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AMD Maui: Ultimate HTPC Integration

It’s an island, but Maui is also AMD’s codename for a motherboard and dedicated 5-ch hifi audio amp card designed to take HTPC integration a step farther into broad acceptance. We take a close look at a Maui sample system, and the audio core that is its unique selling proposition.

March 5, 2009 by Lawrence Lee & Mike Chin

Product/Concept AMD Maui HTPC Platform
Manufacturer MSI / AMD

AMD Live! is an initiative to promote
PC software and hardware for better home entertainment.
It is a concept that few hardware enthusiasts are familiar with. For many, their only knowledge of AMD Live! comes from the sticker spotted on the occasional brand name AMD-powered
computer at a big box store. So what does it take to be AMD Live! certified? Basically
a dual core processor, Vista Aero-capable graphics, and digital video and audio outputs
— not exactly tough requirements.

Maui, on the other hand, is AMD’s internal codename for a project that combines a motherboard with the 780M mobile chipset and unique audio amplfier cards utilizing chips from D2Audio specifically for use as a home entertainment component. The amplifier module is a key to the system’s appeal. The proposition is simple: Instead of yet another box to add under your TV, eliminate the usual amplifier or receiver and keep it all in one box, running the speakers directly from the HTPC. Powering five speakers is not something any onboard sound card in a motherboard can do. Normally, you’d have to run powered speakers that have built-in amplifiers and use the preamp output of the sound card. AMD says that this is no gimmicky add-on, but a capable, high quality amplifier at a very good price point .

Another available option in place of the 5-ch amp is a 7.1 preamp board, also based on a D2Audio chip, that fits into the PCIe 4X slot. One of these came along with the system. We chose not to examine the preamp. The preamp and amp cannot both be used simultaneously in the same system, and the MSI motherboard ia bundled with either the amp or the preamp, and there’s no separate amp or preamp purchase option. The preamp is not as appealing because it dictates the use of an external amp; doing away with another electronic box under your TV is what appeals most about the 5-ch amp.

A complete Maui system we received from AMD consists of a MSI motherboard powered by AMD’s mobile 780M chipset (utilizing integrated HD 3200 graphics), an ATI TV Tuner card, and the dedicated 5-channel audio amplifier installed in a PCIe 4X slot. It came prebuilt in a case with a LIS display and a Vista compatible remote control, with Vista Ultimate installed. It has all the makings of a good HTPC, with a strong slant toward the audio side of things.

This article is a review of the Maui system as configured and delivered by AMD. No price is listed for this system in the usual summary box atop because it’s not a system anyone actually sells. It’s just one iteration of Maui. The heart of the system, the MSI Media Live DIVA motherboard (MS-7411 v1.1) and the 5-ch amp, is sold as a package ($189 at Newegg), and there are many different ways that a HTPC could be built around these core components.


The system box with separate MSI 7.1 preamp option.

 


The system is housed in a nMedia HTPC-1000B case.

THE SAMPLE SYSTEM

AMD reps say the box that we received was not necessarily a recommended configuration. The internal component choices made here, other than the motherboard and dedicated 5-ch amp, was the result of the AMD media team grabbing components off the shelf to compile a system that could show what the Maui platform could do.

We question the utility of the Phenom X4 quad core, which raises both idle and load power substantially over a 45W dual-core X2 with higher clock speed. The CPU cooler choice was a bit odd, too, as there are more suitable proven quiet solutions. But as AMD pointed out, this is just one iteration of Maui; any number of other component choices are possible.

EXTERNAL TOUR

 


The nMedia case is an attractive black enclosure with an aluminum
facia and steel chassis. Unfortunately the stealthed drive cover makes
a horrible screeching noise when it comes into contact with the optical
drive tray; a bit of damping material on the inside of the metal flap could have prevented this. A hidden panel running the length of the case at the bottom
provides access to USB, FireWire, eSATA, front audio and media card ports.


The case is well ventilated on every side, including a large section above
the CPU cooler. The case is a bit shorter than a typical ATX case though,
so there’s only room for two 60mm fans at the back rather than
quieter 80mm models. There is a 92mm fan/placement on the left side
of the case that blows over the hard drive cage.


The power supply is a standard ATX model that is placed upside down to
draw air from the top of the case. Note long 5.1 ch audio amplfier on the right side.

INTERIOR & ACCESSORIES


Here is a better look at the 5.1 ch amplifier board. It requires extra power through a standard 4-pin connector direct from the PSU.


