Image Quality and User Experiences
Unfortunately for us, in this text-based review system we have, and because taking screen shots of a TV or monitor display of a movie or video is nearly impossible with current HDCP and copy right management mechanisms, SHOWING you image quality differences is difficult. Taking photographs of the Samsung DLP TV or even my Dell widescreen monitor is pretty much useless as well as refresh rates, glares and multiple other factors keep the images from showing the full clarity of the video you can see with your eyes. So, with that in mind, I can only describe to you what I saw and how the image looked to my somewhat-trained eye; years of looking for image quality differences in games and video can be useful.
For comparison to the NVIDIA PureVideo HD HTPC system, I had the Toshiba HD-A1 HD-DVD player set-top box and an Xbox 360 with the external HD-DVD drive connected to the same TV and was able to switch between inputs to get nearly real time IQ comparisons when I had more than one copy of the same movie.
All three HD-DVD players should very similar levels of image quality, with a very slight edge going to the Toshiba set-top box; and that could possibly be due to some slight default color setting differences between the STB and the HTPC. In the very dark areas of certain scenes, when shifting between dark colors, the HTPC has slightly more noticeable banding between the color fades. Keep in mind though that the STB had them as well, just were just slightly less noticeable. A completely proper calibration of your HTPC to your TV could likely fix the issue, but that process is something that isn’t as prominent in the consumer electronics field, and thus the “ease of use” flag might lean towards the Toshiba box or the Xbox 360.
But overall, the NVIDIA PureVideo HD image quality was on par with that of any other HD-DVD movie playback I have seen so far. And what is better, if there are enhancements to be made, simple driver updates from NVIDIA Forceware drivers are all that is needed; the same cannot be said of the consumer electronics field.
While we were testing the PureVideo HD experience, it was impossible to not look at how CyberLink and their latest version of PowerDVD worked with the unique HD-DVD features and the NVIDIA PureVideo HD technology.
The latest version we received of PowerDVD enabled such features as picture in picture and extra features overlay, both of which worked very well. The third Fast and Furious movie makes use of these features by showing you GPS screens over the main movie to show you where the characters are in Tokyo during the action on the film. It actually works quite well and is a fun little addition to the movie watching experience.
As I showed you on the previous page, the options on the PowerDVD software are well organized and it is very easy to find the PureVideo HD encoding hardware acceleration switch. Also, our system came with a remote control from the CyberLink group that allowed us to open and close the PowerDVD software with the touch of a button and also to operate all of the features as you would on a typical DVD player.
Another area that the HTPC/PureVideo HD setup has to offer over the Toshiba HD-A1 set-top box (and even the newer version released early in 2007) is in start up speed! If you already have the PC turned on, the PowerDVD software is quick to open up and getting through the HDCP start up time and straight to the movie is much faster than hitting the power button on the STB and waiting for its seemingly HOURS long boot up process. Of course, this only applies if the HTPC is going to remain on nearly 24/7.
During my testing I only had a few instances of problems with the software, both of which were duplicated by NVIDIA and were logged bugs with the CyberLink group and should be fixed before its releasd to the public. Once those are done with, I found the PowerDVD HD-DVD version to be a very solid piece of software, that while not flashy, delivers the experience the user wants. Image quality, speed and reliabilty are really what matters when looking at an HTPC device.
HTPC Experiences and Benefits
One thing that I am always asked about when the topic of a home theater PC comes up is just how I like using it. It is a very complicated topic that could require thousands of words in and of itself, but I think I can express some basic thoughts quickly here.
As I said above, keeping the system on full time really adds to the user experience of an HTPC as there is no boot time to deal with, which can add minutes to watching a movie or browsing the Internet. If you had to wait for your machine to fully boot before you could use it, then I would more than likely not use the HTPC for things like checking weather or watching standard DVDs, etc. However, being able to switch inputs, move a mouse or hit a remote button to wake up the system and get results within seconds makes an HTPC a great addition to a TV for PC users.
Stability is something that has been a concern for HTPCs and consumers are not willing to deal with cable boxes or TVs that “crash” and thus having an HTPC unit that does would scare away more than a few potential buyers. In my experiences though, I had very few problems with anything like that, as long as the system is built with proper cooling and the software used is reliable as well. In fact, I’ve had more problems with the Toshiba HD-A1 box (locks, HDCP handshaking issues) than I did with the HTPC NVIDIA sent over for testing.
Heat and noise were slightly increased with the HTPC than with normal consumer electronics, but with newer DLP TVs using fans to cool the lamps and color wheels, fan noise is becoming more and more common in the home theater area. That being said, quieter is definitely better, and with Intel Core 2 Duo processors being very power efficient and 7600 GT HDCP cards that can run very quietly as well, HTPCs have the ability to run very cooly and quietly; you must just have to search harder and pay more for the passive cooling options.