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HD Video Playback

High definition video playback is a very acute and widespread task that home computer systems often have to deal with. However, when Intel positioned their Atom based nettop solutions as compact home systems they thought differently. They consider primary application for this type of systems to be primarily limited to internet applications. Unfortunately, Atom CPUs are not powerful enough to cope with HD video playback. We have checked it ourselves: even a dual-core Atom 330 couldn’t playback video content in 1080p without any setbacks. However, Atom CPUs could cope with video playback in 720p, although it will hardly comfort nettop owners.

Atom-based systems with GeForce 9400 chipset inside may turn things around. This core logic set, unlike Intel 945GC and Intel 945GSE, supports special hardware PureVideo HD engine that does some decoding during playback of HD movies recorded in H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 formats.

From the consumer software standpoint, for proper work of PureVideo HD engine the video player should support DXVA, DirectX Video Acceleration. Among the players that currently support this feature are Corel WinDVD and Cyberlink PowerDVD, free Media Player Classic Home Cinema, MediaPortal, KMPlayer and GOM Player, and the MPEG-2 decoder integrated into Windows Vista. Sometimes you may need to configure your player accordingly to ensure that DXVA works properly. For example, you have to enable the EVR rendering mode in MPC-HC. No additional drivers are needed, besides the regular Nvidia graphics card driver.

To check out ION’s performance during video content playback we tried watching a few different movies encoded in different formats in 1080p resolution. In this case we decided not to compare ION vs. an Intel 945GC based system, because Intel platform is simply unable to decode HD video fast enough.

The GeForce 9400 based platform, on the contrary, performed pretty well. We used software video players supporting PureVideo HD technology and didn’t notice any problems while watching the movies.

  1. H.264: Dark Knight.

    The CPU utilization was 15-20% during playback of an H.264 (MPEG-4 AVC) movie. No dropped frames were detected even in the most complex scenes. Note that this tests uses free Media Player Classic Homecinema that definitely supports PureVideo HD to the full extent. We also checked the performance with several different containers – no problems were detected with Matroska (MKV) as well as MPEG-TS and QuickTime.
  2. VC-1: Iron Man.

    We see similar good result during the playback of a VC-1 movie. The CPU utilization is about 25%, however, it is absolutely independent of the instantaneous bitrate and doesn’t increase in complex dynamic scenes.
  3. MPEG-2: Resident Evil.

    We did encounter some problems during MPEG-2 movie playback because the Media Player Classic Homecinema that we used couldn’t utilize GeForce 9400 hardware to decode this format. Cyberlink PowerDVD 8.0 is free from this issue and it helped. As a result, we only needed 20-25% of CPU time to decode and playback an HD movie in MPEG-2 format without losing any frames.

However, do not think that Nvidia ION will be able to play any HD video content that easily. Unfortunately, the list of “good” formats is limited to H.264, VC-1 and MPEG-2 only. A video recorded with any other codec will inevitably have problems during playback. For example, here is what we see during Coral Reef Adventure movie in WMV3 format:

The CPU utilization is about 60% and some frames drop out in especially complex scenes. The screenshot above shows frame rate of only 17 fps instead of required 24.

Moreover, our tests showed that PureVideo HD engine integrated into GeForce 9400 may sometimes fail HD video decoding, even if the movie is recorded in a formally supported format. The screenshot below shows exactly this: during an H.264 movie playback fps rate drops below the necessary minimum.

Note that despite dropped frames during video playback, CPU utilization remains quite low and doesn’t exceed 30-40%.

The secret of this pretty intensive movie is high bitrate reaching 106Mbps resulting from the ripples on the water surface. However, these Nvidia ION problems are hardly serious. Video with a bitrate like that is a truly artificial example. Contemporary Blu-ray media at 1x speed have maximum 36Mbps bitrate, and the platform we tested today has no playback problems in this case.

Since we mentioned Blu-ray. We also tested Nvidia ION platform with an external BD/HD-DVD drive - LG Super Multi Blue with USB interface. We experienced no problems here. ION played the entire “Casino Royale” movie without a single issue. Unfortunately, we didn’t have any Blu-ray disks with the latest BD-J technology support at our disposal.

During our test session videos were played either from ION’s own hard drive or from an external 2.5” Samsung S2 Portable device powered via a USB port. We didn’t detect any problems of any kind in both cases.

So, the results of our test session indicate that unlike games, Nvidia ION is pretty fit for high definition video playback. Not very high performance of Intel Atom processor doesn’t hinder the integrated PureVideo HD engine.

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