This is the optional 7.1 preamp, shown with infrared MCE remote and USB receiver dongle. The latter must be plugged into a front panel port to be in line of sight. In the nMedia case, this means the front hinged cover over the ports must be left open.


The supplied CPU cooler is
a Silent Flux by Noise Limit, which uses a technology they call bubble-flux. It’s a kind of passive watercooling solution.


The fan is situated between the base and the fins of the cooler. It looks like there is a great deal of impedance to airflow, unfortunately.




A quick look at the Device Manager reveals some interesting component
choices.

TESTING: VIDEO & BENCHMARKS

Measurement and Analysis Tools

Our testing procedures are designed to determine the overall system power
consumption at various states to test
its proficiency at playing back high definition videos, and its overall performance through a few benchmarks. Video memory was set
to 128MB during video playback.

Video Playback Test Suite

Our main video test suite features a variety of 1080p H.264/VC-1 encoded clips.
The clips are played with PowerDVD 8 and a CPU usage graph is created by the
Windows Task Manger for analysis to determine the approximate mean and peak
CPU usage. High CPU usage is indicative of poor video decoding ability on the
part of the integrated graphics subsystem. If the video (and/or audio) skips
or freezes, we conclude the board’s IGP (in conjunction with the processor)
is inadequate to decompress the clip properly.


1080p | 24fps | ~10mbps
H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is a H.264 encoded clip inside an Apple
Quicktime container.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~8mbps
WMV-HD:
Coral Reef Adventure Trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the WMV3
codec commonly recognized by the “WMV-HD” moniker.

 


1080p | 24fps | ~19mbps
VC-1: Drag Race is a recording of a scene from
network television re-encoded with TMPGEnc using the WVC1 codec, a more
demanding VC-1 codec.

 


1080[ | 24fps | ~33mbps
Blu-ray: Disturbia is a short section of the
Blu-ray version of Disturbia, the motion picture, played directly off
the Blu-ray disc. It is encoded with H.264/AVC.

 

Benchmarking Particulars

  • Eset NOD32: in-depth virus scan of a folder containing 32
    files of varying size with a few of them being file archives.
  • WinRAR: archive creation with a folder containing 68 files of varing size
    (less than 50MB).
  • iTunes: conversion of a MP3 file to 256kbps AAC.
  • TMPGEnc Xpress: encoding an XVID AVI file to VC-1 (1280×720, 30fps, 20mbps).

TEST RESULTS

Test Results: AMD Maui
Test State
Mean
CPU Use
Peak
CPU Use
System Power
Off
N/A
1W
Sleep
N/A
3W
Idle
N/A
86W
Rush Hour
(H.264)
40%
55%
~100W
Coral Reef
(WMV-HD)
29%
53%
~98W
Drag Race
(VC-1)
41%
59%
~104W
Disturbia
(Blu-ray)
32%
58%
~100W
CPUBurn x 2
100%
121W
CPUBurn x 4
100%
154W
CPUBurn x 4
+ FurMark
100%
173W

The overall power consumption of the system was a lot higher than we’re used
to seeing. The system is equipped with various extra components:
a TV tuner, amplifier, and IR remote, all of which require extra juice.
The system idles at 86W, though with Media Center open, it jumps between 92
and 96W. Power draw during video playback was in the 100W range.

When all four cores of the CPU were stressed,
power consumption increased by 68W compared to idle, which is close to the 9350e’s
65W TDP rating. Video playback, with an advanced IGP and
a quad core processor was not an issue, of course, it’s a more than competent
media player.

Keep in mind that this PC can replace an external amplifier or AV receiver, a PVR, external DVD or Blu-ray player, a cable/STB or Tivo box, and any TV tuners installed in the flat panel TVs — the power draw is more than offset by the power of components you can eliminate from around the entertainment center.

