What if you could build a sub-$500 HTPC that was slim, fast, and capable, without the headache of picking bargain-barrel parts to accomplish your design goals? What if it had HDMI and 7.1 audio? With the help of their Pundit series, ASUS hopes to make barebones relevant again. Have they done it?
For our video conversion test, we use VirtualDub to transcode (transform + encode) a 0.99GB high-quality DivX H.264 AVI video of Half-Life 2: Episode Two gameplay with stereo audio. The video is just under 4 minutes in length and has a resolution of 1280×720 (720p HD video).
For our testing, we encode the video two different ways. The first transcoding run (“720p Video Recode”) encodes the video at the same 720p resolution but a lower quality, to achieve a more acceptable file size for distribution (~150MB). The second transcoding run (“Mobile Video Recode”) scales the video to a 480×272 resolution (widescreen), similar to what some mobile devices such as Apple’s iPod use. For both tests, “Advanced Multithreading” is enabled in the codec control panel, as well as “Advanced Search” using the highest version of the SSE instruction set that the CPU supports.
Here, the reference GeForce 6150-based system still edges out the 690G-based barebone, but not by the nearly 2:1 margin observed in PCMark Vantage’s ‘Memories’ test. Keep in mind here that the only variable in the performance testing for this review is the motherboard in use.
Photo manipulation benchmarks are more relevant than ever, given the proliferation of high-end digital photography hardware. For this benchmark, we test the system’s handling of RAW photo data using Adobe Lightroom, an excellent RAW photo editor and organizer that’s easy to use and looks fantastic.
For our testing, we take 100 RAW files (in Nikon’s .NEF file format) which have a 10-megapixel resolution, and export them as JPEG files in 1000×669 resolution, like the photo image files we use here on the Techgage web site. Such a result could also be easily distributed online or saved as a low-resolution backup. This test involves not only scaling of the image itself, but encoding in a different image format entirely. The test is timed indirectly using a stopwatch, and times are accurate to within +/- 0.25 seconds.
In this test, the P2-M2A690G barebone fares significantly better than its competition, though the two are still pretty much neck-and-neck. The 13-second margin possessed by the ASUS barebone system doesn’t amount to particularly much, unless you’re resizing a LOT of photos (and I mean a LOT – you’d need to process over 500 images for the discrepancy to be greater than 1 minute between the two systems).
Formerly known as Kinetix 3D Studio Max, Autodesk’s 3ds Max 9 is considered the industry standard when it comes to 3D modeling and animation, counting DreamWorks, BioWare, and Blizzard Entertainment among its users. It’s a multithreaded application that’s designed to be right at home on multi-CPU workstations or render farms, so it’s right up our alley for testing systems with multi-core processors.
Instead of the polygon-based rasterization handled by most GPUs, 3ds Max 9 uses scanline rendering as its chief rendering method, but some ray-tracing plugins exist (which we don’t use). At this time, the only thing it doesn’t support is Intel’s SSE4 instruction set, since the new instructions in SSE4 aren’t relevant to its tasks.
In our testing, we use a standard dragon model provided with the 3ds Max application, Dragon_Character_Rig.max. The scene is rendered in two formats. First, a single frame from the animation is rendered at a resolution of 1920×1080 (1080p widescreen HDTV). Then a 60-frame sequence of the same model is rendered to a 490×270 (widescreen) resolution AVI file which can be exported to a portable media player. The test is timed directly, by the program itself. It should also be known that this test disables the Aero Glass UI in Windows Vista whenever the 3ds Max application is open.
The 3ds Max rendering test is a bit more CPU-bound than our other two tests, but it gives a slight nod to the ASUS M2NPV-VM motherboard used in the reference system. This may have something to do with the slightly better memory bandwidth of the GeForce 6150-based motherboard (though the same memory modules were used in both machines).
Next, we’ll look at test results for the storage and memory subsystems.