The Kings of Multimedia Playback: Contemporary HTPC Graphics Cards Reviewed

Nowadays almost all modern graphics processing units can easily decode high-definition Blu-ray disc movies almost flawlessly. However, the question is whether the quality of their HD video playback is truly high. In this article we are checking out video quality playback of contemporary graphics cards for HTPCs in HQV 2.0 tests and also glance at CPU load during BD video decoding as well as check out power consumption of graphics boards.

by Anton Shilov
06/30/2010 | 08:37 PM

In the last couple of years the market of consumer graphics cards began to get considerably more diverse than it used to be. Due to different requirements for power, cooling and space, graphics accelerators for gaming, graphics cards for HTPC (Home Theater Personal Computer) and basic multimedia tasks are completely different in terms of performance, form-factor and other qualities nowadays.

 

It is almost impossible to install longer graphics cards – such as ATI Radeon HD 5800 or Nvidia GeForce GTX 400/200 – into computer cases that resemble consumer electronics appliances like Blu-ray/DVD players. On the other hand, graphics cards that seem to be perfect for HTPCs cannot run modern games with all the eye-candy enabled in 1920x1080 resolution. In addition, such graphics cards come equipped with rather loud cooling systems that are not welcomed guests of living rooms.

As a result of these trends, this review does not include evaluation of high-end graphics boards, which were not designed for home-theater computers. Instead, we decided to concentrate on evaluation of quality of HD video playback using HQV 2.0 tools recently released by IDT. In addition, we will check out power consumption of modern graphics cards that can be plugged into HTPCs, CPU load during Blu-ray disc playback and some other factors.

The Saga Continues: to Blu-ray 3D or Not to Blu-ray 3D

The demand for perfection is increasing gradually every day. Some ten years ago many were satisfied not only with quality of DVD video, but also with quality of DVD rips encoded using Divx codec. Nowadays even 720p (1280x720) video does not seem as crystal and perfect as it was four years ago. Many online video services now offer movies in 1080p (1920x1080) resolution, but with bitrate much lower than that of movies distributed on 50GB Blu-ray disc media. But tech companies – as well as end-users – want something even more advanced and today they are rolling out stereo-3D movies on Blu-ray 3D format.

In fact, the movie industry is among those, which adopt the newest technologies very quickly. Special effects, sound, colour, multi-channel sound, high-resolution films, videotapes, video discs, high-definition, stereo-3D and so on. Stereoscopic 3D (S3D) technologies and movies started to emerged back in the and later experienced a worldwide resurrection in the 1980s and 90s driven primarily by Imax high-end theaters. In the recent years stereo-3D theaters and movies became more popular and technological evolution now allows to enable S3D for the home entertainment market. Considering the fact that historically far not all movies were presented in S3D format and that there is still not a lot of content in stereo-3D available, the offensive of the technology onto the home market will take a long time. At the end, all players, PCs, consoles and TVs will be S3D-capable, but the vast majority of content they will show will be in traditional 2D format.


Blu-ray 3D demo by Sony Corp. Image by CTV News

As for players, in fact, the Blu-ray disc Association (BDA) has managed to invent an almost infinite engine for hardware upgrades. Firstly the Blu-ray disc was introduced without any advanced functionality like picture-in-picture or Internet connectivity. The following generations of BD players obtained functionality, which probably has caused at least some owners to upgrade their devices. Late last year the BDA finalized yet another iteration of the standard called Blu-ray 3D, which requires upgrade of both players and HDTVs to take advantage of stereo-3D. Moreover, this year the association ratified BDXL standard that describes triple-layer and quadruple layer Blu-ray discs that are officially designed for “commercial segments with significant archiving needs”, but which will eventually find their support by forthcoming consumer players and recorders. Hence, BDXL is a forthcoming reason for a BD hardware upgrade. Obviously, DVD has evolved too, but the BDA has introduced five major enhancements of Blu-ray standard in four years of the format’s commercial life and BD 3D and BDXL are absolutely not the final updates.

The main issue with stereo-3D at home is necessity to wear special glasses and sit in certain area opposite the TV. This is not suitable for loads of living rooms and is also not suitable for large companies. Autostereoscopic screens exist, but their quality is rather low. As a result, even when all installed equipment becomes S3D capable (which will take 10 to 15 years in the U.S.), the demand towards stereo-3D content is likely to be limited. Still, the majority of modern graphics cards for HTPCs are capable of BD 3D playback even today.

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.


Please click to enlarge

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.

Power Consumption of HTPC Oriented Graphics Cards

Power consumption is directly linked to noisiness of cooling solutions, hence, low power consumption of central processing units and graphics processing units transform into quiet operation of your HTPC. This is why we decided to measure power consumption of graphics cards we consider “HTPC friendly”.

We measured power consumption of the boards on the testbed of the following configuration, using the following software:

As expected, graphics cards with higher horsepower consume more energy. The only exception is definitely the GeForce 9800 GT/GeForce GTS 240, which is powered on completely outdated G92b core and which also does not offer decent performance in modern games.