 

Benchmarks Comparison
System
AMD Maui
Dell Studio Hybrid
CPU / RAM
Phenom X4 2.0Ghz / 2GB
Core 2 Duo T5850
2.13GHz / 3GB
Boot-up Time
90 sec
59 sec
PCMark05
5169
4176
3DMark05
1561
953
3DMark06
3369
444
NOD32
382 sec
~95W
301 sec
~40W
WinRAR
377 sec
~95W
274 sec
~45W
iTunes
584 sec
~96W
312 sec
~43W
TMPGEnc
289 sec
~122W
468 sec
~52W
*Boot-up Time – start button to when the desktop
appears

 

Performance on the whole was surprisingly poor if you don’t take into
account its media functionality and treat it purely as a standard
PC. The Dell Studio Hybrid, a simple, efficient system using notebook components, defeated the Maui
system in many of our real-world benchmarks including NOD32, WinRAR and iTunes,
despite only sporting a dual core CPU. A Core 2 Duo is more powerful than a
Phenom processor at similar clock speeds in many applications — those that
can take advantage of more than two cores (like TMPGEnc) are the exception.
The Dell Studio Hybrid’s less-than-extreme Intel graphics is a severe detriment when
it comes to 3D video performance, though, while the Maui’s 780M graphics are quite strong. This helps the Maui on the PCMark and 3DMark benchmarks, which are probably more relevant for HTPC apps.

Is quad core a good choice for a HTPC? The most demanding function for a media PC is probably to
record and playback video/audio at the same time, so in our view, a
quad core is not the best choice… unless recorded content is encoded on the
fly with a threaded application that can utilize the potential of all four cores. One point AMD makes is that the use of a Phenom allows for HT3.0 speeds, which offers better de-interlacing performance for broadcast and other interlaced content. We never did spend any time with the tuner, so no comment there.

A higher-clocked, cheaper, 45W AMD X2 processor (like the 2.6 GHz Athlon 64 X2 5050e) would bring general performance closer to that
of an a Core 2 Duo, and at the same time, lower overall system power draw substantially, at idle as well as at full load. For a box that many users will want left on 24/7 (for timed TV recording, instant access to TV or music on demand, etc.), the reduced power draw at idle would be most welcome.

Despite the quad core processor, the system felt a bit sluggish at times,
especially on boot-up. The system loads several applications into the system
tray and Media Center also fires up after boot-up. The system took 90 seconds
to get to the Vista desktop, but an additional 43 seconds passed before Media
Center finished loading. It’s a rather clunky startup procedure, so it was
best to keep this system in Sleep until we were ready to use it.

AMD Live! Applications and Additional Software

The AMD Live! Explorer is a web portal that takes you to the AMD Live! site
and provides links to various applications partnered with AMD Live!. They are
a mix of free and paid software, some of which can be added to Media Center,
making their features accessible by remote control alone.


Fusion Tunes (Free,
$29.99 for Pro version) – merges iTunes into Media Center and Media Player.
With the popularity of the iPod, Apple’s iTunes is the application of choice

for many users, even on the PC, to manage their media libraries. Unfortunately,
Fusion Tunes does not work with media procured through the iTunes Music Store,
not for free anyway. For that you need the Pro version.

MyTV ToGo
($29.99) – converts Media Center recorded TV content (DVR-MS files) on the fly,
to various formats for mobile devices. However, the list of devices supported
has not been updated for almost an entire year, so this service may have been
abandoned or neglected. Syncing is supported on the following devices:

  • Apple iPod
  • Apple iPhone
  • Creative Zen M
  • Laptop PC
  • Microsoft Zune
  • Palm Treo 700W
  • Pocket PC
  • Smartphone
  • Sony PSP
  • Toshiba GigaBeat

MyTV Genie ($19.99)
– suggests and records TV shows you may like by keeping track of what shows
you watch and the ratings you assign to them. It’s sort of like the iTunes Genius,
except for TV shows. In the future you will also be able to create your own
channel to share your particular taste in TV shows to others, creating a social
networking aspect to the least social thing a person can do.

LogMeIn
(Free, $49.95 for Pro version) – allows users to access a computer system from
anywhere in the world online. You can login to your machine, check your email
and set your HTPC to record. To enable file transfer and photo/music/video sharing
via LogMeIn, a Pro account is required.

Jacked
(Free) – interactive sports desktop that generates customized, real-time data
on sporting events. Follow the play-by-play of any major league game as it happens
and relevant information including statistics news, links, and images to the
players and teams involved. The layout can be customized to display whatever
is important to you and you can follow several differnet games simultaneously
using tabs. It is the perfect companion for a sports fanatic, but unfortunately
you can’t watch the game through Jacked. You’ll need to find your own live feed
or watch it the old fashioned way.

On
Demand
(Free) – provides access and control of your multimedia library over
the internet.

PodShow (Free) – PodShow,
now known as mevio, is an online multimedia network. While the site has plenty
of audio and video content, it does not integrate with Media Center.

