Without question, the process of choosing a standard, pre-built PC or building one yourself has become almost trivial over the last few years. Given the caliber of hardware on the market, even with just a little bit of knowledge, it is difficult to purchase a system today which would not be suitable for nearly any standard application. Granted, there are certain constraints when choosing a system that will be specifically aimed at a given application. For example, when selecting a gaming PC consumers clearly must devote a great deal of attention towards processor speed and the graphics card. However, when talking about a home theater PC or a media server, there is a laundry list of considerations which must be made in order to ensure the system will be suitable for the applications at hand. Such a list of hardware criteria is daunting to say the least for the general consumer. To ease this pain, hardware and system vendors have created a number of different product categories and marketing campaigns in an effort to simplify the product selection process.
Although system vendors have made great strides over the last few years to push home theater specific products, they cannot help but miss certain portions of the market. Much like anything else, there are fans which are loyal to a specific brand and vehemently against any of that brand's competitors. As a result, even a system vendor as large as Dell would have trouble truly penetrating into this market, as there will always be consumers who either refuse, or choose to not go with that specific vendor. In order for the home theater PC to successfully segue into the living room, the marketing muscle will likely come from a hardware or software vendor and not a specific system vendor.
Despite somewhat limited success, Microsoft has certainly managed to generate quite a bit of momentum for this market with their efforts in launching the Media Center line of operating systems. By nesting multimedia functionality directly into the operating system, the company was able to ease the transition to a new user interface by keeping with the traditional Windows paradigm nearly all consumers are used to. Unfortunately, the software had to contend with some issues along the way and is ultimately at the mercy of the hardware it is tied to. Realizing how critical hardware would be for the success of Media Center and home theater PCs in general, both Intel and AMD have launched their own respective marketing campaigns to promote their platforms in this new relatively new market. With the arrival of Intel's VIIV and AMD's LIVE!, consumers are able to simply look for one of these "certifications". By having a particular branding, a system with either of these two logos is ensured to provide the multimedia capabilities and performance required by a home theater PC. In short, the long and arduous process of purchasing a home theater PC becomes much simpler.
|Intel VIIV In-Depth|
Late in 2005, Intel launched their Viiv program. Designed around the notion of "digital entertainment", the Viiv initiative was intended to bring the PC out of the office and into any room in the household, but more specifically the living room.
Much like the company did with Centrino, Intel's Viiv is a branding and not an actual product. Viiv is a certification that a given level and combination of hardware is present within a particular system. Intel lists the key components to a Viiv compatible system as follows:
Intel's VIIV Specification
Referencing the table above, we see that Intel's Viiv covers the major keystone pieces of hardware, though not much more. Aside from specifying a multi-core processor, the only other piece of hardware which has any constraint is the chipset. This is critical as Intel has a specific version of their popular ICH7 southbridge made for this purpose. The ICH7-DH (Digital Home) is equipped with Intel's "Quick Resume" feature which allows the system to fall into a standby mode of sorts. Here, the sound is muted and video stops being sent to the monitor. The one and only exception to this is the 945GM mobile chipset which still retains Viiv certification despite not using the ICH7-DH southbridge.
Aside from these two constraints, the only other major characteristic is the presence of either Microsoft Media Center 2005, Vista Home Premium or Vista Ultimate as a bundled operating system. As a result, there is a wide variety of configurations which can fall within the Viiv-capable certification which may or may not prove capable of providing a positive multimedia experience.
Those looking for more details regarding this platform can reference Intel's Viiv Technology Entertainment Showcase. This website illustrates the various functions of the platform and showcases the latest media which can be viewed using a Viiv-based system.
|AMD LIVE! In-Depth|
Similar to Intel's Viiv, AMD's LIVE! branding is a certification for the presence of a particular combination of hardware and software. However, to AMD's credit the LIVE! specification is more thorough and detailed with regards to these features. Taking a look at the chart below, we can clearly see AMD's criteria for LIVE! is more complex than Intel's criteria for Viiv.
