ASRock ION 330HT-BD HTPC
As we showed you in our recent article it is very easy to set up Windows 7 and Media Center on a barebones system. Today we are taking a look at the hardware behind that article, the ASRock ION 300HT-BD.
The first thing strikes you about this Nettop is it’s size. I have had a number of people see the system as I was moving it from one from one room or another and ask “what is that?” When I tell them it’s a PC they look very puzzled because PC’s are supposed to be big and bulky. It’s external dimensions are 195mm(W) x 70mm(H) x 186mm(L).
For a little perspective on size, here is the ION 330HT-BD sitting on an XBOX 360 Elite. As you can see, the 360 is quite a bit larger.
Packed with some impressive technology, the ION 330HT-BD could be just the HTPC you’ve been looking for. At its heart, it has an Intel Atom 330 1.6GHz CPU. The Atom 330 is a dual core, hyper threaded CPU. While it isn’t a monster performer, it has very low power use and is right at home for use in an HTPC. The other important part of an HTPC is the graphics processor. As the name suggests this an NVIDIA ION chip, which means it capable of DX10 graphics, and full 1080p hardware accelerated video playback. Priced at $509.99 + $6.99 shipping , this is a good solution for someone not familiar with putting a system together but looking to get into a HTPC.
Audio through the HDMI connection is a full 7.1 HD with DTS. While audio bit streaming is the preferred audio path by home theater aficionados, the ION is a bit lacking here with "only" LPCM audio. To be honest, to take advantage of bit streaming and notice a difference would mean spending a lot of money on home theater hardware.
Other highlights of the ION 330HT are Gigabit LAN, a 320GB 5400rpm hard drive, 2GB of RAM, a Blu-ray ROM, 6 USB 2.0 ports, a powered eSATA connection, TOSLINK, and a Wireless b/g/n card. The ION 330HT-BD is also shipped with a great Media Center infrared remote. The receiver for the remote is built into the chassis so there is no set up required.
This little system packs all of it’s hardware into a great looking black painted case. This is one of the nicer paint jobs we have seen in a while. ASRock realizes how important the look of the system is and wrapped this little guy with a sticky plastic to protect the paint until the system is ready to be used. The screws needed to get into the system are anodized black which is a nice touch.
Inside the system and bundle
With the top cover removed we can see inside the system. Everything is neatly and tightly packed. At the top of the system we see the Sony Optiarc BC-5500S Blu-Ray combo drive and the bracket holding it in. The Sony Optiarc BC-5500S can be found on eBay for $149 alone, so you can see that nearly 30% of the cost of this system is due to the thin bezel Blu-Ray drive!
On the underside of this bracket is the system's Seagate Momentus 5400.6 2.5" 320GB hard drive. There is a provision in the bracket for adding another 2.5” hard drive.
With the drive bracket out we can see the rest of the system. The system has two slots of DDR2 SO-DIMMS which you would normally find in a laptop. Our system shipped with 2x1GB of Elixir DDR2-800 memory and has a maximum of 4GB, plenty to run even the most demanding HTPC.
Under the small heat sink is the ATOM processor. The small fan is really very quiet at the default settings. The larger heat sink is cooling the ION chipset. Most of the cooling is provided by the larger fan at the back of the case. With the system only drawing 50w at the wall under load there really isn’t much heat to move out of the case. Overall, noise is much less than a “Jasper” model XBOX 360 Elite.
You can also see the Wireless B/G/N adapter with the antenna running to the front of the case for best reception.
All told, this Mini-ITX is packing some great hardware that is just about perfect for a HTPC.
Box and Bundle
The box the ION 330HT-BD comes in is rather small itself. There is no fancy artwork, just a picture of both a white and a black system with some of the specs of the system off to the side. It's very simple and clean, I like it! Note that since we there are different systems available, the Blu-ray ROM drive sticker is present on ours.
The bundle includes a glossy black MCE remote, a SATA and power cable for attaching a second hard drive, a HDMI to DVI adapter, an anti-slip mat for the system to rest on, and a driver and software disc. The power supply is external to keep the system itself as small as possible. It uses a brick similar to a laptop/netbook.
System performance and Power Consumption
Being based on the Intel ATOM processor, the ION 330HT-BD is not going to set any world records for performance. Any recent "Core" CPU would wipe the floor with the ATOM. The important part here is that the system uses very little power to do its job. Since almost all of our content is going to be streamed from a server, it doesn't have to have a ton of performance to get the job done. We put it through a pretty standard series of tests to give you an idea of how it performs. On the following page we've also included some Task Manager screen shots to show you just how well it handles full screen HULU content as well as Blu-ray 1080p playback.
