New Drivers And Great Home Theater Features
One area where Intel has put in significant work is its graphics driver interface. More than anything, the redesign simply modernizes the look and feel, going from a boring business to sleek home desktop motif. The company enables custom resolution settings, but aside from that, not much else is changed.
Intel HD Graphics In The Home Theater
Most of Intel’s efforts in improving its integrated graphics core are directed at the home theater experience—a field on which the company actually stands a chance. The G45 chipset already put Intel on the map by enabling multi-channel LPCM audio output over HDMI and supporting accelerated MPEG-2, H.264, and VC-1 (the trio of Blu-ray codecs) decoding.
But Clarkdale’s HD Graphics core goes a few steps further by offering dual video decode streams for picture-in-picture, dual simultaneous HDMI outputs (though we haven’t yet seen any motherboards exposing this yet), DisplayPort audio (also recently enabled on ATI’s Radeon HD 5000-series discrete boards), and lossless Dolby TrueHD/DTS-HD Master Audio bitstreaming to compatible stereo receivers.
Intel also makes it a point to mention that its HD Graphics core supports xvYCC, a color space used to expand the overall color gamut beyond RGB and YCbCr. This likely isn’t worth touting right now, though. After all, this is one of those features requiring support from every component in the chain—from source to output—and it is not supported by the Blu-ray format. Rather, it’d be one of those additions to home video taken with AVCHD-compatible camcorders. Windows 7 also supports xvYCC, and we've asked Microsoft about the possible ramifications of hardware support for this on the desktop and in games (we'll update when a response comes through).
Update: As promised, we've received word back from Microsoft on the issue of xvYCC in Windows and gaming. In essence, the Windows 7 desktop does not currently make use of xvYCC directly, although full-screen games certainly can. The use of this in games is recommended by the Games for Windows Technical Requirements in the Showcase Appendix as S.6 Support High Color. The new WDDM 1.1 driver WHQL tests include more robust testing of these High Color display modes, and almost all DirectX 10.x/11-era and most DirectX 9 Shader Model 2.0/3.0-era discrete video cards already have >8-bit DACs, so most users (certainly most, if not all, hardcore gamers) already have at least part of the High Color display hardware support.
The most accessible feature for most home theater enthusiasts is probably going to be the ability to bitstream high-def audio formats. Intel gave us a beta build of CyberLink’s PowerDVD 9 Ultra with preliminary support for H55/H57’s protected audio/video path, enabled through the chipset’s Manageability Engine. We’ve had bad luck with Onkyo’s TX-SR507 in the past, so we fired up our 24-bit/96 kHz test disc with a bit of trepidation. But the hardware/software combination worked like a charm and the receiver was able to decode the TrueHD signal without a problem…well, almost. We did run into an issue where the system would lock up completely after four or five minutes of playback.
A couple of months back, I noted that companies like Asus and Auzentech were in trouble with their HTPC-oriented soundcards, designed specifically to enable bitstreaming. ATI’s Radeon HD 5750 and 5770 made the same technology available as a value-add. Now you can get that functionality from a simple motherboard upgrade.
Of course, if you don’t have a receiver able to decode either high-def format, you can also set PowerDVD to decode the signal itself and Intel’s chipset will still output multi-channel linear PCM to your receiver. You’ll only get 16-bit/48 kHz sound, but in truth, most Blu-ray movies employ 16-bit sound anyway.