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What is Needed for HTPC Streaming?

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January 13, 2012 12:21:28 PM

Hello all.

It seems like there are litterally thousands of posts on dozens of sites dancing around this topic, and I've searched high and low without success for a straight answer. While not completely ignorant, I have a lot to learn about how many of the technologies and protocols work for entertainment content. I am hoping someone here may have an answer that can help...

What are the hardware requirements for producing HD content in a home theater? Additionally, are there any software products that can ease the hardware requirements?

I am asking this because last year I took the plunge and built an HTPC using the AMD Zecate E350 platform (1.6GHz, HD6310 APU). In all my research I was assured that this was all the processing and graphics power needed to fulfill my needs. CPU speed was the one place I really "cut a corner" to save, and now I realize I shouldn't have. I am really disappointed that I can't stream Netflix or content like SNF on NBC without stutters and jumps. But how much processor is really needed? Building a high end "media machine" fits neither the budget nor the form factor I'm looking for - part of the challenge is not overbuilding. :) 

I do enjoy the hobby of building a system and the challenge of capturing clear HD signals, whether online or over the air. However, I'm curious why it is so challenging and expensive to build a good HTPC to handle these tasks compared with the price of nettop boxes, Blu-Ray players with many apps, and HD receivers with built in PVR/DVR. It almost seems that a person could invest in each of these devices sperately for less than what is needed to build an HTPC that could do all of their functions in one box. How are these device manufacturers able to include so much processing power for so little money? My suspicision is that this is the role of good software. Is that so, and what is it?

That is a little off topic though... Ultimately my questions boil down to these:

What is really needed for processing h.264, MPEG4, Flash or other HD formats?
- Is this a function of processor speed only?
- Do the number of cores really have an impact here?
- When does the GPU contribute?
Is there additional power or resource needed for 3D or other future-proofing?
- Again, just a function of speed, or is there more to consider?
How important is graphics processing compared to the job of the CPU when it comes to handling everything from Blu-Ray to Silverlight to Adobe Flash to FTA HD signals like MPEG4?
- There seem to be a lot of processors with onboard GPU to take advantage of discrete graphics on boards. In my own experience this seems to be a good match for most Blu-Ray and streaming content, but after reading several reviews I'm not sure when the GPU is used or if a more powerful CPU can compensate for "onboard graphics" anyway.

I don't really intend to play any games on this HTPC. I'm interested mostly in a video library and streaming options. I also want to expand into receiving clear FTA signals. Bandwidth is not a concern; so far only CPU power seems to be the challenge and I want to make sure I get it right this time. :D 

Finally, are there any thoughts on cooling space required as a function of wattage? The E350 is a mini-itx board with an 18W TDP rating. Looking at say an A4-3400 (65W) or a Core i3-2105 (35W+), I wonder if the mini-itx in a small form-factor (SFF) box is too tight to adequately cool the CPU. Any suggestions here? (If possible, I'd like to keep the SFF footprint, or as small of a micro-ATX box as can be had.) Of course, these CPUs may not be enough to really handle what I want anyway...

Thanks in advance for your feedback.

Matt

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a b à CPUs
January 13, 2012 2:02:45 PM

i think this might be the wrong section but ill try the best i can

the gpu does help in most cases, thats why they slap them on to such weak cpus

the e-350 can handle 1080p content, but i have no idea about netflix, they use gpus because cpus alone can render the image, but post processing of gpus tnds to render a significantly cleaner image
January 13, 2012 2:24:45 PM

If you have the time to tinker you could get a raspberry pi when they are released

tbh with the hdmi media readers you can get for $50 or so and smart TV's, HTPC's are becoming somewhat obsolete.
They can manfacture them for less as they are application specific.
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January 13, 2012 2:37:40 PM

what you need for HD content is DXVA capable software and hardware.
any ATI 4000 series or higher and any nvidia 8000 series or higher supports DXVA (the E350 integrates ATI 6000 series).
but you also need software that utilizes DXVA (pushes the GPU to handle h264 decoding instead of CPU). MPC-HC supports DXVA, VLC does not (with ATI anyways), so trying to play a 1080p MKV video on your E350 with MPC-HC will work fine but not with VLC.

my HTPC is also an E350, it can handle HD content fine. thought i can't attest for netflix.
January 13, 2012 2:41:38 PM

Thanks guys!

xaria, I can tell you the E350 will not handle Netflix's version of "HD". While the quality is less than 1080p, the application uses MS Silverlight and apparently does not take advantage of any of the GPU. The CPU chokes on the stream and I'm forced to reduce the quality of the picture to get a smooth play. NBC's broadcasts are similar in that fast action requiring more data chokes the CPU again. Disappointing...

In reading other reviews, it sounds like a minimum 2.0Ghz CPU speed is needed for h.264 or MPEG4 processing. What I don't know is if the number of cores helps or if any GPU (onboard/discrete or PCI) would be a benefit at all... Content using Adobe Flash seems to be handled easily with the E350, something I've read conflicting reports on with the lower powered Intel procs...

joedastudd, thanks for the reply. I'll definitely check out more info on the raspberry pi. I'm just surprised that applications requiring fast CPUs can still be so inexpensive!

Thanks again.
a b à CPUs
January 13, 2012 3:55:41 PM

they use silverlight? but why???????

ok dude well if you really want to use netflix, your best bet is the a4-apu
!