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What Has Happened Since Then?

The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!

Low-Powered Phenom II Processors

AMD recently unveiled a pair of low-power Phenom II CPUs: the $220-ish quad-core Phenom II X4 905e and the $140-ish triple-core Phenom II X3 705e. Both run at 2.5 GHz and offer the same salient benefits we saw in moving from the Phenom to the Phenom II design update. Most notably, 45nm lithography paves the way for higher clock speeds and more cache while maintaining a critical (for the home theater) 65W TDP. Both specs are going to give you a significant performance boost versus the Phenom X4 9350e with which we started this project.  

Also changed is the CPU’s power management handling, which doubles available p-states from two to four, scaling down as far as 800 MHz while idle. The flip side is that the processor’s cores are not able to change states independently—a move AMD made to rectify the performance issues seen when a single-threaded workload would hop from one core to another due to Vista’s scheduler. This should also help improve performance with Cool’n’Quiet enabled.

The latest BIOS for MSI’s Media Live motherboard, which should be live by the time you read this (update: and in fact is), adds support for those new CPUs, which come highly recommended for this environment. MSI claims its board has the voltage regulation in place to support 95W CPUs (indeed, I’m reading about plenty of folks using higher-power parts), but this is really defeating the purpose of building a quiet, cool HTPC. One of these 65W Phenom IIs is undoubtedly the way to go here.

Also bear in mind that, while the MSI board offers C1E support as a BIOS option, the feature doesn’t seem to be working properly right now. Enabled, it’d cause the screen on two different TVs to shake at random intervals. Disable C1E and you should be fine.

The Theater: Updated

Having realized the full gamut of shortcomings suffered by my previous setup (720p, no Blu-ray audio codec support, no HDMI 1.3a repeater), I revamped the theater for Part 2 of this series.

First to go was the Harman/Kardon AVR435—a fair receiver in its own right, but behind the times in its support for Dolby TrueHD, DTS-HD Master Audio, and the latest revision of HDMI connectivity. I replaced it with Onkyo’s $340-ish TX-SR507, an entry-level 5.1-channel model that does support the latest Blu-ray audio formats and does offer an HDMI 1.3a repeater. Though probably not the best possible match-up to my 4 ohm Polk Audio LSi7s, you’ll see this component come into play later on in the story as we shift away from the Maui “one box” concept and compare to a two-box home theater configuration. Special thanks to Onkyo for allowing us to roll this one out in our HTPC test environment shortly after its launch.

A picture of the UN55B8000XF doesn't do this screen justiceA picture of the UN55B8000XF doesn't do this screen justice

Next up on the chopping block was the 50” Samsung HL-R5067W DLP TV, purchased about four years ago. Though the set has performed admirably, it doesn’t have much in the way of I/O and its 1080i/720p support meant I was either running an ugly 1920x1080 picture or a 1280x720 resolution that was lower than I wanted. Its replacement is Samsung’s UN55B8000XF, the 55” LED LCD from the company’s 8-series. The display’s picture proved truly phenomenal. It's going to serve as the reference platform for any HDTV coverage moving forward, so you’ll likely see more of it as we explore this newly-refreshed segment.

A Little Competition

Finally, AMD’s Maui concept has seen a bit of competition in the recent months. The one-box purists will rightly argue that nothing else currently goes head-to-head with the 780M/D2Audio/TV Wonder HD combination when it comes to doing movies, television, and music from one system. However, AMD is still missing one important capability—something we’ll be addressing a couple of different ways in the pages to come—which is high-end audio playback while watching the latest Blu-ray movies. The D2Audio chip and amplifier card can’t do TrueHD/DTS-HD over analog, and the HDMI connection only supports stereo LPCM/Dolby Digital/DTS. So, the door is left open to either the Intel/Nvidia platforms that do support 7.1-channel LPCM or any other AMD 780G/M-based motherboard with an add-in sound card sporting a protected audio path.

Don’t worry if any of that confused you—I’ll go into it as our readers start hitting me with feedback. For now, just know that Maui isn’t going uncontested here.

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