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adamadamant 2014-06-06 04:33 PM

HTPC upgrade. Need advice.
Hi everyone,

I'm looking at upgrading my HTPC as my Asus Eeebox (based on an AMD E450/ HD 6320 APU) continues to struggle with the smooth play back of some web based video sources. The Eeebox is used to listen to music and watch video streamed from TV catch up sites in the UK, Canada and the US, and from Netflix, Google and You Tube. Gaming does not come into the mix.

The Asus can't play Netflix HD because of a known issue with Microsoft silverlight and APUs (although I didn't know that at the time I bought it, and have since got round it using Chromecast), and it struggles to play smoothly flash based video on catch-up TV sites like CBC, Hulu etc, when CPU usage exceeds the 80 to 90% mark. By contrast and strangely, to me at least, it handles BBC HD and YouTube 1080p streams well, with CPU utilisation hovering around the 30% level (I don't know enough to know exactly how relevant this is).
All drivers are up to date.

I've considered replacing the Asus with something with more processing grunt like an Intel NUC, Brix, or a current core i5 Zotac, but all the reviews I've read have mentioned (but not quantified in a meaningful way) audible fan noise the absence of which is important to me. The Mac mini is also a consideration, as it is, I believe, very quiet but I would wait to see whether there is a Haswell upgrade this autumn before plumping for that option.
Lastly, this week in Tapei, Zotac announced the launch of a range of fanless (hooray!) mini pc's which will be available in North America from August. The model which piqued my interest is based on a core i5 4210Y with integrated HD 4200 graphics.
Would a leap to an i5 processor such as that found in the new Zotac or Mac mini solve my flash video/ Netflix HD issues? Or am I just barking up the wrong tree as I'm quite confused on the merits of CPUs/APUs/integrated graphics in relation to my fairly modest requirements for an HTPC.

Apologies for this lengthy post, if you've made it to here. Any help or insight would be very gratefully received.


ExDilbert 2014-06-07 02:54 PM

If possible, I would go with the newer a core i5 4210U with integrated HD 4400 graphics or something similar with Intel HD 4400 graphics. I would also stick with the dual core/4 thread i5 CPUs.

audacity 2014-06-07 04:10 PM

Honestly, there isn't much of a point of waiting for a Mac Mini with a Haswell chip from a performance perspective, it only really matters from a power usage perspective.

There is a model of Haswell chips that has significantly better graphics (the Iris Pro 5200). But those are paired with much more expensive chips, and if you read the reviews, you'll see that graphics like the HD 4600 isn't substantially better.

Furthermore, the areas that the Iris Pro are better than the HDxxxx graphics aren't important for HTPC applications. The primary feature that you may be interested in which came with the Intel graphics features is QuickSync.

So, for your purposes all the Intel chips after the Sandy Bridge line would be indistinguishable from each other for HTPC performance, except when it comes to power efficiency.

So, my advice is if you could use a better HTPC now, get the one on the market you like now - I'm not aware of anything substantially better that is coming in the near term.

When it comes to small form factor PCs, I'm sure there must be units that generate very little noise. When you have a fast chip which is idle most of the time (which it would be for HTPC applications), the chip is sleeping and generating hardly any heat. Just try to avoid models that have really small fans, those are the things that tend to make noise.

adamadamant 2014-06-08 10:03 AM

Many thanks for your replies. Is there any explanation as to why flash video performance varies so much across web sites. As I mentioned above, my current set up plays BBC HD beautifully, but does not like some other sites (Hulu, CBC) where the video can be jittery. Am I likely to see the same issues whatever I do by way of an upgrade?

ExDilbert 2014-06-08 01:01 PM

It's difficult to say but it could be due to extra processing required on the video stream. If things like deinterlacing are required and the video chip doesn't support it, that can cause heavy CPU load and cause choppy video. It can also be caused by CODECs that don't support hardware acceleration for such operations. Poor decoding options in players can also cause choppy video.

I looked into Intel video issues some time ago. Other than performance, there was a reason why Intel 4400 video was a better choice than earlier versions. Don't know if 4000 and 4200 video suffers from the Sandy bridge bug but that could have been an issue. The 4210U CPU is over a year newer than the 4210Y so it's not likely to suffer from earlier Intel video issues. Some of the chip configurations on Zotac boards are quite dated so they need to be examined closely.

audacity 2014-06-08 01:32 PM

Different videos can use different codecs/profiles and bitrates. If your CPU needs to do it all "in software", i.e. the dedicated decoding hardware assist isn't helpful because the codec/profile is too complex for the hardware to perform the decode operations and Flash falls back to the software implementation.

Fortunately, Intel x86 chips from the past few years can easily perform all decode operations for practically any codec in software. That said, they also have QuickSync, which is some dedicated video hardware that can be used for encoding and decoding which will reduce the power use of your system if the decoding software (i.e. Flash) supports it. And QuickSync is starting to catch on, especially since Intel released some open source implementations of code which leverages QuickSync.

audacity 2014-06-08 01:34 PM


Originally Posted by ExDilbert
Don't know if 4000 and 4200 video suffers from the Sandy bridge bug but that could have been an issue.

