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Hiper Media Center PC HMC-2K53A-A3

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If the headline sound familiar, it’s because we reviewed a Hiper Media Center PC with the same name and nearly identical model designation a couple months ago. The new model ends with A3, the old with H2. It features the same sleek, small chassis with a newer AMD A690G chipset motherboard and comes with a Vista remote, both of which are worthwhile improvements. Read on for the rest of our complete second look.

January 7, 2007 by Lawrence
Lee

Product
Hiper
Media Center

HMC-2K53A-A3 Barebones PC
Manufacturer
Hiper
Group
Selling Price
~US$300

A few months ago, we reviewed the HMC-2K53A-H2,
a barebones multimedia center PC by Hiper Group. It was a solid product, but
a little rough around the edges, the power supply being the main problem. By
the time the review was posted, however, the H2 was already on its way out.
The HMC-2K53A-A3 we are looking at today is a revised model that utilizes
the exact same enclosure and power supply unit, but with some significant changes.

The new A3 features another MSI motherboard, but this time, it’s based on the
newer AMD 690G chipset. The Radeon X1250 IGP allows for HDMI output and improved
video playback capability. Also, an infrared transceiver is now built right
into the front panel, and to compliment this, a Vista-only IR remote control
is included.



Our HMC A3 review sample.
Hiper Media Center HMC-2K53A-A3 SPECIFICATIONS
Specification Description
External Dimensions 430mm x 310mm x
53mm (WxDxH)
Standard
Components
Mainboard

MSI
K9AGM2
(MS-7327) (previously MSI
K9NGM2
)

Standard Size Micro ATX Format / ITX

CPU Accepts AMD AM2
Ventilation Intake on Top Cover
Hard Drive Accepts standard
3.5"
RAM Accepts up to 2
x DDRII
(previously 4 x DDRII)
Optical Drive Requires slot notebook
drive
Standard
Equipment
PSU 200W (100~240V)
CE, UL, TUV, ROHS
Front
I/O
2 x USB
Audio (speaker,
MIC, audio in)
S-Video
1 x 1394
Card Reader SD Card, MultiMediaCard,
CompactFlash, MicroDrive, Memory Stick, Smart Media
VFD
Module
VFD (with 6 external
function buttons)
Built-in Wi-Fi
IR Module MCE/Vista Approved
RF Remote Control
(included, previously optional)
HDD Fan 40 mm / 4000 rpm
/ frameless
Southbridge Fan 4000 rpm Blower
/ Dual Ball Bearing
(included, previously optional)
Rear I/O I/O Panel
Expansion 1 x PCI add on
slot bezel
IDE Cable 1 pc (450mm)
SATA Cable 1 pc (450mm)
IDE Converter Slimline to standard
IDE
Accessories Riser Card Optional
CPU cooler Optional

OVERVIEW


As noted before the A3 uses the exact same enclosure as the H2.
The overall appearance is very slick compared to most cases designed
for home theaters.

The back side is mostly the same except for the video outputs. DVI
and component connectors have been replaced with a single HDMI port.
There are no included adapters to make up for this.


The package contents included a remote, batteries, audio cables and
an optical drive adapter. A low profile CPU heatsink and riser card
came with our review sample, but they are listed as optional accessories.


Hiper also kindly provided us with a slim, slot-loading optical drive.

The included adapter allows you to connect the drive to a standard IDE
cable. It’s a bit loose fitting — if used, don’t take the system on
road trips.

INSIDE


Hiper lists the motherboard as being the MSI K9AGM2, but no such model
appears on the MSI website. It appears to be slightly modified MSI
K9AGM2-FID
with a customized back panel. The board’s layout
is fairly good, but with only a single expansion slot available in the
case (via a riser card), a mATX board is a bit of a waste.

New to the A3 is a strange looking device plugged into one of the two
memory banks. The schematics indicate that an IR blaster and the IR
receiver’s sensor and LED are connected directly to this odd piece of
circuitry. From there, it is patched into a USB header; we surmise it
only uses the memory slot to receive power. So you face a tough choice
here — either be limited to one memory slot, or forfeit using the
built-in IR receiver and remote.

