For home theater enthusiast leaning towards the DIY path, assembling a home theater PC (HTPC) to act as the media hub or player for their movies, music and TV programs certainly ranks highly among their to-do lists. Despite the proliferation of third party media centers, with even hard drive manufacturers like Western Digital getting into the act, the lack of customization and the reliance on these vendors for support and updates may not be the best solution.
After all, media formats come and go, which means that nothing quite beats a custom PC for its versatility, though more work is required to maintain the system. And of course, the task of building this HTPC in the first place. Hardware manufacturers too are aware of this market, albeit relatively niche and have designed chipsets and motherboards for this purpose.
One such motherboard designed for HTPCs arrived in our lab recently, the MSI G41TM-E43. This microATX board even touts itself as being HTPC ready on its packaging. At its heart, it uses Intel's G41 Express chipset, which is a step down from the G45 Express chipset that we had seen during our Intel integrated graphics chipset showdown. Below is the chipset block diagram for the G41 chipset, which is usually paired with the older low cost ICH7 Southbridge (or ICH7R).
The Intel G41 Express chipset uses the company's X4500 Graphics Media Acceleration (GMA). This differs from the X4500HD that's found in the G45. What's the difference? Well, while the X4500 provide hardware video decode acceleration, it lacks H.264 and VC1 variable length decode acceleration. There's only full decode acceleration for MPEG2. The table below from Intel's documentation provides a clear picture of what's missing in the G41.
What this means for those intending to use a G41 chipset to power their HTPC systems, is that you're likely to get higher CPU utilization than with the G45. Since it's only partially hardware accelerated by the graphics chipset, the remaining workload has to be shouldered by the CPU. Hence, it will not alleviate the need for a decent processor and we highly recommend a dual-core at least.
As for the general graphics capability, the X4500 appears to be similar to the X4500HD, with support for DirectX 10, Shader Model 4 and OpenGL 2.0 and unified shader architecture with 10 shader processors. Total memory allocated can be assigned up to a maximum of 512MB. Unlike the G45 however, the PCIe x16 slot for a separate discrete graphics card option is only the first generation PCIe standard, and not the common PCIe 2.0 in more performance oriented systems. Thankfully, the first generation PCIe standard is still plenty fast for most add-in graphics card needs.
Another interesting nugget here is that HDMI support is not included in the G41 Express chipset, though of course, MSI has implemented that in the G41TM-E43 via the spare SDVO interface from the integrated graphics. Using a Pericom PI3HDMI415ZDE HDMI transmitter IC, it combines the uncompressed and copy-protected video and audio data from the onboard graphics and the Realtek ALC889 HD CODEC respectively to output a single HDMI compliant signal. Without this implementation, one would be hard pressed to claim the motherboard as HTPC ready, but MSI has made the best out of this economical board. Finally, the original G41 Express chipset was certified Windows Vista Premium Ready and MSI was quick to assure us that the G41TM-E43 is similarly certified for Windows 7.
MSI included the following accessories in the packaging: