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Building a HTPC with Intel Atom and NVIDIA ION

This entry was posted by on Saturday, 14 January, 2012 at

Some time ago I wrote about building a NAS with Ubuntu Server on the Intel Atom platform. This nifty little processor, when combined with NVIDIA ION, can easily be used to build a full-fledged HTPC.

Hardware
* Antek ISK300-65 – A small mini-ITX case with room for a slim-line optical drive and two 2.5″ drives. The 65 watt powerbrick provides ample power for the Atom board. The installed fan has a three-speed switch; the fan connects using a standard MOLEX connector. At lowest speed, the fan is barely audible. I think connecting it to the mainboard would allow temperature-controlled speed, although I am not sure if the Asus board actually supports this.

* Asus AT5IONT-I – contains a dual-core 1.8 GHz D525 processor and an NVIDIA ION 2 (GT218) graphics chip. I did not opt for the ‘deluxe’ version, which just adds WiFi which I think is not needed in an HTPC – you don’t plan to carry it around, do you? Besides, gigabit LAN is much faster and saves you all the connection-hassles of WiFi.

The mini-ITX board comes with passive cooling with heatpipes (really, a huge heatsink considering the size of the board itself!), room for 2 SO-DIMM DDR3 units and just about all the features you would like. One of these features is TOSlink (optical) because I do not want to rely on the (inferior) onboard DACs. Instead, I want to transfer the audio digitally to my Yamaha amplifier. Another important feature is the HDMI output. Furthermore, it also contains all the basics. It also has USB3.0 and eSATA.

The only drawback I see at this moment is that it only has 2 SATA ports. If I want to connect the front-pannel eSATA, an optical drive and two 2.5″ drives, I would need four. I encountered this problem before with a mini-ITX board and solved it with a PCI-express expansion card with 4 SATA ports. Note that the ISK case only allows low-profile cards!

* GEiL 2x2Gb – simply using the cheapest DDR3-800 memory I could find. It works flawless. The Asus board supports up to 4Gb which is more than enough; and at the bus speeds of the Atom it is probably no use to spend extra money on fast memory.

* Kingston SV200S37A/64G – A cheap SSD to hold the operating system and cache files. I plan to connect to my NAS and the Internet, where all the actual content is. The choice for an SSD over HDD is that it is silent and more power-efficient, and if you just want to run an OS on it the steep price per gigabyte is no problem. Besides, it is also pretty fast which helps compensate the lack of CPU power.

* Samsung T27A550 – A 27″ inch monitor with LED backlight and many connectors – 2xHDMI, VGA, SCART, Component, DVB-C and more. Will do a separate review on this screen.

Software
Ubuntu Oneiric Ocelot (64bit) was installed from USB stick and worked directly. Then the medibuntu repositories were added to get multimedia codecs etc. and the proprietary driver from NVIDIA was enabled, as was other proprietary stuff like MP3 codecs.

XBMC was installed, see
here for a howto, I used method 1.

I also installed openssh-server, because I like to be able to get to my machines from my other machines; other than that the setup is pretty complete now.

Performance

For desktop use, I am more a Kubuntu fan. I still think the Unity desktop feels sluggish and unresponsive at times. But this will probably be solved over time.

update I mention the sluggish Unity a couple of times, as of Precise Pangolin (12.04) it has tremendously improved.

The Atom is not a powerful processor, this becomes evident when playing 1080p content on Youtube in Firefox: the npviewer.bin process maxes out in top but even in 720p it sometimes stutters. But this is because all decoding is being done in software – this will all be over once we install the Youtube plugin in XBMC and unleash the ION’s hardware decoding.

Ubuntu’s movieplayer had no problem with playback of mkv video in 1080p format; already using the hardware decoding.

Using XBMC, the local index it builds of all movies and music on the NAS is quick and up-to-date. It fetches cover-art and many other bits of information such as IMDB rating for movies. Navigating the menus is surprisingly smooth, compared to the sluggish Unity behaviour mentioned above.

Video playback is smooth – even 1080p is no problem. WiFi can be a bottleneck here, which was one of my reasons to simply pull a cable and use gigabit LAN. My (Atom-based) NAS has no problem supplying the data and the Asus AT5IONT-I flawlessly renders the video to HDMI. After installing the Youtube plugin (right from inside XBMC, their in-application downloading of plugins is really impressive) the content which would stutter when trying to play it from a browser runs smooth; even 1080p video is no trouble and appears razor-sharp and smooth on the screen. Here I noticed that the speed of my internet connection becomes the bottleneck. You can’t have everything, right?

So far, I am very pleased with the result. You can build a complete HTPC without spending money on loads of RAM, big CPUs, video and soundcards; the integrated solution in an Atom board works surprisingly well.

2 Responses to “Building a HTPC with Intel Atom and NVIDIA ION”

  1. Cool! I think we need to do a video review, like a “how to”. At least some pictures 🙂

    Bart

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