It is obvious that if one is looking for the most economical HTPC graphics board possible, he or she should choose between the ATI Radeon HD 5450 and Nvidia GeForce 210; meanwhile, the ATI Radeon HD 5770 provides the highest possible performance for 3D games albeit consumes around 42W when playing a high-definition movie. On the other hand, it should be noted that low-end graphics cards may not offer high quality of video playback or decent speed of decoding.

Based on specifications and performance expectations, ATI Radeon HD 5750, 5670 and 5570 as well as Nvidia GeForce GT 240 and GT 220 seem to be the most potentially interesting HTPC solutions, at least, from power consumption standpoint. Let’s see how good they can playback standard-definition and high-definition video as well as check out how well they can offload decoding of high-def video stream from central processing units.

Testbed Configuration and Methodology

We are going to investigate the decoding performance and playback quality of our today’s testing participants on the following platform:

The following graphics cards took part in our tests:

We used the following tools to estimate the video playback quality in standard (SD) and high-definition (HD) resolutions:

The driver settings remained the same. However, according to the HQV suite requirements, the noise suppression and detail levels for Nvidia GeForce and ATI Radeon HD graphics cards were set higher, but not to the maximums, in order to avoid artifacts in case of extremely high level of detail combined with aggressive noise suppression.

Since the owners of high-end sound systems will be extremely interested in the results of lossless threads playback, we also used DTS-HD Master Audio and/or Dolby Digital TrueHD (where available) audio tracks in order to increase the CPU load in all played movie fragments.

Keeping in mind that all tests are run under Windows 7 without disabling background services, the CPU utilization peaks shouldn’t be regarded as critical. It is much more important how much time it takes the CPU on average to complete the task. Note that the CPU utilization may vary. Therefore, 1-2% difference is not indicative of any advantage of a certain graphics accelerator over the competitor.

To estimate the CPU utilization during full-HD video playback (1920x1080) and full-HD video with enabled “picture-in-picture” (PiP) or Bonus View (according to Blu-ray disc Association classification) feature, we used the following movies:

We did not use free content for our tests.

Video Playback Quality

The HQV 2.0 benchmarks from IDT – for standard definition and high-definition content – are our new tools for evaluation of video quality playback by contemporary graphics cards.

HQV 2.0 DVD

The HQV benchmark version 2.0 is designed not only for evaluation of DVD playback, but to discover ability of video processors to upconvert standard-definition footage to high-definition. The video clips and test patterns on this DVD, available in NTSC format, have been specifically designed to evaluate a variety of interlaced video signal processing tasks including decoding, de-interlacing, motion correction, noise reduction, film cadence detection, and detail enhancement. Even the designer itself gives advance notice that the ultimate quality of the images that displayed by the benchmark is limited by any, and all of these factors. As a result, only the rarest video processor inside certain HDTVs can handle all of these tasks successfully.


Please click to enlarge

When we first tried HDV 2.0 DVD benchmark several months ago we noticed that no graphics processors can achieve maximum score of 210. In fact, graphics chips merely get more than a half of that number. Knowing that modern graphics processors do not feature certain fixed-function functionality, like dedicated video processors do, they use their compute horsepower to perform certain functions and potentially the higher computing potential is, the better GPU can deal with quality enhancements of video streams. Still, even the power of modern graphics chips is not enough to compete against specialized video processors installed in expensive players and TV-sets.

Based on the results obtained, ATI Radeon HD 5700/5600/5500/4700/4600 as well as Nvidia GeForce GT 240 are the best solutions for playback of DVDs on large screens among modern graphics cards that can fit into HTPC. On the other hand, ATI Radeon HD 5400 and Nvidia GeForce GT 220 do not seem to handle DVD processing very well. The result of the GeForce 210 is a complete disappointment.

It should be also noted that a lot depends on the drivers of graphics boards and going forward the contemporary GPUs can learn how to better reduce noise, correct motion, detect film cadence and perform upconvertion of DVD content in general.

But even when upconverted, DVDs hardly look good on modern large screens. As a result, Blu-ray is gaining market share and it makes much more sense to ensure high-quality of Blu-ray content playback.

HQV 2.0 Blu-Ray

The HD HQV benchmark version 2.0 in Blu-ray format provides the tools required to evaluate the picture quality of various high definition, 1080p-capable products. Like the HQV 2.0 DVD, the high-definition counterpart contains video tests and patterns that determine the quality of a product’s HD video signal processing. A set of five tests evaluate quality factors such as HD noise reduction, video and film resolution loss tests, as well a test for jaggies.


Please click to enlarge

The high-definition means more job for video processor, but it also mean that the initial quality of the material is high enough, which makes it harder to find artifacts. Either because of that, or because both ATI/AMD and Nvidia decided to tailor their graphics chips and drivers so to achieve maximum quality of HD video playback, but graphics chips generally achieve higher score in HQV 2.0 BD benchmark.

