The Fight for the Living Room:
Regardless of what name vendors might try to place on it, the real topic we're investigating here is convergence. Yes, this ugly word has been repeated by analysts ad nauseam for the last decade. However, for the first time ever, the term is finally finding an appropriate application. In short, we have static platforms (consoles) fighting a dynamic platform (PCs) for space in the living room. Here, PC hardware and system vendors are creating campaigns, such as Intel's Viiv and AMD's LIVE!, to turn the PC into a multimedia Swiss-Army knife of sorts, in an effort to have the PC become the digital epicenter of the household. Specifically, the PC becomes a dedicated multimedia hub to a wired or wireless network, which links all of the electronics within the home. Console vendors are doing something very similar this generation, with both the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 touting some impressive multimedia features of their own, that go well beyond just gaming. For the sake of simplicity, we'll ignore the fact that this premium space in the living room is currently ruled by a host of separate, specialized home theater components and focus our attention on the two platforms in question and this notion of "convergence".
The Case For The PC:
The PC is a double-edged sword in that it has many strengths and weaknesses. Given the fact that it is a dynamic platform, consumers have the ability to configure or customize it to their own specific application. The market is saturated with a seemingly endless selection of hardware and software to tackle whatever needs consumers might have. Unfortunately, this strength is also a weakness as compatibility becomes a critical topic of discussion. If we disregard PC enthusiasts for a moment, not many consumers are aware of what a driver is, nor are they likely to be comfortable searching for the appropriate one to update their system. In similar fashion, not many people would be successful troubleshooting an issue where a new piece of hardware or software isn't mixing well with the PC, without having to contact some support center or call up a more PC-literate friend.
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:
In stark contrast, we have the console. Unlike the more traditional consoles, such as the Super Nintendo or even the original Playstation, the latest generation of consoles brings far more than gaming to the table. In the case of the Playstation 3 for example, you have a Linux-based PC with a 60GB hard-drive, offering wireless internet capabilities, multimedia playback, solid gaming, a discrete Blu-Ray player, and more for roughly $599. Although hardly a number to disregard and certainly high by console standards, it's cheaper than the $1500 or more an enthusiast class PC would cost to build or the $999 HP systems we have in the lab.
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?
Based upon the two nearly identical HP systems we've evaluated, we would have to give AMD's LIVE! platform and edge in terms of overall performance and functionality. Given the superior video quality, competitive gaming performance, game compatibility, and lower overall cost, the HP a1630n based upon the AMD LIVE! platform is a better solution than the HP a1640n. From the time we removed the AMD-based system from the package until the time we concluded testing, we did not experience a single issue. This is in stark contrast to our gaming efforts on the Intel-based system which refused to run some games and displayed some visual glitches within others. Normally, we could look past some issues with games as merely being a driver bug or a game in need of a patch. However, the compatibility of Intel's IGP solutions with games is anything but a new issue. Intel's game support is limited to a select few titles which are illustrated on a particular compatibility page on the company's website. Considering the inferior video image quality seen in the HQV benchmark and the $100 premium this platform commands, it seems clear that the obvious system of choice here is the AMD-based HP a1630n.
And the Best Overall Solution Is?
An important aspect to consider when trying to determine the best overall multimedia PC platform is the fact that these initiatives apply to both budget and enthusiast systems. Although flagship hardware is certainly covered, there are also budget systems, like those tested within this article, that will rely upon integrated graphics and more cost-conscious components. In the past, one vendor might have had an advantage over the other due to having more chipset options or superior features. However, with VIA and SIS playing an ever smaller role this market, the industry is witnessing a battle between four key vendors. Somewhat ironically, we're seeing the same battle from a few years ago, although some positions have changed dramatically. Whereas AMD and NVIDIA were previously paired to fight ATI and Intel, AMD's buyout of ATI has now pushed NVIDIA closer to Intel. In the end, this results in a myriad of chipset options ranging from cutting-edge enthusiast products to the latest in integrated graphics solutions. In short, we're faced with a technological stalemate with no decisive victor. Each company has roughly the same features available in terms of hardware including quad-core CPU's (native or otherwise), dual-GPUs, DDR2 memory, and more. With the exception of the highest-end enthusiast systems, where Intel's platforms has a clear advantage, performance between the two platforms will largely be the similar for many of the remaining market segments.
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