktop image was provided by the GeCube X1600 using the DVI-HDMI adaptor, mainly because the signal sent wasn't a true HDMI signal, but a converted DVI signal - much closer to RGB.
An RGB connection desktop - nice and crisp
Media quality on RGB was still very good, in spite of being an analogue signal - visually we couldn't tell the difference between RGB and HDMI on video playback.
HDMI video playback
RGB video playback
Final ThoughtsFinal Thoughts
Assuming that quality of video playback is the over-riding factor when assessing these cards (i.e. you don't care too much about the quality of the desktop), then the GeCube X1300 and Sapphire X1600 are the stand-out cards in this round-up. The GeCube X1600 isn't a true HDMI card - rather a gaming card with HDCP capabilities leveraging off HDMI-DVI compatibility.The two X1600 cards are obviously the more powerful, with the Sapphire just edging out the GeCube in the performance benchmarks.Overall, the Sapphire X1600 offered the best feature set as a good graphics platform for an HTPC. The ability to mount the card as a dual-width low-rise unit is very neat, and the bundled cabling and software makes it the stand-out performer. GeCube X1300 PROfessional
Score - 8/10- Pros
Low-rise profile suitable for small HTPC casesNative HDMI audio+video/HDCP supportSmall fan = quiet cooling- Cons
No low-rise bracket in packageSlightly underpowered for large-screen gamingLimited software bundleGeCube X1600 Pro
Score - 7/10- Pros
Dual-DVI suitable for multi-screenOffers good PC image for LCD TVHDCP support over DVI- Cons
Full-rise card not suitable for small HTPC casesNo native HDMI support - no HDMI audio passthroughLimited software bundleSapphire X1600 Pro HDMI
Score - 9/10- Pros
Low-rise card suitable for small HTPC casesNative HDMI video+audio/HDCP supportExcellent software bundle- Cons
HDMI picture not as good for PC desktop