ASRock CoreHT-252B HTPC Review

nVidia_Freak - 2011-06-22 16:36:26 in Prebuilts
Category: Prebuilts
Reviewed by: nVidia_Freak   
Reviewed on: July 28, 2011
Price: TBD

Introduction:

Petite and stylish are two things that pre-built system manufacturers are attempting to capture with system builds today. Not only are more people interested in computers every day, but many of the people interested in computers don't need them for gaming and don't need the best performance no matter the cost. It may seem strange to those like us PC enthusiasts that there can be any other way to buy parts or a computer with any other goal in mind beyond the best value for your money and the most performance for that value, but it is true.

Many of us own multiple systems, each being suited to a particular application. I and many others often sport a desktop and netbook/laptop combination so that we remain connected and able to compute no matter where we are. There are also a sizable number of enthusiasts that require a small form factor (SFF) system due to space constraints related to available physical room or because the application does not require a full tower. One such application of these SFF systems, indeed one of the more popular applications, is as a multimedia or home theatre computer (HTPC).

Certainly an HTPC does not need to be top of the line or power hungry to handle the tasks it is suffered to handle, and as such they can be quite small. Most can fit inside a very small box and some aren't so far off from netbook geometry. Benefits of these SFF HTPCs are obvious: small physical footprint, low power usage during all types of use, and low noise output. These characteristics make SFF builds ideal as HTPCs as they can be tucked away nearly anywhere without looking out of place.

Don't let HTPCs' small sizes misguide you, even using the miniITX board format many HTPCs are just as feature packed as an equivalent desktop board and can support current high-end processors. This is ideal for the playback of Blu-ray and other high bit-rate media, but, do not let that dissuade you. Thanks to the use of modern processors and their related technology, HTPCs can in fact even be used as replacements of a desktop altogether. It's quite simply a matter of whether or not what is offered fulfills the required needs. ASRock has recently launched a line of HTPCs called the CoreHT series that utilize Intel's latest Sandy Bridge microprocessor architecture, which should prove this new line of HTPCs to be highly capable. ASRock has submitted the CoreHT-252B, one of the high-end models, to be reviewed, and so I shall. First, however, let's have a little look not only at its aesthetics, but at its innards, too.

 

Closer Look:

The CoreHT comes in a tidy little box about the same size as those that are used for netbooks. ASRock provides a clear and stylish view of the system along with some of its features. Notable features include wireless 802.11n capability and THX certification. Even before opening the box a glimpse is had of what makes this work. The 252B model of the CoreHT line features a second generation Sandy Bridge processor, 4GB of RAM, a 500GB HDD, and a Blu-ray optical drive, all of which together make for an excellent HTPC.

ASRock includes a few things with the CoreHT to make the most of your purchase and the experiences you have with it. A power brick and driver disc are no surprise, but, a few extra goodies are included, too. One remote control with two included batteries for use with HT and MC related applications, an HDMI to DVI adapter, a 1/8" stereo TRS interconnect, a non-slip pad, an installation foldout, and what I found most interesting, a set of bits for the installation of another 2.5" storage drive. A small power cable, data cable, four screws, and four vibration dampeners are included should 500GB not be quite enough. Additionally, the foldout includes instructions not only on how to open the case, but also how to replace and install some of the components. Despite being a pre-built unit, there is, initially at the very least, support for user modification.

The unit itself looks very classy and sports a very high gloss black finish that attracts fingerprints, dirt, oils, and dust. Being an HTPC, though, once it's tucked away in a little corner that ought not to be much of a problem. The 252B model of the CoreHT has multiple things that make it particularly suited to use as an HTPC including a slim-line Blu-ray/DVD+/-RW combo drive and 7.1 surround sound support plus S/PDIF output. Of course, playback from a physical disc isn't the only thing an HTPC should be able to handle, and so there are also four USB 3.0 ports, two both in front and rear, an eSATA port, and wireless 802.11n capability so that no matter whether your movies and shows are on disc, thumb drive, external hard drive, or even streaming from the Internet, ASRock's got you covered.