AMD's LIVE! Specification
One glimpse at the chart above and it is clear that AMD is serious about ensuring a positive experience for AMD LIVE! users. In addition to meeting the same loose criteria Intel requires to be Viiv-capable, AMD goes on to make specific hardware recommendations for memory, graphics, optical drives, and more. Beyond performance, AMD even goes so far as to recommend a power supply with a low-rpm fan as they realize noise can be as equally damning as poor performance when a system is in the living room, where the ambient noise can be extremely low. In addition, such notable requirements as needing 1GB of memory or more and having a requirement for both USB and 1394 Firewire ports prove that AMD LIVE! is an initiative which was designed around the consumer.
In addition to the software which the system vendor bundles with the machine, AMD offers a wealth of free software on their website for AMD LIVE! users to download which will take advantage of their hardware and maximize their multimedia experience.
For our testing purposes, we selected two nearly identical systems from HP which were designed to be general household multimedia PCs that an average consumer would typically purchase. For those who know little about the innerr-workings of a PC, we wanted to compare the two competing platforms to see which offered the higher performance and more compelling experience. In order to depict a real-world scenario for this case, we used each system with no modification out of the box aside from a graphics card driver update. Surely, someone who was not keen on configuring a PC would be using the system as it shipped so we made every effort to do the same.
Despite being designed around two separate platforms, the two HP systems used the same exact chassis and general hardware. As a result, we were able to truly decipher the strengths and weaknesses of each platform with no worries of different hardware skewing the results.
For the AMD LIVE! system, we chose the HP Pavilion a1630n which is built around an AMD Athlon 64 X2 4600+ processor running at 2.2GHz. This processor is paired with an OEM motherboard from ASUS which uses NVIDIA's GeForce 6150LE IGP and nForce 430 MCP chipsets. From this point on, the system uses the same exact components which will be found in the Intel Viiv system. This includes 2GB of DDR2 memory running at 533MHz along with a 250GB SATA hard drive, 16X dual layer DVD+/-RW, and a copy of Windows Media Center 2005.
The Intel Viiv system we chose was the HP Pavilion a1640n which is based on the Intel Core 2 Duo E6300 running at 1.86GHz. Again, we find an OEM motherboard from ASUS, though this board uses Intel's latest G965 IGP chipset with the ICH7-DH southbridge. The G965 houses Intel's latest GMA 3000 IGP technology and should offer a significant jump in performance over previous Intel IGP offerings. As previously stated, the remaining hardware is identical to the AMD-based system with the same 2GB of memory, 16x DVD+/-RW, and Windows Media Center 2005 operating system.
Looking at the results above, we see that the AMD platform narrowly edges out the Intel-based system for top honors. Though hardly a landslide victory, it's intresting to see the AMD platform outperforming Intel's Core 2 Duo.
Somewhat surprisingly, we find the Intel GMA 3000 IGP outpacing the GeForce 6150 IGP in 3DMark05. Once again, the results are close and neither are especially impressive. Regardless, the NVIDIA IGP powering the AMD-based HP system has been on the market for well over a year and a half and the technology is beginning to show its age compared to the latest generation of products from NVIDIA's IGP competitors.
As we witnessed with 3DMark05, the Intel IGP again manages to outscore the NVIDIA IGP on the AMD platform. Here, the score for the Intel IGP is nearly double that of the NVIDIA IGP counterpart. Given the fact that Intel's previous IGP products offered relatively low performance we decided to investigate things further. Thankfully, 3DMark06 has an excellent feature in which the user can pick a specific frame to be rendered and can output that frame as an image. As such, we selected a particular frame from the first game test benchmark and created an animated image to illustrate any discrepancies between the images produced by the two platforms.
