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Contemporary Graphics Cards for HTPC: Specifications and Capabilities

HTPCs nowadays require various specialized functionality – like bit-streaming of lossless audio streams – in addition to low power consumption and quiet operation. However, capabilities of different graphics processors varies and in this section we decided to compile specifications and video-related capabilities of modern GPUs that can be installed into home-theater systems.

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As it can be seen, the latest families of graphics processors from ATI, graphics business unit of Advanced Micro Devices, and Nvidia Corp. offer rather decent feature-set when it comes to multimedia playback.

The latest ATI Radeon HD 5000-series graphics solutions – except the lowest-end Cedar graphics chip – offer hardware support for Blu-ray 3D (thanks to support of MPEG4-MVC decoding and dual 1080p decoder) along with bit-streaming of lossless audio (DTS HD Master Audio and Dolby Digital True HD) to external receivers. Considering that other modern capabilities like picture-in-picture video decoding and hardware decoding of entropy in VC-1 have been supported for years now, we can only say that decent ATI Radeon HD 5000-series graphics boards are, at least on paper, ideal solutions for HTPC.

The situation with Nvidia Corp.’s HTPC lineup is somewhat worse, even though they are likely to satisfy 99% of the potential market. The latest Fermi architecture yet has to reach mainstream and energy-efficient graphics chips, hence, Nvidia’s offerings are limited to older GPUs. Only the GeForce GT 240 has dual 1080p MPEG4-MVC video decoder and only it can support Blu-ray 3D. Moreover, even though it has integrated audio controller, it cannot bit-streaming of high-quality audio to external receivers.

Considering that ATI’s latest Radeon HD 5000 product series sports DirectX 11 capabilities and also are made using 40nm, which makes them very energy efficient, and support functions like BD 3D support and lossless audio bit-streaming, they look slightly better than the only real competitor to date – the GeForce GT 240. In the near future, however, Nvidia plans to release a new mainstream graphics solution that will not only feature Fermi architecture, but will also support Blu-ray 3D, bit-streaming of lossless audio and DirectX 11 feature-set, but will also feature price that starts at $199. The novelty will fill the gap between the Radeon HD 5830 and 5770, hence, there will be more choice on the market of HTPC-capable graphics cards.

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