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HTPC CPU upgrade, but how much of an upgrade?

Last response: in Systems
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June 24, 2011 1:29:11 PM

Hi all, I've been using a custom built HTPC for a while now, and peruse Tom's regularly for tidbits and advice. I chose/have been running a system based on a lot of feedback I got/read from many of you:

motherboard: ASUS M4A785-M
cpu: amd athlon X2 5050e (great CPU for the money, but I think I'm just putting too much demand on it)
video: onboard 4200 integrated running, overclocked (actually gets all the jobs done for blu-ray, boxee, WMC)
TV Card: ATI cablecard
OS: Win7 Pro 64

The htpc has been great, but over time, as I've added bits of software, and processes continually running, it has gradually become more bogged down, with things such as: PlayOn server, media server for my smart phone to upload video/photos, Eye-Fi server for 2 Eye-fi cards, uTorrent, EventGhost (for universal remote control), Boxee, WMC, media server to stream tv and files to my smartphone, system temp monitoring, and some of the big bits of software that work with WMC to monitor recording folders and re-encode WMC files and strip out ads and such, etc.

I've been using the desktop gadget 'All CPU Meter' the last year, which is a great tool (for those that aren't familiar with it) to monitor cpu core loads graphically. It has helped a lot, in seeing which processes/software use a bunch of the activity of the cpu cores.

So, with my limited knowledge of how video/cpu/motherboard/decoding all works on the fly in reguards to specific loads on a system, and how they work off each other, I have in my mind, that upgrading my cpu to a quad core (vs other factors) will be the biggest help in all of this. I'm assuming this, based on the fact that the biggest things that make my system sluggish are when I'm recording via a cablecard for TV, and when software is transcoding already recorded TV shows. With both of those things happening all at once, they load my 2 cores between 70-99% active. This doesn't leave much else for the other software to run, or really do anything else without some response delay (such as the system taking about 8-12 seconds to open the TV Guide in WMC)

So my questions are:

1) Is this typical sluggishness of the setup I have and the software load I'm putting on it? (it's a energy saver 45W CPU, so I don't expect super high performance, but I am running a bunch of stuff on my system, right? I think I'm ok with going to a higher CPU for electricity bills. I have in my head if I go to a 95W Quad, I might be adding $10/month to the electrical bill)

2) Would upgrading my CPU be the biggest benefit based on my system description? (or maybe upgrading CPU with adding a 'light' video card. I'm under the impression that it's my CPU doing all the work, and the video chip would be transcoding on the fly to output to a monitor, yes? So, I should be focusing solely on the CPU, right?)

3) If upgrading the CPU is the main factor in helping the system perform better, what type of upgrade should I look at? Let's say money isn't a problem (but I don't want to overpay price for performance), and that heat or noise shouldn't be a problem, should I just go for a 95W quad core? I know that going to a quad core would minimally need a 95W CPU design (coming from one of the best low end energy use chips), which will put a higher demand on keeping my case cool.
a)Should I care as much about whether I look at Athlon II X4's vs Phenom II X4's as much?
b)Or, whether I'm looking between 2.9 and 3.2 GHz chips?
c)Or, is mostly the fact that 4 cores will allow me to just run a bunch of software at once, with transcoding, and HDTV recording going on all at once, without bogging down the system?
I have in my head just going to 4 cores would be the biggest help. Someone debunk my thoughts here, if I'm thinking incorrectly.

Thanks for any feedback.

June 24, 2011 6:24:38 PM

I'm not too sure that system cleaning is what I need. I already use CCleaner on a regular basis, and use AVG actively. My problems come when my system is under load, i believe. Like, when I am using WMC to watch a live show, and it's recording another show via cablecard, and MCEBuddy is re-encoding a WMC file, and Boxee is scanning folders. When these things are going on, and someone is watching each of my two cores are minimally at 99% use. MCEBuddy alone adds 40-50% to each core when transcoding media files is active (vs inactive). Therefore, pulling up the WMC TV Guide takes 10 secs or so.
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a b à CPUs
June 24, 2011 9:24:10 PM

That looks like you can use a 6 core. What's your BIOS version? (start/all programs/accessories/system tools/system information.
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a b à CPUs
June 25, 2011 2:33:03 PM

From what you described, it sounds like you need more processing cores. Transcoding is especially CPU intensive. With that in mind, I think you have several options:

#1: Upgrade to a quad. There are efficient AMD quads available if you want to still have that low power footprint. Athlon II X4 605e/610e/615e and Phenom II X4 905e/910e/915e processors have a TDP of 45W and 65W respectively. The downside is that these AM3 CPU's are getting a bit dated and they cost more than a regular TDP quad. *Note- you can undervolt a regular quad to match the power of an "e" processor if you get lucky with a high quality CPU. My main HTPC runs with a 905e BTW.