Closer Look:

Tight fit! Only a little 40mm exhaust fan keeps air moving between the little nooks and crannies that are inside. So what specifically does ASRock put inside the CoreHT-252B? The optical drive is the DS-4E1S from Lite-On and is indeed only a 3x Blu-ray combo drive. The 4GB kit of DDR3-1333 SODIMMs are provided by ASint with a timing of 9-9-9-24. Not blazingly fast, but by no means slow. A 2.5" Western Digital Scorpio Black 500GB HDD has been chosen, and I don't quite care for this. Although using a 7200RPM, 16MB cache HDD does offer more performance over a 5400RPM, 8MB cache HDD such as those from the Scorpio Blue line, it does put out quite a bit more heat. With something so hot inside such a small space with little ventilation, directly above the processor heatsink, it makes high temps the norm, and overheating not an entirely unlikely occurrence. Nonetheless, there is indeed space for an additional 2.5" storage drive underneath the Scorpio Black. Since the Scorpio Black will get hot enough, and its already so close to the processor's heatsink, I wouldn't recommend adding a second drive unless both are solid state drives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Although it's rather crowded inside the CoreHT's case, use of an external power brick rather than an internal power supply not only keeps the size small, but also keeps the heat inside the case as low as possible. Despite using a mobile Sandy Bridge chip, a small, low profile heatsink is used and there isn't a lot of airflow inside, so this is a necessary change. Underneath that small heatsink from Sunon lies the belly of the beast - a dual-core, Core i5 2520m. These second generation, 32nm Sandy Bridge processors are a little cooler than the first generation, and that's certainly a nice touch. The motherboard inside is also from ASRock, and is labeled as the HM65-HT, and the Northbridge underneath that small aluminum heastink is an H65 chipset. As ASRock allows upgrades, however, know that first and second generation mobile Sandy Bridge processors use different sockets (G1 and G2 respectively). Though sockets G1 and G2 are both 988-pin sockets, the layout differs slightly between them, and processors for one will not fit the other. An easy way to tell which you have, is that socket G2 processors will only work with H65 and H/P67 chipsets. And near the front left corner the Aetheros 802.11n mini-PCIe wireless card rests. Theoretically, you ought to be able to remove it and use the slot for anything else you might want, such as a third solid state drive.

Closer Look (BIOS):

The CoreHT series utiliz the UEFI BIOS, which aims to improve upon the standard AMI and Phoenix BIOS interfaces by making the BIOS an interactive GUI, much like that of an operating system or program. Indeed, it's an inviting and easily usable interface, particularly since it allows the use of mice, wired or wireless. Despite its superficially different appearance, its layout is much the same to that of the Phoenix BIOS, and as such, is easy to navigate. If it is to become the next BIOS standard there shouldn't be any issues.

The 'Main' tab shows very basic information concerning the type of installed processor and amount of RAM. In the case of this CoreHT-252B, it correctly reports an i5 2520m with 4GB of RAM. The 'OC Tweaker' tab provides controls over the processor and RAM, much like those that might be found on any high-end desktop motherboard.

With options to change voltages and timings, even enthusiasts that need an HTPC can have a little fun. Of particular interest are the GPU EZ OC and GT Overclock settings, which allow for the speed of the onboard Intel HD Graphics to be selected as either 1.4, 1.5 or 1.6GHz. Selecting a speed via EZ OC will dynamically control the speed of the graphics processor, much like Intel's SpeedStep will dynamically control the CPU speed according to need. Selecting it via GT Overclock will permanently keep the graphics processor at the selected speed. Additionally, manually selecting the speed will also provide an option to manually override the processors voltage control for maximum stability. At the bottom of the 'OC Tweaker' tab are profile save buttons so that up to three different configurations can be easily saved and accessed without needing to manually set them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The 'Advanced' tab contains all the settings for the more advanced hardware features of the CPU and motherboard. Power states, onboard components, power-saving features, they're all available. Of notable mention is the 'On/Off Play' feature of the on-board audio. What this allows one to do is have the CoreHT in a powered off S5 state whilst still being able to use it to play music using the onboard audio jacks as pass-throughs. Though it may seem easier to simply unplug the speakers from the rear of the CoreHT, since a TRS interconnect is included, it is marginally more convenient.

