A few days ago we were contacted by the guys at LinITX.com Apparently they had a little box we’d be interested in. Turns out the ASRock 330 is another nettop PC, but one with a nice GPU.
The Hardware – The unit has VGA and HDMI ports (ships with a HDMI to DVI convertor dongle too), an optical S/PDIF socket and Gigabit LAN. The superb spec continues with a 320GB 2.5” hard drive, 2GB of 800MHz DDR2 RAM (expandable to 4GB), a DVD Re-writer, 6 USB ports and analogue sound inputs and outputs. If you value your time at all, there’s no way you’re going to save money specing parts and building your own system.
The only thing that’s really missing is built in WiFi but its best to stream HD content over wired Gigabit Ethernet. WiFi can be added with a USB dongle though, assuming there are linux drivers for your particular model or by using a Ethernet to Wifi Bridge / Gaming Adaptor which would rule out any potential driver issues completely.
The PC is describe by the manufacture as “Silent (acoustic below 26 dB)”. In reality, even with the latest BIOS to reduce the noise of the fan, it’s still definitely not what we’d call “silent”. This is a win for the Mac mini if you must have noise levels at an absolute minimum.
A version is available with a Blu-Ray drive installed, although at around £100 and with BR playback unsupported in XBMC currently its not really an option. Most people in this space tend to baulk at the thoughts of using physical media though. The whole idea of a streaming setup like this is to rip your CDs / DVDs / Blu-Rays and store them on a central server to be access from multiple clients around the home.
You’ll need to add a remote control (the Mac mini has the IR receiver built in – but you have to buy the actual remote these days at around £12) . The system supports many remotes and we used an old Windows Media Center remote which worked perfectly. This is a slightly less pleasing looking setup, with the external USB IR receiver, but it’s only a cosmetic issue.
The ASRock is a low power computer as you’d expect, burning around 35 watts in use and around 5 watts suspended.
The Software – Grab the “Live” version of XBMC from the Downloads Page and boot off it for a play. You can do this on any PC without effecting what’s on its hard drive. The same CD image also has an option to copy itself to your hard drive too for a permanent installation – which is what we have here.
There’s useful information HERE on setting up some of the minutia including where to get an updated Live CD with the latest graphics drivers, plus the BIOS update that will make the fans quieter.
We had a problem with our TV and XBMC. It appears the LG screen we were testing the system with has a known issue, reporting incorrect details to HDMI devices on the resolutions it supports. Luckily the guys at LinITX (known for their “going the extra mile” customer service) were able to fix the issue. It was a simple matter (well, simple if you are the bearded, sandal wearing type) of adding the actual capabilities of the TV to one of the config files in XBMC. This is a problem with our particular TV model and not LGs in general. Most modern TVs will work fine.
Compared to the Mac Mini / Plex solution we’re using in our home cinema setup, the £250 ASRock 330 appears a bargain at around half the cost of the Mac. Where the Mac/Plex combo uses the raw horse power of the Core 2 Duo CPU the ASR uses its NVIDIA ION graphics processor.
We’ve covered XBMC many times in the past and we won’t bore you with our glowing praise all over again. Monitoring CPU usage on video playback shows the cores rarely getting above 15% utilization – even on MKV h.264 HD content. The GPU really does take the load off the CPU.
Our Mac mini home cinema setup
Navigating through the XMBC menus feels slightly slower on the odd occasion compared to the Mac mini / Plex and that’s down to the ASRock’s Atom CPU (we used the MediaStream skin for testing). Remember this is still a lowly Net-Top. The dual core Atom CPU is a fab little processor, but it isn’t a patch on the mighty Core 2 Duo.
Even Cheaper? – Of course even cheaper alternatives like the Media tank units are available and their new generation products like the Popcorn Hour C-200 and the Xtreamer are out now from around £100 to £200.
However, as a family brought up on the XMBC user experience, pretty much nothing else will do now. It’s hard to argue to stick with XBMC at £500 per room with the Mac mini. However at £250 per room it’s only a little more than the media tanks now and with its vastly superior UI and advantages like being able to watch BBC iPlayer using the same box, for us it’s the only option.
Conclusion – So how do we rate the ASRock 330 then? While we wont be replacing the Mac mini / plex combo feeding the main home cinema setup in the AV Room, we were certainly impressed. At around half the price and around 90% of the experience we can recommend the ASRock 300 for anyone looking for a HiDef capable XBMC client around the home. I guess the ultimate recommendation is when you actually spend your own hard-earned on something. And we bought this one!