The ability to cram in more and more transistors in a die has made it possible to have both the CPU and GPU in the same silicon. Intel's GPUs have traditionally catered to the entry-level consumers, and have often been deemed good enough for basic HTPC use. AMD introduced their own CPU + GPU combination in the Llano series last year. While AMD does have a better GPU architecture in-house, they could not integrate their best possible GPU for fear of cannibalizing their mid-range GPU sales. The result was that Llano, while being pretty decent for HTPC use, didn't excite us enough to recommend it wholeheartedly.

Today, Intel is taking on AMD's Llano with a revamped integrated GPU. We have traditionally not been kind to Intel in our HTPC reviews because of the lack of proper drivers and open source software support. Things took a turn for the better with Sandy Bridge. One of Intel's engineers took it upon himself to bring reliable hardware decoding support on Intel platforms with the QuickSync decoder.

As a tech journalist in the HTPC space, I spend quite a bit of time on forums such as Doom9 and AVSForum where end-users and developers interact with each other. The proactive nature of the QuickSync developer in interacting with the end-users was something sorely lacking from Intel's side previously. We have seen various driver issues getting quashed over the last few releases, thanks to the new avenue of communication between Intel and the consumers.

With Ivy Bridge, we are getting a brand new GPU with more capabilities. Given the recent driver development history, even advanced HTPC users could be pardoned for thinking that Ivy Bridge would make a discrete HTPC GPU redundant. Video post processing quality is subjective, but that shouldn't prevent us from presenting pictorial results for readers to judge. One of the most talked about issues with the Intel GPU for HTPC purposes is the lack of proper 23.976 Hz display refresh rate support. Does this get solved in Ivy Bridge?

In this review, we present our experience with Ivy Bridge as a HTPC platform using a Core i7-3770K (with Intel HD Graphics 4000). In the first section, we tabulate our testbed setup and detail the tweaks made in the course of our testing. A description of our software setup and configuration is also provided. Following this, we have the results from the HQV 2.0 benchmark and some pictorial evidence of the capabilities of the GPU drivers. A small section devoted to the custom refresh rates is followed by some decoding and rendering benchmarks. No HTPC solution is completely tested without looking at the network streaming capabilities (Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight performance). In the final section, we cover miscellaneous aspects such as power consumption and then proceed to the final verdict.

Testbed and Software Setup
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  • shawkie - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Well found! So nothing new in Ivy Bridge then...
  • shawkie - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Also, when we are complaining about 23.976Hz versus something like 23.972 how can you be sure that your measurement is accurate? I would think that for most HTPC users the important thing is that the video clock and audio clock are derived from a common clock. Is there some way you can check for this? I'm also interested to know if automatic lip-sync over HDMI is working properly - it doesn't seem to work on my AMD E-450.
  • ganeshts - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Whether the clock is accurate or not, what matters it the number of frames dropped or repeated by the renderer because of this. madVR clearly indicates this in the Statistics.

    Yes, you are right about video and audio clock derived from a common clock, but I am not sure on how to check for this.

    Does lip sync not work for you on E-450, but does work on some other machine? I have played with the e-450 only briefly in the Zotac Zbox Nano XS, and I did watch one movie completely. I didn't have lip sync issues to warrant digging in further.. I do agree my sample set is extremely small.
  • shawkie - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    I agree that what matters is dropped frames. I'm not absolutely sure how madVR decides when to drop frames. As I see it there are four options

    1) lock playback to the video clock and drop or repeat audio frames
    2) lock playback to the audio clock and drop or repeat video frames
    3) lock playback to the video clock and resample the audio
    4) lock playback to some other clock (maybe the processor clock) and drop or repeat both video and audio frames.

    My guess its probably doing 2 which would make the reported dropped frames a good measurement. If it was doing 1 or 3 then it wouldn't drop frames. If its doing 4 then I'd argue that its a faulty renderer.

    Regarding the lip sync its difficult to be very scientific about it because I don't have any suitable test material. My TV definitely introduces a significant delay and for some reason I haven't had much luck correcting it with manual adjustment on my AV receiver. Maybe it varies with frame rate or maybe the delay is outside the range I can set manually. When I enable automatic lip sync it does seem to correct things for the set top box and standalone DVD player but for my E-450 (an ASUS mini-ITX motherboard) it seems to be way off. Its quite possible its a bug in PowerDVD or that it depends on the format of the audio track or I don't know what else.

    I do have machines that I could try but it would really help to have some test material in a range of frame rates and audio formats.
  • ghost6007 - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    This article is great commentary on the video aspects of an Intel HTPC setup however nowhere on either the processor discussions or the Z77 motherboard articles was any attempt made to actually review the audio portions of HTPC setups which is still a major part of any Home Theater.

    IMO if you want a complete comprehensive look at HTPC capabilities of any platform addressing such things as audio decoding, audio pass through over HDMI and audio quality are a must until then it is not a complete review.
  • ganeshts - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    HDMI Audio Passthrough has now become a 'commodity' feature. It is an issue in only media players now.

    Yes, I agree there are some other audio tests that could be done, but we had to operate within time constraints. I apologize for the same.
  • ghost6007 - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    I hope you guys do a more comprehensive review once these chips are available via retail or even a Ivy Bridge HTPC build.

    This new platform seems like an excellent candidate for a powerful low power/noise HTPC setup.
  • Southernsharky - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Has there been some kind of study on HTPC users to find out what the average is?

    To me the big problem with this article is that it makes too many assumptions, the biggest of which is that we are all just watching videos on our tv.

    I do recognize that there is a market for that, but I'm sure that I speak for most of us when I say that I hope that is just the beginning of the HTPC and not the goal.

    When an integrated GPU can game at 1080p (or hopefully better... let me know. Until then my own "HTPC" will have a graphics card.
  • aliasfox - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    I kind of have to agree. video/audio playback maybe the *primary* function, but as my HTPC is hooked up to the biggest screen in the apartment, I wouldn't mind throwing the odd game on there.

    My current HTPC does (very) light gaming, overnight video transcoding, light photoshop, and the (very rare) video edit. Oh, and it plays video and audio. Please don't ask what it is.
  • Marlin1975 - Monday, April 23, 2012 - link

    Why are you testing with a HD4000? The 4000 only comes in the higher and more costly chips? Most lowwer/Mid Ivy chips will use HD2500 video.
    The price differance is enough to buy a cheaper chip and get a full sep. video card that has its own memory, or wait for Trinity.

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