Performance numbers here are decent enough. You won't want to use this to decode/transcode/compress/decompress or anything very CPU intensive. Gaming performance is fair at best. You'll need to build a more powerful system if you plan to do anything remotely taxing, but such a system would not draw as little power and operate as quietly as the ASRock ION 330HT-BD.
For testing power consumption, we took our test system and plugged it into a Seasonic Power Angel. For idle numbers, we allowed the system to idle on the desktop for 15 minutes and took the reading. For load numbers, we measured the peak wattage used by the system while playing back "The End" episode of Lost and the Blu-ray AVATAR.
Power consumption is where the ASRock ION 330HT-BD really excels! At idle it's consuming as little as some CCL light bulbs. At nearly full load playing back Flash content on Hulu it peaks at just 41W! With so little power being used there isn't much heat being generated and the fans are inaudible at even low playback volumes.
HD content playback
Arguably the most important things we'll look at in this review are just how well it handles media playback, this being a dedicated HTPC and all. To try out HD playback we connected the ASRock ION 330HT-DB HTPC to out 1080P HDTV through the HDMI connector to see how it would perform.
The ASRock ION 330HT-BD has great playback of Blu-ray 1080p content with average CPU use of 25%. No dropped frames or out of sync audio. Our reference material was AVATAR on Blu-ray which is encoded at MPEG-4 AVC. Playback was handled by Total Media Theater 3 with the latest update specifically for AVATAR. TMT3 supports GPU hardware acceleration for playback on the ION system.
Hulu content is arguably the hardest thing for a HTPC to playback since it is Flash based. With the recent 10.1 update to Flash we get hardware assisted decoding with certain GPU's. Luckily the NVIDIA ION chipset is equipped with a GPU that can do hardware assisted decoding.
Our ION 300HT-BD struggled just a little bit playing back the series finale of Lost "The End" in full screen 1080 resolution. While CPU usage is not horrible at 75%, playback is a little bit choppy. It is watchable but is not as fluid as a more powerful system. It is still far better than the previous versions of Flash where playback of this same content was not acceptable. Our hope is that subsequent releases of Flash player will improve the performance of our system for Hulu content.
ASRock ION 330HT-BD Conclusion
As we saw in the performance tests, the ASRock ION 330HT-BD isn’t much of a performer, which is why we see Atom processor based systems in thin and light Netbooks and not Notebooks. When paired with the NVIDIA ION “chipset” the ATOM makes the perfect HTPC. Very light on power use, nearly silent operation, and good enough performance to do exactly what you need, enjoy your movies and music after a long day of work.
The argument could be made about the somewhat steep price of such a barebones system. Coming in at $509.99 + $6.99 shipping the ASRock ION 330HT-BD isn’t the cheapest way to get into a HTPC. For a little more money you could build a Core i3 Mini-ITX system that would consume just a bit more power but be complete overkill for a HTPC but would offer support for audio Bitstreaming.
There are three different ASRock ION 330 models to look out for, each of which comes with a 1-year warranty from ASRock. Here is a break down of what each model offers.
ASRock ION 330HT-BD: This is the top of the line product that we've reviewed here today.
ASRock ION 330HT This is a slightly lower model without the Blu-ray drive and is priced at $369 + $4.99 shipping. Simply deleting the Blu-ray drive knocks $140 off the price, and suddenly this little machine is a good deal for HTPC enthusiasts. To me this would seem to be the best deal for anyone not in need of the Blu-ray player, or streaming rips from a server.
ASRock ION 330 PRO: This model cuts out the Blu-ray drive along with the MCE remote and the wireless b/g/n adapter which cuts the price to $349.99 + $11.18 shipping. For just $13 more the remote and wireless adapter in the HT model seem like a better deal.
Don’t forget that since these are barebones systems you will need to purchase and install the Operating System (OS) and all the drivers and software that you want. We have a guide on how to do that on the ASRock ION 330HT-BD with Windows 7 here.
Over the last year we have seen standalone players like the WD Live TV, Patriot Box Office HD, and Seagate Free Agent Theater+ that are all around $99-$120 in price. While these are good attempts at HTPC’s and have very compelling prices, they will still lack the flexibility of a PC for the different file formats it can handle and overall usefulness. For some that is worth the extra cost. Ultimately it’s up to you to decide which device will better fulfill your needs.
Legit Bottom Line: The ASRock ION 330HT-BD is worth a long hard look for anyone searching for a new HTPC. With two very complete models to choose from, one of which at a great price, it's hard to go wrong. Nearly silent in operation, this is a nearly perfect HTPC with very little compromise.