Electronic Design

Consumer Electronics Series: AMD Live! Home Cinema Platform

AMD is making a push into the home theatre market with its AMD Live! Initiative. The software runs off of Microsoft’s Vista OS and the Microsoft Media Center and AMD’s Athlon processor and RS-780M chipset make for AMD Live! hardware, which includes integrated ATI display support as well as high performance audio. Display and audio can be delivered via HDMI on most motherboards including the MSI MS-7411, which was provided on the test system from AMD.

The test system I cracked open is built around NMedia’s HTPC 1000B chassis (Fig. 1) and the MSI MS-7411 motherboard from MSI Computer, featuring the RS-780M chipset. The system includes AMD’s Phenom X4 Quad core processor (Model 9350 but it can handle most multimedia chores using a dual core processor).

The RS-780M chipset is designed to deliver high-performance multimedia with built-in 5.1 audio support, HDMI with HDCP support, and support for sideport memory. This allows the ATI Radeon HD 3200 access to its own graphics memory, instead of sharing memory with the processor, making the configuration more efficient and strips away loading access to the processor’s memory bus.

Other components in the mix that make a major difference in the platform include Seagate’s Pipeline hard disk drive (HDD), Pioneer Electronic’s Blu-Ray BD2020MR drive, Noise Limit’s Silent Flux Media Cooler heatsink and fan, and AMD’s ATI Theater 650 Pro TV Tuner card. I’ll take a look at these individually later in the article.

The system will be available from a number of sources, though some of the components may differ. As an alternative, you can build it from scratch with parts from NewEgg, which has various bundles to make the job easier.

Home Cinema
The key to AMD Live! was to raise in terms of end-user experience with the system. AMD has opted for HD audio and video components to raise the bar and guarantee an enhanced level of functionality. The system is a HDTV PC with typical connections to a flat panel display using VGA, DVI, or HDMI video connections. This allows HD content delivery to the latest generation of displays. Likewise, the audio experience starts with 5.1 audio with an option for 7.1 audio support.

Microsoft’s Vista and Media Center are central to the experience. It allows the platforms to work with Windows Media Center extenders. It also means that AMD’s Diamond USB IR transceiver will deliver familiar remote-control support including sleep mode reduced power requirements.

The system has more than enough horsepower for typical PC chores. Of course, this assumes that the television will be used for more than viewing video. On the other hand, it will more likely be used as a media recorder or a remote source for a media extender in which case the extra horsepower will be invaluable.

Overall, my experience with the system was very good. I have no issues with the hardware and only minor issues with Microsoft’s Media Center. Initial setup of Vista does not differ from the typical PC requiring the usual registration process to be completed. I started with a HDMI audio and video setup with a Samsung DLP display. I then tried the built-in 5.1 support with the MSI MS-4240 5.1 amplifier card. The card uses standard speaker wire with no connectors, so it was easy to rewire the system from my current amplifier. Quality was on par or better than my existing 5.1 system. It can crank out 100 W, eliminating the need for my current amp. Using the 7.1 preamplifier required hooking the speakers back up to the amplifier and feeding the preamp into the amplifier.

The typical setup for most users will likely be the HDMI connection: DVI with a PC audio connection to the television or using the 5.1 support with a dedicated set of speakers.

The Media Center support allows recording content using the ATI Theater 650 Pro TV Tuner card. The SD receiver will work with over-the-air content in the U.S. for a little longer, but the HD receiver works just fine. The bigger problem arises from your wired source such as cable or satellite services. Here your mileage will vary. HD recording often does not work as is my case with Comcast. Cable card support is an option available from AMD but I have not had a chance to check this out yet.

Playback of DVDs and Blue-Ray disks using the Pioneer Blu-Ray BD2020MR disk was as easy as popping the disk into the drive. Blue-Ray startup is as slow as other Blue-Ray players I have used including my Playstation 3, but this is due more to the Blue-Ray spec than the speed of the drive or system. This source of HD video will likely remain the mainstay until download or streaming services like Netflix become more common. Right now your mileage may vary. My DSL connection does not work with Netflix very well but it does on a Comcast connection.

The critical test was the integration with the D-Link Media Center Extender I am testing as well. Setting up the link between it and the AMD Live! PC was a trivial exercise and it worked just fine streaming recorded content on the hard disk to the extender that was connected to another TV.

