Real-World 1080p Performance, Conclusion
Real-World HD Video Performance
Of course, while synthetic 3D benchmarks inform of the system’s raw power, they don’t translate well to HD video performance. Smooth 1080p video on a modern computer requires a combination of good drivers, decent hardware and a fast browser. Even the modern Core i5 laptops we frequently review will occasionally drop some frames – once every few minutes at most, but it’s noticeable when it occurs.
To test overall performance we’re going to use some of today’s most common video platforms – YouTube, Netflix and iTunes. I’m sure some enthusiasts will object to this by claiming that these are also the most inefficient. There’s some truth to that, and if you truly use nothing but VLC for your media needs, you should be okay with (but not blown away by) the performance of the Q180. However, most people who buy this kind of system will be expecting it to work with today’s most common online video services.
I had a lot of problems testing the Q180. The first problem was getting it to run any HD video at a remotely acceptable pace. As shipped, this nettop was dropping frames like they were hot no matter what source I used. To resolve this I updated the drivers and disabled all the quality enhancement features related to video in AMD’s Catalyst Control Center.
After this, HD video became playable. But I still had problems benchmarking video. I first wanted to use FRAPS, but the average framerate results didn’t seem representative of the actual experience. My next inclination was to record video directly on the Q180, but the system simply could not handle simultaneous recording and playback of video without causing an unacceptable change in the results. This forced me to fall back on recording the video as played on my 1080p television.
I apologize for the visual quality of these videos. Rest assured that the video quality of the Q180 is just as good as any other HTPC. These videos are meant to provide an example of performance only.
Let’s start with YouTube.
Large portions of the YouTube clip are smooth, but there are also moments where the video freezes for a second or two. These are easy to notice and eliminate most enjoyment to be found in the experience. Reducing quality to 720p seems to make these slow moments less frequent, but they still occur.
What about Netflix?
This is easily the worst result. Although video performance isn’t terrible, small pauses in the video do occur, and the audio does not re-sync to the video. This effect compounds on itself quickly and makes a show unwatchable within thirty seconds. Disabling HD playback eliminates this problem entirely.
Let’s wrap up with iTunes.
The overall experience was best on iTunes thanks to video playback that was free of significant pauses. Vertical sync issues are somewhat noticeable in scenes that include fast movement, but don’t ruin the experience.
I did notice, however, that performance in iTunes was significantly worse if a video was downloading in the background. This may partially explain why performance in YouTube and Netflix is so poor. It appears that something as simple as downloading a video can rob the processor of the headroom it needs to display video smoothly. If you’re expecting to multi-task with the Q180 – forget about it.
I wanted to like the Q180. I really did. It’s a cool little system that makes almost no noise and can be stuffed behind a large monitor. Had everything worked out, the Q180 could be the perfect media center or the only home computer the average joe would need.
Our performance benchmarks quickly eliminated my hopes that this system could serve in either role. Atom was not a very good processor when it debuted, and since then Intel has allowed it to wither on the vine. Lenovo should have gone with an AMD E-450 APU instead – it also can have trouble with HD video in certain situations, but in my experience the Fusion APUs have been far superior to Atom paired with a discrete GPU.
Users who only browse the web or edit documents might be okay with what this system offers, but the fact that Dell, HP and Acer will sell you a Pentium powered desktop at a similar price erases any hope of competition this system had. There is only one reason to buy the Q180 – size. That’s it.
I think we can safely put Atom (for PC) to rest. It is dead. Even after several years of evolution it has proven unsuitable for the demands of modern software and Intel clearly has no interest in updating the architecture. Hopefully the next iteration of Lenovo’s tiny Q-series computer abandon Atom and instead use an Intel low-voltage processor or perhaps an AMD Fusion APU.