A nearly perfect HTPC processor

While opinions vary as to what, exactly, an HTPC entails, it's safe to say there are basic requirements nearly every enthusiast has for an HTPC: smaller form factor, as quiet as possible, low power usage, and ability to smoothly and accurately play a variety of video formats. Additional HTPC functions can include encoding prowess and lighter gaming. In my experience, Trinity APUs fulfill all of these roles extremely well.

Ganesh recently posted a thorough, excellent HTPC perspective on the A10-5800K. If you are thinking about building an HTPC, it's a must read. I've been able to spend some time with both the A10-5800K and the A4-5300 in HTPC systems, and have been thoroughly pleased with both in the HTPC usage scenario. The lowly A4-5300 is capable of smooth Blu-ray playback, both locally and via NAS, as well as full 1080p HD streaming playback in both Flash and Silverlight. Ganesh noted that the Trinity APUs lack hardware decoding for 10-bit H.264, an increasingly popular format. While the A10-5800K cuts through these files with no problem via software solutions, the A4-5300 can occasionally bog down with it if you are taxing the system with other tasks (I frequently browse the web on a secondary monitor while watching movies—10-bit H.264 + Flash = not good on an A4). That said, all of the quad-core Trinity APUs can handle this admittedly specific niche usage scenario with aplomb.

Ganesh also noted that Trinity APUs do not support 4K video decode acceleration. While 4K is in its infancy, I agree with Ganesh that it will be adopted faster than say, 3D Blu-ray was. I don't consider this a substantial issue at this point, and I would be surprised if Trinity's successor APU series doesn't fully support it. But it's important to be cognizant of Trinity's few limitations in an HTPC environment. I also agree with Ganesh's summary, "the Trinity platform has everything that a mainstream HTPC user would ever need."

The Trinity HTPC build

Anand reported on his sneak peek of Fractal Design's Node series at Computex back in June, and I was intrigued by the Node 605. It looked like a fantastic HTPC case, so I was happy to see it become available in retail channels recently. The production model is even better than the version Anand saw; namely, the garish logo is gone from the front panel. I really like this case's aesthetics, and it's very functional. It can accommodate full-size ATX motherboards, features an innovative hard drive mounting solution, and it is very quiet thanks to the thick aluminum front panel and sound dampening material. The stock fans can be reconfigured so one is either intaking or exhausting air directly by the APU, which means the stock AMD cooler doesn't have to work as hard and thus makes less noise. The Node 605's niceties include an external three speed fan switch (at 5V the fans are nearly inaudible and still move a lot of air), built-in front panel card reader, and USB 3.0 front ports. The front panel ports are hidden by a drop-down cover, resulting in a clean facade.

The Node 605 case features a large, grilled, and filtered intake port for a side-mounted PSU, so be sure to go with a 120mm+ top fan configured PSU instead of an 80mm front fan model. You should be able to find a higher-quality unit capable of outputting about 400W for $40 or less, such as the SeaSonic listed below.

Assuming you are interested in light gaming and encoding work with your HTPC, we're recommending the top of the line A10-5800K APU. While HTPC purists might balk at putting a 100W TDP processor in a home theater computer, it is important to note that for most HTPC duties, this processor will not be using much power at all. Streaming 1080p HD video from Amazon puts CPU usage of my A10-5800K system at around 20% utilization, and the entire computer draws about 65 watts from the wall as measured with a Killawatt meter (my system is configured identically to the one below, though with one SSD and two 2TB green HDDs).

Note that if you aren't interested in neither gaming nor local encoding, you can save about $60 by going with the A4-5300 APU. If you're hesitant about using the unlocked 100W Black Edition A10 APU, but don't want to drop all the way down to a meager dual-core, the A10-5700 is a lower-clocked 65W TDP quad-core with less capable graphics than the A10-5800K. Again, however, for most HTPC duties like SD and HD media content playback, you won't really save much electricity (and thus heat and noise) compared to the A10-5800K.

I've been a fan of Biostar's T-series motherboards since the days of AMD's Socket 939, and the latest iteration, the TA75MH2 continues in the tradition. It's a less expensive A75 chipset-based board, so it features SATA III ports, USB 3.0, and as necessitated in an HTPC, an HDMI port. I like its layout, especially when placed in a Node 605, as the airflow will be blowing directly over the FCH (Fusion Controller Hub) and CPU VRM heatsinks. Even if you're not overclocking, keeping these core motherboard components cool will be easier with lower RPM fan speeds, even if the system is stuffed into more cramped A/V component shelving.

Again, assuming you are interested in gaming, we're recommending a DDR3-1866 8GB kit to feed the APU's hungry graphics cores. Keep in mind that Trinity chips can use all the memory bandwidth you can give them, so if you don't mind overclocking your RAM, the Biostar board below will support RAM faster than 1866MHz through overclocking. If you're not gaming, you can save some money by using lower-clocked RAM, and perhaps 4GB instead of 8GB.