The real test was running everything at the same time. This included streaming content from the Internet to the PC, recording an HDTV channel in the background, and streaming content from the hard disk to the extender plus running SqueezeCenter for the Logitech SqueezeBox Boom at the same time. The system did not hiccup and it appeared to have plenty of performance left over for servicing even more devices. Talk about multitasking.

What I found to be most limiting is the DLNA support with Media Center. DLNA is relatively new, and Microsoft’s support is improving, so I guess I’ll just have to be patient with that service. Also, setting up links to DLNA or NAS servers is hidden in the settings. Luckily, you only have to set this up once if done properly.

The one thing to keep in mind with the system, though, is whether it will be the center of a network of devices like the Media Center Extender or SqueezeBox Boom. In this case, the PC must be running all the time. This is where the Noise Limit Silent Flux Media Cooler heatsink and fan comes into play.

The cooler uses a heat-transfer system that includes a very large radiator and fan. This allows the fans to run quieter (albeit slower), making for an almost silent system. It is definitely better than any PC I have used with a TV except for induction cooled units that have no fan.

System setup required a mouse and keyboard, but once set up the Diamond USB-based IR remote control was all that was needed for most multimedia chores. In fact, if you just use the remote with Media Center, your navigation is restricted to the application. That works great for most users and hides Windows.

I wound up allowing remote access to the machine and doing many chores via this connection. The biggest problem I ran into even using a Bluetooth mouse and keyboard like Logitech’s diNovo, was finding a place to put them. The keyboard worked in my lap, but the area in front of the TV is, well, much more porous than a desk. This will tend to be the issue that limits the system as a general PC for most people.

Overall, I can definitely recommend this platform as Windows Vista media PC platform. It will blow away almost anything else except for perhaps custom gaming machines, and it will be easier to use than most alternatives. MSI Components
MicroStar International and MSI Computer are the sources for the MSI MS-7411 motherboard (Fig. 2) and audio support via the MSI MS-4240 5.1 100-W amplifier card (Fig. 3) and MSI MS-4141 7.1 preamplifier card (Fig. 4).

The MS-7411 can handle the latest AM2 chips including the quad core Phenom included with the system. The Micro-ATX motherboard can handle up to four DDR2 DIMMs. It has a single x16 PCI Express (PCIe) slot, although its onboard graphics are likely to be used most of the time. Still, that plus three other x1 PCIe slots provide plenty of expansion. It supports up to four SATA II drives. Use the IDE ports only if necessary.

The board has the usual half dozen USB 2.0 ports (four on the back) plus 1394B support and a gigabit Ethernet connection.

Its claim to fame will be its built-in audio and video support courtesy of the 780G chipset. The chipset incorporates a Radeon HD 3200 graphic engine comparable to those found on standalone cards. In addition, it uses sideport memory instead of stealing memory from the main processing cores. This can be enabled from the BIOS, but you definitely want to use sideport memory if possible. It makes this a gaming machine, not just a media PC. It is below average compared to the high-end AMD ATI 4870 x2 that I will look at in a later article, but it holds its own with most games.

The board has VGA and HDMI interfaces for video and the HDMI supports audio as well. The built-in 5.1 audio support can be combined with the MS-4240 5.1 100-W amplifier card or amplifiers or amplified speakers can driven from connections on the backplane.

The MS-4240 5.1 100-W amplifier card is easy to use. It has screw terminals for 5 pairs of speaker wire, making hookup easy. It is on par with my amp and receivers I have used in the past. Sound quality with this amplifier and motherboard are top notch.

The MS-4141 7.1 preamplifier works like most audio boards so it has its own drivers. The on-board audio is normally disabled when this board is in use. It also makes sense only if you have a high quality 7.1 audio amplifier.

ATI Theater 650 Pro TV Tuner
ATI Theater 650 Pro TV Tuner card (Fig. 5) delivers improved performance over its predecessor, the ATI Theater 550 Pro. The 650 Pro can handle standard def analog NTSC, PAL, and SECAM signals as well as HD digital Clear-QAM, ATSC, and DVB-T (the European digital standard).