The services that could be fused with Media Center are certainly welcome, as
they make them accessible via any Vista remote control. The ones that require
a web interface however are seemingly anti-thetical to the vision AMD Live!
is striving for. To us, a truly easy home theater experience excludes having
a keyboard in our lap while watching TV, or struggling to move a mouse cursor
atop a couch cushion. It seems to us that AMD Live! has had to make a compromises.
Some of these programs seem very useful, while others seem like they were included
as part of a simple affiliate-driven profit business model.


ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre.

ArcSoft TotalMedia Theatre is a Blu-ray, HD-DVD, and AVCHD capable media player.
It is basically Arcsoft’s version of PowerDVD. It is pre-integrated into Media
Center, so Blu-ray/DVD playback can be effortlessly controlled from the comfort
of your couch/bed with a few clicks.


M.Play Home Center.

M.Play Home Center allows you to customize the read-outs of the LCD display.
By default it continuously rotates, displaying things such as the given name
of the system, the current application in the foreground, the volume level,
the level of CPU/network utilzation and other oddities.

DEDICATED
AUDIO AMPLIFIER

The amplifier module utilizes a DAE-3 chip by Intersil D2Audio. Its firmware can be updated just like the BIOS in a motherboard. An update sent over by AMD during the course of this review increased the audio output by about 6dB, and was also said to improve signal flow. It was a simple process that took just 15 seconds and it did not even require a reboot. The increased gain was immediately noticed, though the “improve signal flow” was more difficult to assess.

Here are more details about the card and the concept.


Power output is said to be 5 x 100W peak. This spec smells dubious. Peak as in 2 ms? The 93% efficiency is excellent; it identifies the amplier as a class-D, which uses power transistors in switching mode, similar to PC power supplies. For full details, here’s the link to D2Audio’s spec sheet (pdf).


This image from MSI shows the sound card which fits into a PCIe 4X slot.


Top view of amplifier board.

The trace side has
many surface-mounted components.

Speaker leads get connected to a harness (only fits relatively small gauge bare wire) which plugs into the socket on the card.


Speaker polarity should be observed; the manual shows the terminal pattern, basically alternating + and – from the top down.

TESTING THE AUDIO

The challenge was how to assess the quality of the Maui amplifier. We didn’t have easy access to a good multi-channel music or audio/video system, so that kind of comparison was out. SPCR happens to be home to an excellent if aging high end conventional 2-channel audio system, however, and since it’s primarily the quality of the sound we wanted to assess, it was decided that a drop-in of the Maui system as a replacement for key components would make a useful comparison. Of course, it is an unfair comparison, but it will tell us something about the sound quality of the Maui amplifier.


The clutter during the audio testing.

Existing Audio System Details

The speakers are on the short wall facing into a fairly large, 12′ x 30′ living/dining area. The acoustics are fairly live. As a rough guide to the quality of the existing audo gear, when it was new, the total cost of the above components was nearly US$7000.

TEST PROCEDURE

We determined early on that the Maui PC as shipped to us was not quiet enough for our taste. In idle, it measured 30 dBA@1m, and the sound character was not particularly pleasant. The fans were obvious culprits. Replacing the Silent Flux heatsink/fan with an Arctic Cooling Alpine 7 made a big difference, especially with the fan slowed through the MSI board BIOS. So did undervolting the 60mm exhaust fans and removing the wire grills over them. By the time we finished tweaking the system, the measured SPL in our anechoic chamber was ~22 dBA@1m, which is quiet enough, especially with music playing when the system is on.

A variety of music was played for several listeners on the existing system. Then, the AMD Maui PC system was plonked in place of the Linn preamp/amp combination, priced originally at ~$4,000. The analog output from the MSB DAC went into the phono line inputs of the Maui, and the NHT 2.9 speakers were driven directly by the amplifier in the PC. The same music was then played again. The music selections were varied, and included, among others:

Our general reaction to the Maui PC amp was…. Wow! With the volume set at a fairly nominal living room level (peaks measured 80~85 dBA 1m from the center point between the two speakers), the change in the sound from the Linn preamp/amp was subtle. As with the Linn amps, the sound was lively, dynamic, detailed, clear, transparent. There were no obvious losses or degradations such as thinner bass or harsher sibilants. Mostly, the music came through much like before. It was quite impressive for a modest little $100 board inside a computer to come even close to matching $4,000 worth of discrete high quality audio amplifiers.

