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CPU Load

Our tests showed that the CPU load was low with every graphics card when we decoded typical video content. In other words, any of the tested cards is going to be good for a HTPC in terms of video playback performance unless you have some specific requirements.

However, we’d recommend you to install a fast CPU into your system if you are going to play DivX HD or videos with an increased frame rate. Modern GPUs do not accelerate DivX HD whereas 60fps clips provoke a high CPU load.

Nvidia’s GeForce 8/9 GPUs do not offer hardware bitstream processing for the VC-1 codec and have a somewhat higher CPU load when playing VC-1 videos than ATI’s Radeons have. But the higher CPU load shouldn’t be a problem for a desktop PC. We guess that only cheap GPUs like GeForce 8500/9400 coupled with a slow CPU won’t be able to cope with complex scenes and you’ll have skipped frames or slow audio then.

Shopping Advice

So, we have identified those cards that deliver the highest quality when playing different video content and reduce the CPU load. We have also found out that the HDMI-supporting graphics cards offer different level of support for the audio-over-HDMI feature. It’s time for us to give you some shipping advice about choosing the graphics card for a HTPC.

Playback quality was our priority when we preferred a specific graphics card. But considering the specific requirements (e.g. power consumption), we’ve written a list of several graphics cards that can be viewed as the best options for a HTPC.

The most advanced HTPC-ready graphics cards in terms of gaming performance:

  • ATI Radeon HD 4850. It ensures nearly ideal playback of Blu-ray, DVD and HD DVD and can transfer 7.1 audio via HDMI, which makes it a perfect choice for a high-performance HTPC. Alas, its peak power consumption of 110W may prove to be too high.
  • Palit GeForce 9800 GTX+. This card boasts high-quality reproduction of Blu-ray, DVD and HD DVD formats. Palit Microsystems reduced its form-factor while its peak power consumption is 76.1W. All this makes it a good choice for a HTPC. Unfortunately, GeForce 8/9/GTX200 series GPUs offer limited support for audio-over-HDMI.

The most economical HTPC card:

  • The ATI Radeon HD 4550 plays Blu-ray, DVD and HD DVD with almost ideal quality. It can output 7.1 audio over HDMI and consumes a mere 18.5W at the peak. It can thus be cooled passively and produce no noise whatsoever.

The most appealing chipset with an integrated graphics core:

  • AMD 790GX with the Radeon HD 3300 graphics core. This chipset offers the best video playback quality among the three modern chipsets for different platforms. However, the integrated graphics cores are still somewhat inferior in this respect to discrete GPUs.
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