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

What Has Happened Since Then?

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 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.

Chris Angelini
Chris Angelini is an Editor Emeritus at Tom's Hardware US. He edits hardware reviews and covers high-profile CPU and GPU launches.
  • WheelsOfConfusion
    Nice follow-up. A bit more entertaining than benchmarking the same suite of games over and over, I'll bet.
    Unfortunately you ran into that DRM breakdown problem, where one snagged link in the hardware/software chain negated the high-quality features we're supposed to be enjoying through "easy" and "transparent" copy protection schemes. DRM will make criminals of us all, one way or another: if not by trying to get around it, then when we go on a bloody rampage out of frustration from trying to make it work.
  • mcboj
    Nice article. Made for a good read, as I'm wanting to build a HTPC very soon. Seems crazy that the combined might of all these manufacturers aren't able to make this work 100% yet. Too many cooks in the kitchen?
  • Luscious
    Great article. I've been looking into getting BD content onto a HTPC but have run into the same DRM and audio issues as you describe. DVD's were a lot easier to deal with, but BD is an entirely different animal. True, I've yet to experiment with Win7 and have only touched Vista and MCE so far. I'm probably going to wait a few more months for Win7 to show before I look into it further.

    I do agree in your choice of a dedicated receiver. I've got an Onkyo receiver connected to Yamaha speakers in a 7.1 arrangement that I use primarily as a source switch. Originally I had three DVD changers that I replaced with a HTPC. It's worked well, but now with a growing BD library I need to take a second look at my system. Unlike you, however, I chose to go with a dedicated gaming box alongside with passive PSU, passive GPU and a silent CPU heatsink for big-screen gaming. The multiple HDMI and audio inputs on the receiver helped out big time. I also have a dedicated BD player at the moment that I'll probably keep just in case.
  • empstar
    Hi I'm new to HDTV or HDPC I'm using the laptop(HP media DV1125 C2D, ATI 4650) to connect to my SONY 32" LCD TV 100MHz motion flow (32W550 just bough it on 04july09) using HDMI cable 1920x1024 Max Res. but the picture/win desktop look ugly and the front in the windows exploere look
    ugly too. Q1) how to SET? the best res? and Q2) should I use HDMI or PC-input (D-Sub 15 pin) to connect? DVD player connected to watch movie look great. HELP... some one?
  • quadrophenia
    I thought I read somewhere that Maui does not work if you don't have an HD tv. Can anyone confirm this? Thanks
  • kazius
    There are a lot of factors that you didn't factor in: room acoustics, speaker quality, speaker placement (NEVER place the speakers directly in the corner - like as seen in the pictures), and so on. These make the audio comparison a moot point - I'd expect a richer low end may actually harm the overall listening experience in such a setup, inaccurate spectral positioning, and a somewhat muffled/smudged sound.

    ... Of course, nearly everyone makes these mistakes, because even home theater and PC enthusiasts tend to think that like the screen or PC, higher quality components is all you actually need for better results... which is true only after you solve all the acoustic issues in your setup.
  • profundido
    Dear Tom,

    I have started my quest for the holy grail of htpc 2 years ago and have found it about a month ago. I set for myself the following requirements:

    -it must be 1 box that is able to handle ALL available media
    -it must be user friendly and relative dummy proof: no switching audio formats and settings in between movies, just press play and experience the magic (a typical non-tech minded person must be able to play it all)
    -it must serve as TV-VCR in it's highest possible quality
    -the audio quality must be at high end hifi quality in such a degree that if you play FLAC from it professional hifi dealers are blown away
    -video must be full-HD
    -it must be able to play current videogames fluent in full-hd res
    -it must be able to handle all bluray audioformats flawlessly including dts-hd, master and LPCM WITHOUT HAVING TO SET ANYTHING OR SWITCH ANYTHING in the settings of the htpc
    -it must appear and look like a receiver, not like a pc in the living room
    -the surround sound must meet THX reference standards and volume

    my quest led me through (funny) the exact same products and their respective problems among many others. I was able just like you to get the digital passthrough to work with the Xonar 1.3 deluxe but with that card a few problems remain such as having to switch standards before playing it in the Xonar console, malformed LPCM that sounds flattened and lacking bass etc and last but not least the very slow hdmi-video switching of all Onkyo receivers so that wasn't perfect. Then I went to a hi end hifi seminar and listened to the professional audiocard of Onkyo and was totally blown away by the amazing crystal clear sound quality it produces in combination with a proper receiver that amplifies the channels seperately in a fully analogue way. That's when the light hit me. I rebuilt my entire htpc concept around this "analogue" setup and left the trail of the "immature hdmi" path. The result was amazing. 1 time calibration with the aid of Vista Ultimate built-in room correction and I was in the middle of the best htpc experience I had ever witnessed. I'm so happy with the result since it meets all the criteria of the holy grail. I also store and stream bluray content in full size on a 6.5TB windows drive at the speed of full gigabit (RAID 8*1TB) and play it with Arcsoft TMT 3. High dev TV functionality is provided with Firedtv, an austrian solution that allows digital satellite HD streams to be displayed directly on the pc with a modified version of DVB viewer as software (more userfriendly). For the analog amplification And all that in a fusion remote case from Antec é voila, there's your holy grail in a slim slick box ;)
  • profundido
    correction of missing part in above reply: For the analogue amplification of all 7.1 channels at THX ultraplus 2 standards and the volume of dolby reference I use the Onkyo 906 networkreceiver with 200watt per channel. Once the setup is calibrated, nothing else has to be done or switched on the receiver except volume control.
  • swt_2k
    Great information in this article "The HTPC / Windows 7 Chronicles: You Asked, We Answer!”

    Like most Media Center software users, I wanting to see a Digital PCI tuner card certify by Cablelabs; I don’t like to set top cable box. By-the-way, you cannot find the "ATI TV Wonder Digital Cable Tuner" anywhere. Sony no long lists that item. Also that item only uses the 1.0 unidirectional cable cards as opposed to the new 2.0 bi directional cable cards. Cablelabs is too slow bringing a digital cable card solution to the market.

    Does any know when or where I can buy a digital tuner like the ones in current LCD TVs?

  • Shadow703793
    Not sure if this was out when this was written, but there are PASSIVELY cooled 4670s. For example: