A little over a year ago, I got myself the cheapest media center PC ever, on the form of an old refurbished office machine. It was fast enough to handle most of what I wanted it to do, but it was lightly too big for my AV setup, and decidedly beige. Ugh. But my main issue with it was that it was also making long hours. The Pentium 4 series of processors is notorious for its high power consumption, and I was starting to feel guilty.
I’ve had a couple of Atom based PCs in my home (a netbook and that really small PC I wrote about earlier), but found them to be slow, especially when it came to graphics. Intel’s ancient 945 chipset was a real bottleneck, and the newer US15W had terrible driver issues in Linux. That’s why I wanted to try nVidia’s Ion chipset. I decided that an ASRock Ion 330 would be the perfect little HTPC for me.
Atom at its best
The first Atom platform had a great new chip that barely used any power at all, combined with an old chipset that used lots of power. That’s why netbook battery life usually isn’t so good. Both nVidia and Intel have since come up with solutions. The Intel US15W is very power efficient, but it’s also still pretty slow. Newer ‘Pinetrail’ Atom processors have a newer GMA3150 integrated into the chip itself. It preforms OK, but also ups the Atoms power consumption. Ion is nVidia’s solution. At roughly the same power levels as the old GMA950, it offers spectacular performance. Even with Pinetrail available, I feel Ion is still the way to go.
Another thing that I liked about ASRock’s offering is that it uses the dual core N330 processor that does 64 bit. It’s a lot faster than its single core cousins and combined with the speedy Ion graphics this machine feels much more snappy than the average netbook. Ubuntu runs really nicely and is a breeze to set up. It’s fast enough to do some modest video encoding on, and it plays video files flawlessly. I use Boxee‘s new Beta on it, and the image quality is perfect.
The Asrock Ion 330 is a small, nondescript black or white box. It’s not particularly pretty, but it’s well-built and offers an optical drive and all the right connectors. There’s HDMI, VGA and six USB ports. It’s being advertized as being very quiet too, but that’s not true. There’s a tiny little fan in there (I’m quessing about 3 cm in diameter) that makes a high-pitched sound. It’s not terrible, but if silence is important to you, you’ll need to replace it with a quieter model.
Pros and cons
- + Low power consumption
- + Perfect video playback through GPU accelleration
- + Small, unobtrusive box
- + Optical drive (Blu-ray optional on newer models)
- + Cheap, and comes without Windows
- - A little noisy
- - Not as faster as a ‘real computer’
- - No front USB, all six are on the back
For me, this is the perfect box to hook up to my TV. I don’t need a tuner (although USB options are available) and I don’t need it to be very fast. It handles my downloads with ease and plays back movies magnificently. All while consuming very little power.