Hanging over the southbridge heatsink is a blower fan, previously an
optional accessory. It is attached with a stiff metal wire arm screwed
directly to the case.

It’s a 50mm ball bearing fan of unknown specifications.

SYSTEM ASSEMBLY

  • CPU: AMD BE-2350 45W TDP 2.1GHz / 1MB L2 cache – This is AMD’s
    high efficiency desktop dual-core processor.
  • Heatsink: a 1U Copper Heatsink/fan, provided by Hiper
  • Memory: 1 x 1024mb Corsair XMS2 DDR2 (CM2X1024-6400)
  • HDD: Seagate Momentus 5400.2 120GB 2.5" notebook drive
  • Optical Drive: Panasonic UJ-85J-B slim, slot-loading DVD writer
  • OS: Windows Vista Home Premium 32-bit

As far as the installation goes, most of it has been covered already in the
HMC H2 review.
We took a little time this around with the hard drive mounting since we also
had an optical drive to contend with as well. A 2.5" notebook drive can
be easily suspended in a clothing elastic harness rigged up in the 3.5"
bay. This eliminates HDD vibration as a source of noise. The provided mounting
holes and vents on the drive cage were used to create a 3-line suspension
system.


Notebook drive suspended.


The internals, ready to go. The optical drive fits snugly above the
HDD.

BIOS

Aside from memory settings, there isn’t a whole lot to see or do in the BIOS.
The Hardware Monitor section was the exception as there were some customizable
Smart Fan options not available in the previous version of the HMC. There
is now a "Tolerance" setting that gives the target CPU temperature
a buffer before the fan spins up/down dramatically. You can also now select
a minimum fan speed in 12.5% intervals from 0% all the way to 87.5%. Just
as on the MSI K9NGM2, both 3-pin and 4-pin fans are controllable.



The only advanced settings that can be changed are the memory speed
and timings.


Smart Fan settings.

FAN CONTROL

SpeedFan,
the popular hardware monitoring software, was used to analyze the BIOS Smart
Fan’s behavior. The first step was to determine which temperatures were legitimate
and which were erroneous. "Temp2" at -128°C was discounted first
for obvious reasons. "Core" is read directly from the CPU on AMD
processors, leaving "Temp1" and "Temp3" unaccounted for.
When we stressed the system with CPUBurn
and looked at the temperatures, it appeared that "Temp3" increased
and followed "Core" very closely, making it a likely candidate for
the motherboard’s CPU temperature sensor and we will refer to it as such from
now on. "Temp1" on the other hand only rose by approximately 5°C
and pointing a case fan at either the southbridge or northbridge did not reduce
this temperature, so we were not able to pin down exactly what this reading
corresponded to. As for fan RPM reporting, "Fan1" corresponded to
the fan hooked up to the 4-pin CPU fan header, while "Fan3" corresponded
to the 3-pin auxilary fan header (the motherboard only has two).


SpeedFan readings.

We set Smart Fan’s target temperature to 40°C and the minimum fan speed
to 37.5%, stressed the system with CPUBurn, watching SpeedFan for changes.
The CPU fan speed fluttered between 770 and 850 RPM until the temperature
hit 35°C. The fan speed then increased gradually to 950 RPM at 38°C
and then spiked to 1180RPM at 39°C. At 40°C and above the fan speed
varied between 1200 and 1300 RPM. So Smart Fan worked more or less as it was
designed to. It should be noted that from a silent PC perspective, it doesn’t
really matter since the CPU fan is inaudible in the system compared to the
power supply fans.


Smart Fan settings.

Also, manual or automatic control is possible. In the Advanced menu, under
the "F71882F" chip, "PWM 4 mode" must be set to "Manual
set PWM" and "PWM 1 Type" must be set to either "PWM mode
(3-wire)" or "Linear DC mode." Once this is done a 3-pin fan
connected to the CPU fan header can be fully controlled by the user via the
"Speed01" setting. There was a 3 to 5 second delay when changing
the fan speed manually.