The 'H/W Monitor' tab provides basic temperature monitoring of the processor and internal ambient temperatures, voltage monitoring, as well as control of the fan speeds. The controls for both the exhaust and CPU heatsink can be set to automatic, full, or manually set to attempt to keep the temperatures at a set value. At full blast both fans are rather noisy and the temperature is only lowered marginally. Using the controls in the UEFI BIOS, the best settings in my experiences were the manual temperature settings to keep the CPU at 60°.

The 'Boot' tab is straightforward and looks like any other such menu on other BIOS styles. Full control of drive priority and order are given. Passwords to access the BIOS can be set easily, and should any problems arise, settings may be reset at the click of a button. Although barebones systems aren't the first choice for most enthusiasts, those that will go for the CoreHT line of HTPCs will be pleased with the amount of options and control provided by ASRock to make the user experience as unique as possible.

Specifications:

CPU Intel Core i5 2520m
Socket G2 998B-PGA
Operating System None included - Windows 7/Vista/XP Compliant
Motherboard ASRock HM65-HT
CPU Socket Socket G2 998B-PGA
Support for 32nm Sandy Bridge mobile processors (i3/i5/i7)
Chipset Intel HM65 Express
Memory ASint 8GB (2x 4GB) DDR3-1333
Support for up to 16GB DDR3-1600 in 2x SODIMM slots
Video
Intel HD Graphics 3000
HDD
Western Digital 500GB Scorpio Black (7200RPM SATA 3.0Gbps)
ODD
Lite-ON DS-4E1S Blu-ray (2x)/DVDRW (8x) combo drive (SATA)
Storage Expansion 3x SATA 3.0Gbps (Two in use)
Front I/O
2x USB 3.0
Mic-in
Headphone-out
Rear I/O
HDMI 4.1a
D-SUB (VGA)
2x USB 3.0
4x USB 2.0
eSATA3
S/PDIF
Networking
Realtek 10/100/1000 Ethernet
Atheros AR9287 miniPCIe 802.11a/b/g/n Wireless (2T2R)
Sound
Realtek ALC892 7.1 Channel HD audio with THX TruStudio Pro
Accessories
MCE Remote Control
Power Adapter
95 Watt/19 Volt Power Brick
Dimensions
195mm(W)x70mm(H)x186mm(L)

 

Features:




 

Information courtesy of ASRock available online at http://www.asrock.com/nettop/overview.asp?Model=CoreHT%20Series

Testing:

To rank ASRock's CoreHT HTPC I will run a series of objective tests and benchmarks, some synthetic and others real world, to gauge the overall performance. Finally, a few subjective tests, including gaming and Blu-ray playback, will be used to test the various uses and abilities of ASRock's HTPC.

Testing Setup:

 

Comparison Systems:

Real World Benchmarks:

Synthetic Benchmarks:

Testing:

iTunes:

Using iTunes, a 564MB uncompressed WAV file will be compressed to a 160Kbps MP3. The time it takes for this conversion to complete is recorded in seconds. Lower conversion time is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WinZip:

An 826MB ZIP file is decompressed and the time it takes for the decompression to complete is recorded in seconds. Lower decompression time is better.

Video LAN:

CPU utilisation during 1080p MPEG playback is recorded in %. Lower processor utilisation is better.

