An Intriguing Single-Box Media Center And Home Theater Option
In the world of Windows Media Center systems there are a number of ways to distribute the media experience throughout the home. We have seen installations where “headless” Media Centers mounted in central racks feed Extenders like the Xbox throughout a home or where the Media Centers themselves are distributed throughout the home… or a combination of both. In these cases, for a surround sound experience, we always have added receivers or local amplifiers to provide the audio experience.
Now, Intel rival AMD (Advanced Micro Devices) has introduced its Live! Home Cinema Platform (also known by its code name Maui), offering the newest generation of Home Theater PC based on Microsoft’s Windows Media Center. My engineer at cyberManor, Rick Kalm, recently reviewed the new product and provided his input for this column.
AMD Live! is unique in several areas, including the fact that it can be outfitted with a highquality
The new AMD Live! Home Cinema Platform is aimed at those locations in a home that need a single box capable of Blu-ray, HDTV, and up to 7.1 surround sound. internal five-channel-by-100-watt audio amplifier or a seven-channel studioquality line-out pre-amplifier. This makes it ideal for those areas, like a family room or master bedroom, where you want Media Center capabilities to watch movies and TV, listen to music, or look at photo slideshows but don’t want the added expense or configuration of a traditional audio receiver. With a Blu-ray drive and CableCard support, it could be the only piece of hardware that your client would need for a Media Center experience in that room.
Audio cards for AMD Live! are based on the Intersil D2 Audio DAE-3 engine and deliver a great sound experience. The sound is enhanced through the use of D2Audio’s SoundSuite audio processing technology that extends bass response, expands audio sound stages for a larger theater feel and provides vocal enhancement to help ensure that soft voice passages are not lost in the more dynamic audio content.
A recent audio firmware upgrade to our evaluation unit provided a 6dB jump in amp output. This upgrade showed how easy it is to change the audio profile and add things like bass management, speaker virtualization, speaker equalization, etc., with just a simple firmware update. The D2 Audio system also intelligently manages the power output of the system, helping to ensure that all critical components always have power and never allowing the power supply to overload. One change that we would like to see is a larger terminal strip on the back of the amplifier card. It was okay with the recommended 16-gauge wire, but it could pose a problem inserting a bundle of 12- or 14-gauge wires into it that are in use in a lot of surround sound systems.
HD AND 3D CAPABILITY
The platform also boasts on-board 1080p high-definition video and 3D graphics support based on AMD’s RS780M chipset and ATI’s Avivo display architecture, with 128MB of dedicated video memory. What this means to us is that Blu-ray disks play flawlessly with no dropped frames or stuttering. We have tested it with a number of Blu-ray discs and ripped files using ArcSoft’s TotalMedia Theatre and have had no problems enjoying them in full HD. While not a native Media Center application, TotalMedia Theatre integrates quite well into the Windows Media Center environment.
In addition to an HDMI connection, there are also component video and VGA connections available. Over-the-Air (OTA) HD is supported by the use of an ATI Theater Pro TV tuner card if you are in an area where an OTA antenna can reach your local channels. This card also supports basic cable (QAM).
Gordon van Zuiden ([email protected]) is president of cyberManor, in Los Gatos, California.
ACCESS TO ONLINE MEDIA
More and more content is also available online from services like Netflix, Hulu, Joost, Warner Brothers, ABC, etc. A good broadband connection is all that is needed to enjoy these services on the AMD Live! Windows Media Center also has an Internet TV application built in. A good list of online content has been started in one of the AVS Forums (
). In another test, we were able to watch recorded HDTV programs from a DirecTV DVR in full HD using the beta software DirecTV2PC on this HTPC.
THE INTERNAL WORKS
AMD Live! also runs quiet thanks to the energy efficiency of either the AMD Phenom 9350e Quad-core (65W max) or the AMD Athlon X2 50502 Dual-core (45W) processors. This means less fan noise will be generated trying to keep the CPUs cooled.
In the evaluation unit, a Silent Flux CPU fan was used that ran quiet even at full speed. Also, the 110- watt by five-channel audio power amplifier runs at 93-percent efficiency, so it, too, stays cool and means this PC will not have to be hidden away to cover up fan noise. Even the hard drive in the evaluation system is a quiet, energy-efficient Seagate “Pipeline” hard drive that is capable of multiple read/writes, at the same time making it an ideal choice for use in a Media Center.
For those people who build their own systems, the MSI motherboard and sound cards are available from a number of distributors. In the custom installer channel, Life-ware (
), Aspen Media Products (
), Maingear Computers (
), and Ace Computers (www.acecomputers.com) have all announced plans to release systems based on this platform. A number of these will have built-in Blu-ray DVD and CableCard HDTV support.
While there are many different ways of providing a Media Center experience in a home, the new AMD Live! Home Cinema Platform is aimed at those locations in a home that need a single box capable of Blu-ray, HDTV, and up to 7.1 surround sound. In our testing, we felt it did an excellent job of providing an enjoyable Media Center experience.