TESTING

Measurement and Analysis Tools

A Seasonic Power Angel was used to measure the overall system power consumption
at various states including Off, Sleep, Idle, with 2 instances of CPUBurn
K7 running, and with ATI Tool’s artifact scanning running in conjunction with
CPUBurn.

We also tested the integrated graphics’ proficiency at playing back high
definition videos. Standard HD-DVD and Blu Ray discs can be encoded in three
different codecs by design: MPEG-2, H.264/AVC and VC-1. MPEG-2 has been around
for a number of years and is not demanding on modern system resources. H.264
and VC-1 encoded videos on the other hand, due to the amount of complexity
in their compression schemes, are extremely stressful and will not play smoothly
(or at all) on slower PCs, especially with antiquated video subsystems.

Since we did not have a HD-DVD or Blu Ray drive at our disposal, we instead
used a variety of H.264 and VC-1 video clips encoded for playback on the PC
for testing. The clips were played with Windows Media Player 11 and a CPU
usage graph was created by the Windows Task Manger for analysis to determine
the approximate mean and average CPU use. High CPU usage is indicative of
poor video decoding ability on the part of the integrated graphics subsystem.
If CPU usage reached extremely high levels and the video skipped or froze,
we concluded the board (in conjunction with the processor) failed to adequately
decompress the clip.

128MB was assigned to video memory and Aero Glass was disabled during testing.

Video Test Suite


1280×720 | 24fps | ~6.1mbps
720p H.264: BBC’s
HD in Full Bloom
is encoded with H.264. It features time-lapsed
photography, mainly of various flowers blooming with vibrant colors
and high contrast.

1920×816 | 24fps | ~9.9mbps
1080p H.264:
Rush Hour 3 Trailer 1
is encoded with H.264. It has a good
mixture of light and dark scenes, interspersed with fast-motion
action and cutaways.

1440×1080 | 24fps | ~7.5mbps
WMV3 VC-1:
Coral Reef Adventure trailer
is encoded in VC-1 using the
WMV3 codec (commonly recognized by the moniker, "HD WMV").
It features multiple outdoor landscape and dark underwater scenes.

1280×720 | 60fps | ~11.9mbps
WVC1 VC-1: Microsoft Flight Simulator X trailer
is encoded in VC-1. It’s a compilation of in-game action from a
third person point of view. While the source image quality is poor
compared to the other videos in our test suite, it is encoded using
the Windows Media Video 9 Advanced Profile (aka WVC1) codec —
a much more demanding implementation of VC-1.

Test Results

CPU Usage & Power Consumption
Activity
Mean CPU Usage
Average Peak CPU Usage
System Power (AC)
Core 0
Core 1
Average
Off
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
N/A
N/A
N/A
3W
Idle
0-6%
0-6%
3%
N/A
~59W
720p H.264
20%
21%
20.5%
51%
~77W
1080p H.264
32%
33%
31.5%
69%
~79W
WMV3 VC-1
41%
45%
43.0%
79%
~80W
WVC1 VC-1
78%
77%
77.5%
98%
~84W
CPUBurn
100%
100%
100%
100%
97W
CPUBurn
+ ATI Tool
100%
100%
100%
100%
104W

All the test clips played back smoothly though during playback of the most
demanding WVC1 video, peak CPU usage almost reached 100%, meaning the system
was just barely able to decode it properly. Increasing the amount of video
memory to 256MB helped a small amount — ultimately the IGP and CPU clock
speed determined the performance.

Test Results Continued

Comparison: Hiper Media Center H2 vs. A3
Activity
HMC-2K53A-H2
HMC-2K53A-A3
Avg. CPU Usage
System Power (AC)
Avg. CPU Usage
System Power (AC)
Off
N/A
2W
N/A
2W
Sleep (S3)
N/A
6W
N/A
3W
Idle
1%
~82W*
3%
~59W
1080p H.264
38%
~89W
31%
~79W
WMV3 VC-1
44%
~92W
43%
~80W
CPUBurn
100%
105W
100%
97W
* The H2 did not have Cool’n’Quiet support in Vista,
resulting in higher idle power consumption.