Obviously Sandy Bridge blows away any Atom offering, and so I'm not surprised at these results, but, I am surprised at the small space all the gear for ASRock's i5 HTPC fits into. The CoreHT-252B only falls behind the comparison Atom setup during movie playback if it is set to be taken care of by the GPU. Such is an nVidia ION setup, though, it still loses if only the Atom takes care of it. ASRock is off to a great start.

Testing:

Apophysis:

Using Apophysis, a special OCC fractal will be rendered at 2750x2048 with a quality of 500 and RAM usage limited to 512MB. A lower render time is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Geekbench:

Geekbench's 'Benchmark' test suite will be used to obtain an overall system score. A higher score is better.

Bibble 5:

Bibble 5 will be used to convert 100 8.2MP RAW images to JPEG. Total conversion time was recorded in seconds. Lower conversion time is better.

PCMark7:

PCMark7's default suite of system tests will be used to obtain an overall score. A higher score is better.

High scores and low times are abundant with the CoreHT-252B. What these show is that an i5 setup is three to six times as fast as a 'comparative' Atom based setup. Keep in mind that this is all using less than 95 Watts, which is the capacity of the included power brick. Mighty impressive.

Testing:

SiSoft Sandra 2011 SP3:

SiSoft's Sandra 2011 SP3 will be used to run a series of synthetic benchmarks to measure the performance of various system components. The CPU and RAM will have the spotlight with these next benchmarks.

Processor Arithmetic:

The 'Processor Arithmetic' benchmark is up first. This measures the CPU's performance in terms of GIPS and GFLOPS. A higher score is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Multi-Core Efficiency:

The 'Multi-Core Efficiency' benchmark measures the available bandwidth between the total amount of cores. This is what allows the cores to communicate and spread workload. More bandwidth and lower latency are better.

Memory Bandwidth:

The 'Memory Bandwidth' benchmark measures the available bandwidth of the installed RAM. Higher bandwidth is better.

Cache and Memory:

'Cache and Memory' measures the bandwidth between the processor's cache and the RAM. Higher bandwidth is better.

Power Management Efficiency:

PME measures the processor's performance in its low-power state to measure how well the processor's low-power functions work when the demand isn't there. A higher score is better and shows how many more times the processor is efficient than at its maximum speed.

Three to six times faster than Intel's Atom still holds. ASRock rounded together some excellent components for their latest HTPC. Of interest is the result of Sandra's 'Power Efficiency' test. As is seen, the Intel Atom is a low power chip to begin with, and so it doesn't gain much from its low power state. This mobile Sandy Bridge chip, however, is 4.4x more efficient when its low power functions are taken advantage of than at full speed. The i5 2520m is a 35 Watt chip, so this should mean that under idle and less demanding settings, the processor will consume down to 7.96 Watts.

Testing:

ScienceMark:

ScienceMark measures system performance with benchmarks that are designed not to cater to any one particular CPU architecture, and thus more accurately convey real world performance. A higher score is better.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cinebench:

Cinebench measures processor performance by rendering a high quality 3D scene with all available threads. A higher score is better.

HD Tune:

HD Tune measures the HDDs performance in MB/s. Higher read speed, lower access time, and lower CPU utilisation are better.

Top performance again. Unfortunately, however, Western Digital's Scorpio Black HDD didn't perform so much better than the 5400RPM drive used in the Sapphire Edge. The only real advantage it offers over it is an approximate fourteen megabyte higher average read speed, which still doesn't take performance into the 'Blazing!' category. It gets hot enough with an i5 inside the little case, and the 7200RPM HDD only adds an unnecessary amount more of it. A 5400RPM HDD or even an SSD would be a better choice.

General Usage, Blu-ray Playback, & Gaming:

It may come as no surprise that ASRock's CoreHT-252B sails through everything thrown at it. Internet, Java, Flash, word processing, number crunching, the 252B eats it up and asks for more. Thanks in large part to its second generation Sandy Bridge processor, the CoreHT-252B is much more than an HTPC. Rendering and crunching are also well within this rig's realm.