In any case, we can observe that the tested GPUs still seem to have problems reproducing video from different sources (multi-cadence set of videos), upscaling (interestingly, but the TC2 C2 – upscaled compression artifacts – test seems to have higher quality video than that on the HQV 2.0 DVD), skin tone correction and so on.

In June ATI announced that it had managed to improve its HQV 2.0 BD score with the Catalyst 10.6 driver, particularly due to better cadence detection and skin tone correction. However, based on our observations the improvements are moderate at best. Although ATI Radeon HD 5700/5600/5500-series graphics solutions offer the best quality of Blu-ray playback, they are not that far ahead of Nvidia’s GeForce GT 240 and are not even close to 210 points. The two outsiders are GeForce GT 220 and 210 with scores well below the leaders.

It is noteworthy that in case of both HQV 2.0 DVD and HQV 2.0 BD it is possible to tailor driver settings for different sequence of tests so that to maximize the final score and reveal the theoretical potential of modern graphics processors when it comes to video playback. Such approach is not endorsed by IDT and has little practical meaning. Movies contain loads of scenes shot at different locations with different lighting and hardware’s ability to tailor itself on-the-fly for different scenes is exactly what the benchmarks evaluate.

Looks like AMD and Nvidia need more time to implement the driver features necessary to improve the video processing quality. In any case, considering that some video processing capabilities depend on the graphics card driver and that the test suite is new, you should not view the HQV results as the ultimate truth, especially as there can be differences of opinion concerning the recommended evaluation procedures.

CPU Load During Blu-Ray Playback

Now let’s take a look at how well the new graphics processors can unload central processing units from decoding of high-definition video streams.

Modern graphics processors seem to have an easy time decoding VC-1 video streams even with picture-in-picture function enabled.

The outdated GeForce 9800 GT/GTS 240 seems to be a little behind with both maximum and average load higher compared to other GPUs, but even in the worst case scenario a dual-core Intel Core 2 Duo CPU will spend only 30% of time on video decoding.

Modern ATI Radeon HD 5000 and Nvidia GeForce 200-series graphics processors have no troubles decoding VC-1, even though the model 210 is somewhat behind its brethren with BonusView turned on.

With MPEG4-AVC movies everything seems to be even more perfect that with movies encoded using VC-1 codec. There are no clear winners or losers here: the maximum CPU load does not exceed 25% in the vast majority of cases, which is rather low.

Judging by the diagram, ATI Radeon HD graphics processors are not as good as Nvidia GeForce chips in MPEG2 HD decoding. Still, the difference is not very high and there are not a lot of Blu-ray discs with MPEG2 HD-encoded movies on the market now.

Conclusion

Picking up the best possible graphics solution for home-theater personal computer is hardly an easy task, given all the aspects that can influence the final choice. But let us at least try. There is no ideal choice that suits everyone, so instead of giving advice, we will just remind you what you have just read in our article.

Playback Quality

Based on the scores achieved by the evaluated graphics cards in the HQV 2.0 Blu-ray and DVD benchmarks, ATI Radeon HD 5700/5600/5500 graphics cards offer the best video processing quality in both formats.

Although Nvidia GeForce GT 240 provides top-notch DVD playback, it somewhat disappoints in Blu-ray playback and competes only against low-end or morally outdated solutions.

Nvidia GeForce GT 220 and 210 are complete disappointments when it comes to both BD and DVD video processing. Even the low-end ATI Radeon HD 5400-series provides decent Blu-ray playback quality albeit delivering unsatisfactory results in HQV 2.0 DVD test.

Power Consumption

Low power consumption means less noise, but it also means less performance in 3D games and maybe even low quality of video playback.

If one wants a graphics card that would consume below 10W of energy maximum, then ATI Radeon HD 5400 and Nvidia GeForce 210 are the only options to choose from. Neither of them offers decent performance in video games, neither can offer truly high quality of video playback and both will only be able to decode HD video. If this is the goal, then they are the best for this task.

On the other hand, there is Radeon HD 5700-series, which presents excellent quality video playback, decent performance in even modern games, but graphics cards in this family consume up to 60W or 77W of power depending on the model. Perhaps, there are models with advanced passive cooling and they are just what the doctor ordered for a performance-hungry HTPC user.

The midrange HTPC solutions – ATI Radeon HD 5600/5500 and GeForce GT 240 – seem to offer the right balance between features and power: up to 30W in case of products from AMD and up to 44W for the product from Nvidia. The former support bit-streaming of lossless audio via HDMI and will eventually support Blu-ray 3D, whereas the latter supports BD 3D with the help of Nvidia 3D Vision kit right now.

CPU Load

Our tests showed that the CPU load was low with every contemporary graphics adapter when it decoded video content from Blu-ray discs. In short, any of the tested graphics cards is going to be good for a HTPC in terms of video playback performance unless you have some specific requirements. For example, if you plan to equip your HTPC with a stereo-3D screen, we would still suggest installing a more powerful CPU since nobody knows how well modern GPUs will decode BD 3D content.