For storage, you can go with either an HDD or an SSD, depending on your local storage needs. You might also want additional local storage. Western Digital's Green series drives are available in 500GB, 1TB, 2TB, 2.5TB, and 3TB capacities. Compared to Seagate's Green drives, they carry a longer warranty (two years for Western Digital, one year for Seagate), so it's up to you whether any price differences are worth your money.

Finally, the only real drawback of the Node 605 case is that it uses slim optical drives. Thankfully this doesn't substantially increase the total cost of the build like it once would have, but it does limit your choices. We're recommending a standard DVD burner for the sake of cost; slim Blu-ray burners are usually $50-75 more expensive.

Component Product Price
Case Fractal Design Node 605 $143
Power supply SeaSonic SS-300ET 300W $40
CPU AMD A10-5800K APU $120
Motherboard Biostar TA75MH2 $73
RAM G.Skill 8GB DDR3-1866 $45
HDD Seagate 1TB ST31000524AS $50
SSD alternate Samsung 830 Series 64GB $50
Optional storage HDD Western Digital 2TB Green $110
Optical drive Slim Samsung DVD burner $24
Optical drive alternate Slim LG BT20N Blu-ray burner $94
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit $92
  Total cost: $697

Our final, gaming-oriented Trinity desktop PC is outlined on the next page.

Budget General Use Desktop Gaming Desktop
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  • MadMan007 - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I am looking forward to AMD keeping up with the progress they've made with APUs. It looks like they might be going 'tick-tock' style with alternating updates to the CPU and GPU architectures. Piledriver makes these competitive-ish for their price point on the CPU side, a GCN GPU which I expect to be the next update will make these good for older games even at higher resolutions. I don't play the newest, most demanding games, so if AMD can make an APU with something like HD 7750ish-class graphics that would be awesome. I know that's asking a lot for 28nm, but maybe they can do it with GloFo's 14nm/20nm process, that will give them a lot more silicon to use. Reply
  • MadMan007 - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Oh, I also meant to say...do something like that and I might consider buying an AMD CPU for my main computer for the first time since Core 2 came out. Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As a laptop gaming setup Trinity is damn nice.. and a great deal at current pricing.. but for desktops.. most gamers playing todays games will still want/need a little bit more umph then what the gpu offers. Pairing it up with a $75-100 card will give a happy experience for most who are not looking to win benchmark awards. The same applies to the i3 (obviously) A Radeon 7750 or a Geforce 650 (if you prefer Nvidia..) fits the bill nicely. Alternatively a 6670 which will take advantage of the hybrid crossfire. Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    As a forinstance Guildwars2 needed to be turned down a fair ammount (going to 1440x900 for good playability.. Frames were good then but most eyecandy was off.. The GPU is great at lower resolutions and older games.. but it can't quite handle the good stuff at 1680/1050. Playable? yes. Enjoyable? not so much.

    AMD is really really close but not quite there.
    Reply
  • frozentundra123456 - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Pretty much the problem still with Trinity for the desktop IMO. Almost but not quite good enough. The graphics is either more than the non-gamer needs or not quite good enough for gaming. Yes, you can play some games at moderate resolutions and settings. But if you are spending a few hundred dollars for a computer, not to mention buying games, why would you want to limit yourself so much.

    And if you are not interested in gaming, it still uses more power than a dual core intel without a descrete card.

    I see a good place for Trinity in laptops if the price is right. But for the desktop, not so much.
    Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    For budget builds it's spot on.. an i3 or Trinity does the job nicely with a decent video card and won't break the bank. There is a place for it. If you need a everyday type computer with light gaming duties it also works well with the onboard gpu.. really well infact. Great for a office computer, or a set top box in the living room.

    But yeah.. not quite there sums it up nicely for gamers looking to play todays games. Most are at 1080P or 1680/1050 resolutions and it's just not enough.
    Reply
  • tocket - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I recently upgraded my HTPC from a Pentium G620 to A10-5800K and the most obvious difference is really the power consumption. With the stock cooler the A10 easily heats up to the point where the fan gets too noisy when you're watching a movie in XBMC. Even though the Intel cooler is smaller, this was never a problem with the Pentium. I would really recommend adding a good cooler to your A10 HTPC setup if you're sensitive to noise. Personally I decided to get a Big Shuriken, which I'm very happy with. Reply
  • cyrusfox - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Do you regret the upgrade? Do you notice any performance advantage, from your comment it seems it was a bad upgrade. Whats your opinion? Reply
  • tocket - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    Oh, not at all. It was a good upgrade that I'm very happy with. The CPU is noticeably faster and the graphics are a huge improvement from the G620. I was just not fully prepared to deal with 100 W TDP in a mini-ITX system. With the upgraded cooler the system is nearly silent and the performance is great. Reply
  • just4U - Thursday, November 29, 2012 - link

    I didn't bother with the included cooler so wasn't sure how temps were with it. With a $17 Zalman cooler it rarely goes to 40 in a 8 year old case with limited airflow. (older lian-li with 2 80mm fans in the front and 1 80mm in the back) What were the temperatures like in your itx case with the included cooler? Curious.. Reply

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