#2: Wait a few weeks and see what Llano offers and possibly replace both CPU and motherboard. The Llano CPU's will have a quad paired with an HD6550 graphics chip and will do it within either 65W or 100W TDP, depending on the model. This may sound high, but compared to a regular AMD quad with a TDP of 95W without bundled graphics and you can see these have some potential. Llano looks very promising for HTPC use. You could also explore a Sandy Bridge build, which have been proven to be exceptionally power efficient, though I'm not sure the virtual cores from a hyperthreaded i3 processor will have as much impact as a true quad core in your case where you have a lot of multiple processor intensive tasks going simultaneously. Clock for clock, a SB will get background jobs done faster than your 5050e without a doubt.

#3: Scale back your HTPC duties. You can perform transcoding on a separate PC on the network and reduce some of the other processor intensive work that your HTPC is performing. You are currently asking more from your HTPC than it can give.
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June 26, 2011 4:31:25 AM

Great! Thanks for the feedback, these are the kind of things I was looking for.

I would also like some reaffirmation on the following, if anyone can agree:

I've noticed some of the cpu's you mentioned after posting my original post, and am happy to see some 'e' version out there.
So, my next targeted question for purchasing, if I go the #1 route.
Should these be the things in order of preference?

1) Number of cores (4 vs 3)
2) Speed 2.6-3.2 ranges
3) Athlon vs Phenom

Without getting into benchmark details, this would be a 'general' guide on how to choose a chip (independent of price, although many of these cpu's are in the $140-200 range).
Correct?

For example:
Would a Phenom II 3X chip running @ 3.2 be better/worse than an Athlon II 4X running at 2.7?
I have in my head, the 4X would 'on average' perform better for me an HTPC rig, not running games or heavy graphics, since it's an extra core to help with multiple processes running on the system at peak times. The L3 cache isn't going to do too much for me in these scenarios, right?
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a b à CPUs
June 26, 2011 2:21:03 PM

If you do go the AM3 "e" route, the Athlon's are good enough. From what I've read, L3 is only an advantage in gaming.

Faster X3 vs. slower X4? I don't know. It depends on how your software likes multiple cores. With as many things you have going on, the extra core would be nice. Maybe you could get lucky and unlock an X3 into an X4 :) 
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June 26, 2011 2:45:39 PM

I'm under the impression that the 'unlockables' are 'just' the Black Editions? Or do some peeps get lucky with uncommon/rare X3's that aren't BE? Additionally, there are no BE's that are 'e' rated out there, correct? Just trying to balance/factor in the $100 i i might save on electricity for a year, since it will be on 24/7
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a b à CPUs
June 26, 2011 3:47:23 PM

Black edition CPU's have an unlocked multiplier. That's different.

All X3 processors are really X4 processors with one core turned off. Sometimes that core was turned off because it was defective or didn't quite pass QC. If the core isn't too bad, you can re-enable the dormant core and your X3 turns into an X4.
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June 26, 2011 8:32:46 PM

Thx for more feedback.

Any knowledge out there related to whether or not people have had success unlocking any of the Athlon II X3 'e' chips (400e, 405e, 420e) to 4 cores?
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a b à CPUs
June 27, 2011 12:26:25 AM

I imagine that the odds would be about the same as the non 'e' chips. It's a crapshoot, though is seems more likely than not you can unlock the dormant core. I've seen estimates from 50-79% success rate by googling, but that's not real data.

From what I've read, more recently manufactured chips are more likely to unlock because AMD has refined their process and do not have as many defective cores. As a consequence, they disable perfectly good cores just to fill the X3 SKU's to retailers.

Keep in mind, you must have a motherboard that supports ACC to unlock cores. If you want piece of mind, then just pony up for the X4
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