1. What is "the Sandy bridge bug"?

2. 4000 = Ivy Bridge, one generation newer, so if the bug is serious it would presumably be fixed.

The only bug I was aware of was dealing with decoding 24fps Blu-Ray content, and it doesn't affect streaming video content.

adamadamant 2014-06-08 01:49 PM

Thanks again for taking the time to reply, you've been very helpful. I think I'll make some more effort to find out just how "noisy" the NUC / Brix options are given the use I would put them to. It's disappointing that Zotac are launching an exciting (fanless!) new product with what appears to be a fairly old processor.

Wayne 2014-06-10 11:44 AM

What is your budget? I have built a totally silent HTPC using a HD-Plex fanless case and an SSD. It makes no noise and these cases are a little more expensive, but they can handle the Haswell CPUs with TDPs of about 65W and less.

ExDilbert 2014-06-10 01:03 PM

The 4210U CPU has a TDP of only 15w and a max temp of 100c. It should be very easy to build a fanless solution with that and a NUC style case. Many processors with a 15w TDP use fanless heat sinks so it should be possible to either use a third party low noise option or slow the stock fan down with a speed controller. (I've actually unplugged or removed the fan on low powered CPU/GPU heat sinks with no issues but temps must be monitored.)

Another option may be something like the GIGABYTE GB-BXi3-4010 or GIGABYTE GB-BXi5-4200. They have a fan but it shouldn't be difficult to fix if you don't mind replacing the heat sink. I've used third party low profile "silent" heat sinks in HTPCs with good results. The GIGABYTE BRIX line tends to be a little richer in features than Intel NUC line.

The HDPlex cases are very nice but keep in mind that they cost as much as some low end mini-PCs.

adamadamant 2014-06-10 04:39 PM

I would go to around $7-800 for the right solution. This weekend, I will borrow a friend's laptop for a couple of hours, hook it up to my TV and see whether the flash issues are resolved. It runs Windows 8.1/ i5 4210U.
A slightly left field solution I'm thinking of, is to stick with what I've got for music (quiet, no issues), and go with a combination of IPad mini, Apple TV (for airplay) and Chromecast for streaming video. That takes the whole processor / fan noise debate out of the equation, although I may lose some flexibility down the line and may not be able to cover all my bases as far as video sources are concerned.
I've looked at building my own, but case size cf. Mac mini, NUC etc., is the issue.

Danno10000 2014-06-11 08:56 AM

I use a mac Mini with Plex to view most of my video content through my Roku 3. On the Roku (through Plex), I watch CBC and use the native Hulu Plus and Netflix apps, plus view local files (movies mostly mkv format, music, photo) located on a 4 TB hard drive attached to the mac Mini. This gives me the benefit of a mac home computer, as well as a Plex server that can handle multiple Roku's. I bought a refurb from Apple for $510 and was going to build another HTPC but thought this was cheaper and more powerful for the price. The mac Mini is super quiet (can't hear it), uses about 30 watts of power, comes with loads of software, is very small and plays video very well with no hiccups. You can easily connect the mac Mini directly to your TV and bypass the Roku, or do that and have a Roku as a second or third device on other TV's.

adamadamant 2014-06-16 02:04 PM

As far as I know, Apple are the only computer manufacturer that publishes accoustic performance data based on the ISO standard and that data supports anecdotal observations that the Mac mini is very quiet. I used my daughter's 3 year old i5 based Macbook over the weekend, and it had no problems playing the websites that cause my AMD E450 problems. It appears that for whatever reason the AMD apu is loading the work entirely onto its puny cpu while pretty much ignoring the half decent gpu.
I shall wait to see what the autumn brings by way of a mac mini update (if any) at which time I'll look again at the other i5 based options out there. It seems a shame that Intel et al appear to be sacrificing cooling/ fan noise in the race to be small in the small form factor segment.

audacity 2014-06-16 03:31 PM


Originally Posted by adamadamant
It seems a shame that Intel et al appear to be sacrificing cooling/ fan noise in the race to be small in the small form factor segment.

I'm not sure how you can draw that conclusion.

Intel is very focused on power usage and heat dissipation. In fact, their most recent generation of x86 chips is almost exclusively focused on power/heat.

Consider, from your example:
- What is/was the price of a i5-based MacBook?
- What is/was the price of a E450-based PC, which is also a ~3 year old (2011) design.

I'm not disputing your assertion that the E450-based PC is noisy, but I'm just not sure how you put that on Intel's doorstep.

I'd blame the E450's fan/case if I were you.

j0dest3r 2014-06-16 05:08 PM

Are you sure the EeeBox isn't overheating or something? My wife uses an older Dell and it will heat up and start to stutter on certain sites at certain times. When she complains I take apart the CPU fan, blow it out with air and then its good again for a while. I keep saying I'm going to replace the CPU fan but haven't yet.

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