By referencing the animated image above, one can clearly see there are some stark differences in the way the two IGPs are rendering the same scene. Directing our attention to the area above the bay door on the left of the scene, we see NVIDIA's frame has more detail than the same frame on the Intel IGP. Moving our attention over to the boxes and carts in front of the bridge, we again find the Intel IGP's image lacking the detail of the NVIDIA IGP's scene and there are lighting issues as well. Here, the image produced on the Intel platform seems washed out and lacking the shadow detail and intricacies found on the image produced on the AMD platform. Regardless of where you look, you are sure to find visual discrepancies. Whether it be the body of the guard on the bridge or the piece of broken metal in the center of the screen, there is no denying there are some corners being cut in terms of rendering on the Intel platform.
|Gaming Benchmarks 1|
Despite being two dramatically different platforms, the two HP systems offer nearly identical performance in this benchmark. Thankfully, each system is able to run the game at respectable settings while still providing more than 40fps. As a result, gameplay is extremely fluid and each platform could be a viable candidate for an inexpensive LAN box so long as the chosen titles aren't well beyond the capabilities of this title.
As you can see, the Intel IGP offered better performance than the NVIDIA IGP in this title, despite the fact that this game is a part of NVIDIA's TWIMTBP program. In all fairness, the AMD platform is using an IGP which was released nearly two years ago. Regardless, the Intel GMA 3000 has a 7 fps advantage and is the only one of the two to break the 30fps barrier. During gameplay, the Intel solution was noticeably more fluid with no slowdowns in areas where there was a high concentration of units.
Battlefield 2 represents one of the more recent and more graphically challenging titles we chose for this review. Unfortunately, we were not even able to take a single performance measurement on the Intel platform as the game refused to run on that system despite using the latest drivers and game patches. Fortunately, the AMD system played the game without issue though performance was somewhat low at the settings we chose. Lowering detail levels or dropping the resolution to 800x600 would likely be a wise choice for those looking for more fluid gameplay.
|Gaming Benchmarks 2|
Once again, the two platforms offered nearly identical performance with less than 3 fps separating the two systems. Here, each platform managed to provide more than 30fps and gameplay was smooth and fluid in each case.
In this test, the Intel platform enjoys a nearly 5 fps advantage over the AMD platform. Regardless of the fact that we are still looking at average framerates which are below 30fps, we did not encounter any issues with performance glitches or stuttering and gameplay remained fluid and even on each platform.
With WorldBench 5.0, we run a series of pre-configured scripts that we believe give a well rounded view of system performance. The tests we focus on are Office XP SP2, Photoshop 7, Nero, and the Mozilla Multitasking Modules. These results are recorded in seconds. Lower times indicate better performance here, so the shorter the bar the better.
Although the Intel platform narrowly defeats the AMD platform in this test, a difference of a single point certainly falls within this test's margin of error. Here, it is safe to say the two systems are evenly matched and both offer excellent performance.
Despite the fact that the two systems were evenly matched in the previous test, the strength of the Core 2 Duo CPU is seen within the test with NERO. Here, the Intel platform holds a commanding lead over the AMD counterpart.
The Office component of this benchmark paints a dramatically different picture than what we witnessed with the NERO testing. Here, the AMD platform is the system with the commanding lead showcasing the strengths of AMD's Athlon 64 X2 architecture.
In terms of multitasking, the two systems are surprisingly even in terms of performance. After trading blows throughout testing we find the two providing nearly identical performance in this specific benchmark. Needless to say, it is surprising to see this level of performance coming from two budget systems. Regardless of which platform is used, users are sure to be pleased with the system's performance.
HQV is comprised of a sampling of SD video clips and test patterns that have been specifically designed to evaluate a variety of interlaced video signal processing tasks, including decoding, de-interlacing, motion correction, noise reduction, film cadence detection, and detail enhancement. As each clip is played, the viewer is required to "score" the image based on a predetermined set of criteria. The numbers listed below are the sum of the scores for each section. We played the HQV DVD using the latest version of CyberLink's PowerDVD 7 software, with hardware acceleration enabled. If a test result was close to one of the reference scores but did not quite meet all the criteria, the next lowest score was utilized.
