I had high hopes for the NVIDIA Ion platform. Not so much for my netbooks, but for my home theater PC, or HTPC. I’m currently using a two or three year old desktop computer with a dual core AMD Athlon processor to record and play television using an HDTV tuner and Snapstream’s BeyondTV software. But I’d love to put a smaller form factor computer with lower power consumption next to my TV instead. And while you could probably record and play TV with a nettop like the Acer AspireRevo and a USB TV tuner, there are two things that the Intel Atom CPU and NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics processor just can’t handle very well right now.
First, while I have an HDTV tuner, I don’t have an HDTV yet. I just use the tuner to grab high quality over the air TV broadcasts. In order to save space on my hard drive, BeyondTV automatically compressed each recording to DivX. And I have a feeling that would take forever on an NVIDIA Ion based system. Second, while the NVIDIA graphics processor handles 720p and 1080p video playback beautifully (including Blu-Ray playback), it’s no help at all when it comes to Flash video from sites like Hulu and YouTube. That’s because Adobe Flash doesn’t take advantage of the NVIDIA GPU, it relies entirely on the CPU. And the sad truth is that I have yet to see an Intel Atom powered computer that can play Hulu video well in full screen mode on a 1366 x 768 or higher resolution display. And in this day and age, an HTPC that doesn’t play web video is kind of a non-starter.
So I was really excited to see that the folks at Hot Hardware reviewed a new Zotac ION-based motherboard that not only uses the NVIDIA Ion platform, but also happens to have a dual core Intel Atom 330 CPU. Unfortunately, while the system plays full screen Hulu video better than systems with single-core Atom processors, it’s still a bit choppy.
In other words, I won’t be building a new HTPC around an NVIDIA Ion powered motherboard any time soon.
There is some reason to be hopeful. The problem isn’t entirely with the hardware. There may be a software solution. NVIDIA has already demonstrated video transcoding software that can take advantage of the GPU, thus performing as well or better on a low power ION-based system as on higher end computers with faster CPUs. Companies like BeyondTV could integrated that technology into future personal video recorder applications to automate the process. Or I could just buy a much, much larger hard drive so I wouldn’t need to save the space. And Adobe could retool its Flash software to include support for GPU acceleration, which would allow netbooks and nettops with slow Intel Atom processors and higher performance graphics processors like the NVIDIA GeForce 9400M to play full screen Flash video from sites like Hulu more smoothly.
But until that happens, I’ll be hanging onto my beat up old HTPC or looking for another alternative.
You can check out Hot Hardware’s video of the Zotac Ion motherboard playing Hulu video and surfing the web after the break. Blog ION Based has also uncovered a series of pictures from PC Pop of upcoming ION-based netbooks and nettops, all with HDMI ports.
I got the Revo 3610 with Ion and it rocks with Flash 10.1. It has HDMI and optical audio out going to my HDTV. It plays Hulu desktop great, records 2 HD streams of video OTA(using HDhomerun Tuner) simultaneously using Windows Media Center, and Netflicks. All silky smooth. It is half the cost of a Mac mini and the Mac Mini does not have HDMI out.
Good review! I did not see if there is an updated review on this blog.
Now that the Flash Beta 10.1 1p and the newer 10.1 2p and matching Nvidia drivers are out to support Flash GPU acceleration (November 2009), the Ions are rocking with Flash playback via IE, FFOx, Chrome, Hulu Desktop, Move Networks and Boxee Beta.
Got full Revo 3610 Reviews with Flash and other feedback at my blog. Video too. Check it out.
You do realize that with the advent of stream computing going mainstream and with directx 11, “graphics” power now directly translates to computing power. This platform includes NVIDIA’s CUDA and will support directx 11’s stream processing API. Find a CUDA-enabled DIVX encoder, and you’re all set. This is the way it ought to be for HTPC usage: low power, quiet, lots of computing power on the graphics side, hardware-accelerated video decoding. Now that silverlight 3 and flash 10 are out with hardware acceleration support, all these web developer boneheads need to enable it in their videos.
One bit of good news on this front is the recent post on jkkmobile about the new Runcore Pro IV SSD. Apparently dropping this drive in the Dell Mini 10, even with its performance-limited SATA interface, allows it to handle full screen Hulu decode. So a faster hard drive can be used to resolve the issue for now, if you’re willing.
If you can live with a SMALL drive in your Media Center PC (odd, I know, and certainly won’t make sense if this machine is going to download torrents or record anything off a tuner), you can get a 32GB drive for around $150 that’ll do the job. But if you want a bigger drive, then you’d probably be better off starting with a more powerful system to begin with.
I’m using my single core-Atom/Ion Acer Aspire Revo and I’m not fussed about the hard drive size at all, seeing as I’m gonna stream everything off a Home Server. ‘Slong as it has enough space for the programs, then I’m fine. And the CPU/GPU pairing on the Revo as it stands is more than enough to play ripped Blu-Ray and HD-DVD films, whether off the local disc or streamed from my main PC (and that’s over G wifi).
And at £250, it’s currently *exactly* half the price of the cheapest Mac Mini. Plus it’s currently attached to the back of my 40″ HDTV, so it’s completely invisible!
I’m just glad i’m living in germany… Here very few people even use browser video streaming 🙂
It’s…funny. We’re betting everything on the GPU now. I never thought I’d see the day when we were all looking to the video hardware to make our computing desires even *possible*.
I’m sure AMD and NVidia are happy to see this turn of events. I just hope things get better from here on the software side.
Get a move on Adobe! Fix your problem or someone else’s solution (silverlight/moonlight?) may replace you.
What are the problems holding up hardware-acceleration for Flash?
It seems bizarre, considering the advances we’ve seen this decade in discrete graphics technology along with the online proliferation Flash, that Adobe and Nvidia/ATi haven’t got together and sorted this out yet.
The problem is with Adobe, IMO. Flash has gotten more and more bloated over the years (the current download is 33 MB!!), and less and less stable (it is by far the biggest reported cause of IE crashes I have had), with releases taking longer and longer. Last I read on their forums, they had a major problem just bumping up to IE7 because the thing was too greedy with memory, and IE7 was refusing to give it the massive pages it requested. My point? Performance is about the last thing on Adobe’s mind when it comes to Flash. It’s just a damn shame Youtube et al don’t provide Silverlight decoders; from a design standpoint, SL should be an easier move to hardware acceleration, given that it’s based on Win Presentation Foundation (which sits on the DWM, which sits on DirectX)
The Flash plugin is 1.8mb:
Note that this is for Safari, Firefox, and Opera – I’m not terribly interested in IE.
You got me on that one…I mixed it up with the Acrobat Reader (which is now up to 40+ MB)
Atom != HTPC. Period.
If you want to play back high-resolution video, you’re going to need a fast CPU. GPU video acceleration will only help a small fraction of the formats you’ll run into on a computer. This is likely to remain true for the foreseeable future.
A Mac Mini makes an excellent HTPC, and is pretty damn cheap. I have a first-gen and it handles 1080p smooth as silk – because it has a 1.8Ghz Core Duo under the hood, not an Atom.
Nice write-up, but kind of pessimistic, no? There’s certainly a way around the Hulu thing. If the Atom/Ion box is your DVR, then in theory, you should be recording all or most of the Hulu content in mpg2 or h.264 anyway (storage is cheap), so you shouldn’t have to use Hulu. Plus, there’s always torrents to fill the gaps. I’m confident that there will be a software solution to the quicktime/flash issue by the end of the summer. By then, we can all run the Zotac boards with buttery smoothness.
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