Compared to the previous Hiper Media Center incarnation however, we see
some nice improvements in power consumption: approximately 10 to 12W during
moderate use. Idle power was much lower since Cool’n’Quiet did not function
on the H2 with Vista. Video playback also improved slightly in terms of
CPU usage, and there was absolutely no stuttering on the A3, unlike the
H2, which stumbled at times in HD playback.

GENERAL IMPRESSIONS

VIDEO

The HMC A3 worked perfectly well with a BenQ
FP94VW
19" LCD at 1440×900 resolution, connected via D-Sub.
This monitor also has an HDMI port with audio available through a line-out
jack. When we connected the HMC through HDMI, we were not able to get it
working at the proper native resolution. The driver would only allow 1152×648,
1280×720, 1776×1000, and 1920×1080. At 1280×720, the desktop was cropped
and we could move the mouse cursor past the edges of the screen. After fiddling
with the drivers and sound control panel for some time, we were unable to
get full audio functionality working through HDMI either. The sound came
through fine when we tried the speaker diagnostic test, but we couldn’t
hear the audio from any video or music files, or from clicks made with the
mouse. Since we did get some sound out of it, we assume it’s either a Vista
or driver issue, which may be worked out eventually.


At 1280×720, things didn’t look quite right.

PERIPHERALS

The built-in WiFi card worked as it should, detecting and
allowing easy access at 54 mbps to the wireless network in the lab. The
included Vista remote control also worked to perfection, with a full of
control for Vista’s Media Center. It was a little thin, but very comfortable,
and intuitive/easy to use. The range of the remote was approximately 3.5
meters (11.5 feet) with direct line-of-sight. This addition really cements
the system firmly as a Media PC adding a level of usability and enjoyment
lacking in the previous model. The front display and all its buttons were
also fully functional.

NOISE

As none of the fans in the system have been changed from the previous model,
the noise level remained the same. 31 dBA@1m when idle, and 35 dBA@1m during
stress testing with CPUBurn as measured by our B&K sound level meter.
It’s an acceptable amount of noise for a home theater PC. The addition of
the southbridge fan made the unit unbearable, even for a media center. If
Hiper felt that the southbridge wouldn’t be adequately cooled they could
have requested MSI to use a larger passive heatsink instead. The sound the
fan emitted was akin to a high-pitch optical drive motor spinning at moderate
speeds or a very small vacuum cleaner. It was loud enough that we did not
even bother measuring or recording its noise level.

COOLING

The CPU and Core temperatures did not exceed 50°C on load and 40°C
when idle, which is fine performance. Still, it’s a cramped system with
limited cooling and airflow, so it’s best to stick to 65W or lower TDP processors.
Also make sure the system has plenty of breathing room — placing it
on the top of the rest of your home theater equipment would be ideal as
long as it is not enclosed in a cabinet.

The low profile heatsink is effective with the low 45W TDP processor, and
in an open environment, it was barely warm to the touch with CPUBurn running.
The northbridge and southbridge heatsinks on the otherhand were another
story. The southbridge in particular, was scorching, and it makes sense
that Hiper decided to include the optional fan this time around. We performed
all our tests with the fan disconnected, however, to eliminate it’s annoying
noise, and no instability was noted.

POWER / ENERGY EFFICIENCY

In our Asus M2A-VM HDMI
review, a board using the same 690G chipset, we were able to get power consumption
down to 35W idle — which is substantially better than the HMC A3. This
is due in most part to the inefficiency of Hiper’s power supply, which is
the same unit used in the previous H2 model. The Hiper power supply also
powers the IR remote system, wireless networking, the VFD, and an optical
drive and memory card reader, but these are not particularly energy intensive
devices. Our motherboard test platform uses a Seasonic 80Plus compliant
power supply with active PFC. It’s the main reason that the system with
the similar Asus board drew so much less power.