Looking at the scores above, we clearly see that the AMD platform is able to produce a higher quality image in this visual benchmark than the Intel platform. Although Intel's ClearVideo Technology is a massive upgrade to the Intel IGP platform in terms of visual quality, it is clearly outmatched by NVIDIA's PureVideo Technology found within the AMD-based system. Although the Intel platform had some shining moments, the platform seemed to especially struggle with the cadence and 3:2 detection sections of this benchmark. Here, we witnessed significant issues with moire on both the grandstands in the 3:2 detection test and within the newspaper in the cadence tests. The platform also displayed excessive jumping and lack of fluidity on the lines of the coffee-cups within the cadence tests. Here, the NVIDIA solution managed to fare better in a few of the tests though it still struggled with the vast majority.
During testing, we did find some cases where Intel's solution offered superior performance. However, these isolated cases were far outweighed by instances where NVIDIA's solution offered grossly superior quality. Given the fact that and AMD LIVE! or Intel Viiv system is designed with a main purpose being media playback, the results from the HQV benchmark clearly indicate the AMD platform is the clear choice when selecting between the two HP systems being tested.
The Fight for the Living Room:
The Case For The PC:
Make no mistake, when things are playing nice there is no substitute for having the absolute fastest hardware on the planet every 6 months and being able to witness the latest games running at obscene resolutions with all the eye candy enabled. However, even this strength is at the mercy of overall cost of ownership and developers who are burdened with the decision to put development time into supporting this enthusiast hardware. Instead, developers and producers are often far more interested in focusing on the level of hardware with the largest install-base, as that will likely generate the most revenue. In addition to designing a title that looks spectacular on a $5,000 enthusiast system, developers must also ensure their game runs appreciably well on a $999 budget rig, much like the two HP systems we're evaluating today.
The Case For The Console:
However, the true beauty of the console lies in the fact that this static platform simply works. There is hardly ever a worry that a game won't run properly on the system because developers are designing it to work on that one specific hardware configuration. In similar fashion, peripherals also simply "work" because they are compatible with only a single hardware configuration. Aside from the latest firmware updates (which are simply downloaded and automatically installed), there are no lengthy procedures required by consumers to keep things operating as they should with a console. Rather, everything is hidden from the consumer and done quickly and cleanly through a simple file download. Add to this the fact that nearly anyone can walk up to a console and figure out how to use the system and you have yet another advantage for this platform. Conversely, the static nature of consoles prevents them from ever being "upgraded" during their lifecycle. This renders the console a dinosaur of sorts a few short years or maybe even months into its lifecycle, whereas the PC, as a platform, is always evolving and advancing.
In the end, there does not appear to be a clear victor in either camp. Granted, it is now far more appropriate for people to start talking about "convergence" in the living room and looking at a platform which will handle all of our needs. However, given the current state of each platform, it would seem as though we are not quite to a point where we can easily determine the ideal solution.
So Which HP Media Center PC Was The Better Solution?
And the Best Overall Solution Is?
Overall, we would have to give AMD's LIVE! platform the nod as the better overall multimedia initiative for its more complete and in-depth specifications and better overall performance at the lower price points. Whereas Intel's Viiv campaign names only the top key components, AMD's LIVE! is more detailed in terms of hardware such as memory size and network speeds. In addition, most market segments will find the AMD solution slightly cheaper than their Intel counterparts which is always welcomed. Although neither platform is perfect and there is still room for improvement, based on the two machines we've evaluated here, the AMD LIVE! solution is currently the better option for those looking for a pre-built multimedia or home theater PC on a budget. However, for the DYI market and those not averse to building their own Media Center solution, you can certainly build a more powerful and capable system than Intel's current Viiv guidelines provision for.
AMD LIVE! Platform
Intel Viiv Platform