The power limitations became clear as the volume was increased. With peaks breaking 90 dBA, the sound became a bit harsher, and occasional clipping distortion could be noticed on bass transients. It also sounded more compressed and less “at ease” at this high volume. As long as the level was kept below 90 dBA, however, these limitations did not intrude. While pop music concerts are routinely loud enough to cause at least temporary hearing damage, probably well in excess of 120 dB at 1m from the speakers, 90 dBA@1m in a typical home environment is fairly loud.

The Maui system was kept in the audio system for about a week, during which time, it was used casually a couple of hours daily. The library of several hundreds of albums is usually on random song play, so this is a wide range of music types. No addtional hum or buzz was noted, nor were there any other audible artifacts. My wife noticed no change in the sound, but did wonder about the mess in the living room; that’s telling.

Whether this high level of performance is evident when the Maui is driving five speakers is not clear from this test. Our take is that as long as the output power limitations are respected, there’s no reason not to expect the same performance with all five channels going.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

The basic concept of the Maui platform is strong. Consolidating home entertainment gear has always been one of the promises of HTPC, but in all previous executions, an external amplifier has been necessary. With the Maui platform, this is no longer true. The platform can combine all the strengths and flexibility of a PC — photo and video editing and management, web and email access, gameplay (doable with the 780M graphics but better with a suitable discrete 3D video card) and other software functions — with multi-tuner TV access, digital movie play from downloads, DVD or Blu-ray, recorded/time-shifted TV programs, access to digital music files on its hard drive or on network sotrage, and finally, multi-channel amplification for direct hookup of speakers without an external amp or receiver.

The sound quality of the D2Audio amplifier is very good, and the only caveat is that the clean volume limit may be a touch low for those who like their blockbuster movie sound effects to be intensely immersive. In a small room with high sensitivity speakers, that’s probably achievable. The amp is capable of playing loud enough for our taste. The fact that the amplifier board adds perhaps $100 to a good ~$100 motherboard makes it a bargain. It’s difficult to think of any multi-channel amplifier of suitable quality anywhere near that kind of price.

We were not exactly bowled over by some of the other hardware choices made for this Maui system sample, but we had no problem tweaking it for lower noise to suit our taste. The bit of sluggishness was occasionally annoying, but again, it seems mostly a matter of tweaking — the software this time, probably a whole new clean install of Vista — to make the system snappier, or swapping out the 2.0 GHz Phenom for a faster clocked X2 model (like the $65 2.6 GHz Athlon 64 X2 5050e). Keep in mind, again, that the sample system is not a recommended build nor is it offered as a system by anyone; it’s just a system cobbled together to show the Maui concept to reviewers like us. Obviously, not only are there numerous other internal components that could be used, but also different chassis solutions from Silverstone, Lian Li, Thermaltake, Antec and several others, which offer consumers real differentiation and price points.

AMD processors with 780 chipset boards have already become, in most enthusiasts minds, the HTPC components of choice, due to the high integration of core functions (including HD video), low cost and simplicity of implementation. As Nick Geraedts remarked in a recent chat, “The AMD platform just works for home theater, and its so affordable.” He described assembling a HTPC for his girlfriend with a 780G mATX board, an X2 processor, RAM, WD Green Power drive, and case/PSU, all for little over CA$500. When he first powered it up, his girlfriend’s roommates insisted it wasn’t working because it didn’t make enough audible noise. “That’s priceless,” Nick said, grinning, “and now they use it all the time, to watch downloaded HD movies, TV, listen to music and so on.”

With Maui, AMD further strengthens their position as the HTPC brand of choice. The company has gone so far as to start their own AMD at Home blog, which contains useful posts and articles for DIY HTPC builders, as well as links to Maui-based HTPC system specialists and installers. MSI is not the only Maui component maker. Several other companies, including Foxconn, are working with AMD to produce other variants of the AMD-chipset motherboard plus dedicated D2Audio amplifier combo that is Maui. Things are progressing slower than expected due to the downturn in the world economy… but that holds true in every industry everywhere. Still, Maui’s strong multi-functional role should look attractive to savvy consumers in these down times.

AMD Maui Platform
PROS

* Unique, high quality 5-ch audio amp
* Proven 780 chipset
* Affordable components
* Good core performance
* Can replace several external home entertainment components
* Support through AMD at Home blog

CONS

* Only MSI offers the hardware at this time
* Bit more power would be nice

Our thanks to AMD
for the Maui
HTPC sample.

* * *

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* * *

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