The MPEG-2 hardware encoding is critical for quality recording without overloading the host processor. Even a quad-core chip will eat a few watts if it has to do MPEG-2 encoding in software. The board has a 12-bit video and audio decoder that supports motion compensated noise reduction. The motion adaptive 3D comb filter delivers impressive color and artifact-free video from even fast-moving scenes.

The 650 Pro has Windows XP and Vista drivers. Linux drivers are not in the mix and AMD is not keen on providing them at this point. Open source support has been mixed. Too bad since it is a good card.

The board works with Media Center as well as most DVR programs that run under Windows XP and Vista such as SageTV and Snapstream’s BeyondTV.

There is also a FM radio receiver. It does not handle HD radio but there is a separate antenna input for it.

Most installations with the AMD Live! platform will likely use support from within Media Center, but the board does come with AMD’s own application software as well with PVR and radio recording support. The ATI Catalyst Media Center also comes with DVD playback software, DVD authoring software, and ATI Theater Video Converter software.

Seagate Pipeline HD
Seagate’s Pipeline HD hard disk (Fig. 6) is available in capacities up to 1 Tbyte. One half this size is hiding inside the AMD Live! system I tested. It is designed for high-definition DVRs with the ability to support up to 12 simultaneous streams. This might seem a bit much for the AMD Live! platform until you consider that it may be the center of your media distribution system. For example, the motherboard can handle multiple ATI Theater 650 Pro TV Tuner cards as well as multiple media extenders.

The SoftSonic motor technology delivers a 19-dB audio limit, which is on par with the processor cooling system. The power consumption can be as low as 4.7 W, so the system fans will not be running at full tilt. A 1.4 million hours MTBF means the drive should last the life of the system.

The Seagate Secure technology is designed for content security in a system digital rights management strategy, although I hope I never have to use that.

Obviously I have not had a chance to run one of these for a long time but right now it is faster than what I need, quieter than the rest of the system, and has enough capacity to handle HD video—the biggest space consumer for some time to come.

Noise Limit SilentFlux
Noise Limit’s SilentFlux Media Cooler heatsink and fan (Fig. 7) is designed to deliver maximum cooling with minimal noise. It’s matched to work with the AMD Live! platform I evaluated based on the MSI MS-7411 motherboard—although it will work equally well with any similar AMD platform. The technology is available in other versions as well.

The SilentFlux technology uses a hermetically sealed system similar to heat pipes and water cooled systems but its performance exceeds those systems. Heat creates bubbles that then flow through the closed loop system to the large radiator/condenser where the heat can be dissipated. The bubbles then condense and are recirculated.

The unit that works with the AMD Live! system weighs only 325 grams. The cooling fan is 92 by 92 by 15 mm. It is designed to work with any AM2 socket. The noise limit is 21 dB.

Even with a quad core Athlon the system ran very cool and very quiet.

NMedia HTPC 1000B
The NMedia HTPC 1000B metal chassis is available in black or silver. It matches the best multimedia components such as receivers and set-top boxes. The front panel flips down to reveal a range of connections including audio ports, eSATA port, 1394B port, USB ports, and flash memory slots. There is a USB-based, 2 line 20 character LCD status panel with Windows drivers.

It has four 3.5-in. slots for lots of hard disk expansion. The 5.25-in. external bay has a flip down metal door that will likely hide a Blue-Ray or DVD player/recorder.

The box is designed to house Micro-ATX motherboard with up to four slots. It also handles a regular ATX power supply. There is a pair of 60-mm fans on the back and a 90-mm case fan to provide plenty of ventilation without running the fans too fast.

The one item that is missing is a built-in IR receiver. This is where AMD’s Diamond USB IR transceiver (Fig. 8) comes in. The small USB dongle requires an extension cable so it can be aimed towards the remote. Then again, these days the movement is towards radio remotes and then a front panel IR receiver is unnecessary. Otherwise, the system meets or exceeds my requirements for the ideal HDTV PC chassis.

AMD
www.amd.com

Logitech
www.logitech.com

NewEgg
www.newegg.com

MSI Computer
www.msicomputer.com

NMedia Systems
nmediapc.com

Noise Limit
www.noiselimit.com

Pioneer Electronics
www.pioneerelectronics.com

Seagate
www.seagate.com

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