Hiper would be well advised to utilize a higher quality power supply unit.
Not only would this result in energy savings, but with less power lost to
inefficiency transferred as heat, the fan speeds could be lowered to make
it a quieter system. The use of an external power brick might also work
well.

NOISE RECORDINGS IN MP3 FORMAT

We are re-using the noise recordings from the earlier HMC model,
since the sound levels are identical. Each of these recording starts with
six seconds of "silence" to let you hear the ambient sound of the
room, followed by 10 seconds of the product’s noise.

HOW TO LISTEN & COMPARE

These recordings were made
with a high resolution, studio quality, digital recording system, then
converted to LAME 128kbps encoded MP3s. We’ve listened long and hard
to ensure there is no audible degradation from the original WAV files
to these MP3s. They represent a quick snapshot of what we heard during
the review. The microphone was one meter
away from the product.

These recordings are intended to let you hear how the reviewed item sounds
in actual use — one meter is a reasonable typical distance between
a computer or computer component and your ear. The recording contains
stretches of ambient noise that you can use to judge the relative loudness
of the subject. For best results, set your volume control so that the
ambient noise is just barely audible
. Be aware that very quiet subjects
may not be audible — if we couldn’t hear it from one meter, chances
are we couldn’t record it either!

More details about how
we make these recordings can be found in our short article: Audio
Recording Methods Revised
.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Hiper HMC-2K53A-A3 is mostly an improvement over the H2. The now standard
remote control was a pleasure to use; it’s one thing all media PCs should
probably have. It’s the bridge that turns a PC into a home theater device,
rather than just a computer using a TV as a monitor. Changing the motherboard
to one using the 690G chipset with integrated Radeon X1250 graphics was an
obvious improvement. It provides superior high definition playback, better
energy efficiency, and also allows users to use HDMI, which has become the
defacto standard in digital TV/video.

Unfortunately, at least with this particular MSI board, the HDMI connection
came with its own problems. The video resolution wouldn’t match our LCD monitor.
Since it gave us the option of several resolutions outside of our monitor’s
range, we can assume that these are all the resolutions (1152×648, 1280×720,
1776×1000, and 1920×1080) it supports. This will force users to pick the resolution
that matches closest to their display. It’s not horrible to use 1280×720 instead
of 1366×768, but it’s far from ideal. We were unable to get the audio through
HDMI working properly either. Without audio, the benefit of HDMI is limited.
It also takes the place of DVI and component connectors, reducing its overall
versatility. Granted, all of this could be possibly solved in the future with
updated drivers.

We are also unimpressed by the implementation of power for the built-in IR
receiver, through a circuit board plugged into one of the memory slots. The
motherboard has only two memory slots, which effectively reduces the maximum
memory to 2GB in single-channel. To use the included remote, you require Vista,
and Vista happens to be a bit of a memory hog. 2GB is just about the minimum
we would recommend for a fully functional system running Vista, so giving
up the second memory slot to power the IR seems a dubious compromise.

Though the fan control is better than in the previous model, its usefulness
is minimal since the fans in the PSU remain the loudest noise source under
all conditions. The power supply remains our biggest complaint about the Hiper
Media PC. The addition of the previously optional southbridge fan actually
makes the A3 a bit louder overall than the previous H2.

The Hiper HMC seems to have taken two steps forward, two steps sideways,
and then two steps back. The improvements of the A3 over the H2 on paper looked
promising, but the implementation introduced a few more problems. The underlining
capability is there; getting it to function quietly still requires some work
on the part of the end user.

PROS

* Excellent Vista remote now included
* HDMI now included
* Improved high definition playback
* Improved power consumption

CONS

* No change in power supply
* Loud southbridge fan added.
* No DVI or component connectors
* HDMI issues
* IR module occupies a memory slot

Our thanks to Hiper
Group
for this product sample.

* * *

Articles of Related Interest
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Hiper Media Center Barebones
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Shuttle XPC X100 mini PC
Shuttle SD11G5 Pentium-M barebones PC
EndPCNoise/SPCR Model Eleven: Media Center
PC

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* *

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