Blu-ray playback is smooth and lovely, and the only downside is that PowerDVD seems still to be the only software that can playback Blu-ray movies in Windows. Of all the things the CoreHT-252B can do, the one thing it can't do particularly well is game. This ought not to come as a surprise since the graphics chip this second generation Sandy Bridge processor has is Intel's HD Graphics 3000. This is, of course, a decent performer considering how far Intel's integrated graphics have come, but it still lacks some features of outboard cards and its performance is still comparatively lacking.

That said, if one is thinking of playing Crysis 2, one should look elsewhere. However, this little machine is capable of running Minecraft reasonably well, with some stuttering whilst chunks are loaded. Admittedly, this is most of the time in Minecraft, but, once the chunks are loaded, Intel's graphics solution has no issue handling what's on screen. Anything similar or lower in quality than Minecraft (think: old games), will play just fine. The CoreHT-252B truly is a multi-use mini PC and not simply an HTPC to be tucked into a corner.

Temperatures:

Temperatures were measured while idling at the desktop and while running the Prime95 FPU stress test on all four threads to get an idea of what temperature range the processor will perform in. All temperatures were recorded in an environment with an ambient of approximately 25.5° centigrade.

Hot! Hot! Unfortunately, the i5 2520m gives off quite a bit of heat. Part of this is due to the fact the ambient temperature is much higher in my household, however, the i5 will still idle and load a little higher than an Atom will. This is no shock since the Atom is not geared toward spectacular performance and is geared toward minimum power consumption.

Fortunately, however hot the i5 2520m was during testing, a 20° centigrade buffer is still left over. When the processor gets this hot, however, both the CPU and exhaust fan ramp up to full speed and are actually rather loud. They are small, 40mm fans, and I am pleased that they aren't louder than they are. What does all this mean? It means one just might be able to bring this with to Hell should one find one's self in such a plight.

Conclusion:

Should you buy it? The answer depends on what your needs are. If you need something to act simply as a playback station, I might suggest looking elsewhere. An Atom or even a lower-end Intel Core series HTPC, of which ASRock offers several, would suit those requirement much better.

If, on the other hand, you want an HTPC that can also act as a desktop replacement, look no further. There's adequate power for rendering of all sorts and the included RAM ought to cover most non-professional needs, but, if more is required, the board does support 8GB. Storage can be upgraded to include another 2.5" storage drive, and the included WD Scorpio Black could easily be replaced with an SSD. If more power is needed, the board will support the Core i7 2720m for more processing power (two more cores and threads!). A Blu-ray drive and wireless 802.11n wireless are included as standard. The CoreHT-252B could very well be the best potential desktop replacement capable of all sorts of media playback and streaming no matter where you are.

Unfortunately, all the performance geared equipment inside does make for a rather toasty rig. Only one 40mm fan takes care of airflow and for the most part it does the job well enough and does it quietly. Ramp the activity up, however, and things start to get a little bit loud and quite a bit hotter. Certainly the temperatures remain in spec - just remember not to shove it into a poorly ventilated area.

Finally, price and availability may be of a concern. At this moment only a few shops in the UK and Europe stock the CoreHT-252B with an average price of £570. Using a direct conversion this works out to $918 USD, but, prices between the USA and the rest of the world rarely match currency for currency. Once this does start to be sold here I imagine that it would sell for around $750-800 USD. It's a little pricey, particularly considering no operating system is included in that price, but, it does put it in line with the rest of ASRock's HTPC offerings.

Recommended? It depends on where you are. For those that are in Europe or the UK, I might suggest waiting for the price to go down a bit or looking for any open-box sales. For those of you in North America, all I can say is wait and see. On performance, features, and overall coolness, it's a great little thing and I would recommend it on that alone. Unfortunately, no matter what price the CoreHT-252B ends up selling for here or anywhere, more will have to be put into it for an OS. Recommended? Maybe.

 

Pros:

 

Cons: