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Echo 1 PC: Finally, perfect playback for home theater

Having a PC in your home theater gives you terrific advantages, particularly when there’s a Blu-ray player inside. The Puget Systems Echo 1 shows that a fast PC in your home theater doesn’t have to be noisy, bulky or expensive. Running an Intel Atom N330 processor featuring the video-friendly Ion platform, would this small package be a worthy addition to our home theater? We’ve been testing it for a month, playing discs and downloaded movies, and watching Flash videos from the Web. The results were astonishing.

Unlike many of the overpriced home theater PCs (HTPC) of the past, the Echo 1 is relatively cheap. Configured with a dual-core 1.6GHz Intel Atom N330 processor running on a Zotac IONITX-A-U Mini ITX motherboard, our Windows 7-running test machine was a bargain at $827. That processor is paired with NVIDIA GeForce 9400M graphics (the Atom processor and these NVIDIA graphics together are called the “Ion platform”), and complemented by a Silverstone Slim Blu-ray drive, a tiny 320GB 7200RPM notebook hard drive, and 2GB of RAM.

After connecting our wireless RF Logitech MX Air mouse and Logitech de Novo Edge keyboard (both excellent for home theater) to the Echo 1, we connected its HDMI port to our AV receiver. The Blu-ray player loaded up discs quickly, and played them back flawlessly in full Dolby 7.1 sound. Yes, that Ion platform is fully capable of blasting out crispy 1080p video without even breathing hard.

Next, we loaded up our trusty K-Lite Codec Pack, which contains Media Player Classic (MPC), a sophisticated tool that takes great advantage of the Ion platform’s muscular video acceleration. We’ve been playing pirate-favorite Matroska video files in 1080p for over a month now with this system, and every one of them plays back perfectly on this graphics powerhouse. Then, after we’ve enjoyed a movie, we can jump right onto the Web and read about the movie we just watched, or register our ratings at Netflix. What a great thing it is to have a PC in the home theater!

Concerned about complaints of Intel’s Atom processors and their dog-slow speed, we tested this 1.6GHz Atom 330 running one of the most common processor-intensive operations you might want to perform in a home theater: decompressing RAR files, the archive format in which many Internet-acquired videos arrive. How fast was this mini PC’s Atom processor? Compared with our reference HP Z800 8-core workstation (one of the fastest PCs in the world), the Echo 1 took 4:27 (4 minutes, 27 seconds) to decompress a 8GB 1080p movie, compared to the 8-core monster workstation’s 2:35. Not too shabby.

It also proved itself to be a remarkable network player. even though it has a 320 GB hard drive on board, we found its gigabit Ethernet connection was able to play back 1080p video files over the network from our HP MediaSmart Server without dropping a frame. It also functioned beautifully as a BitTorrent server, accessed remotely from any of the other PCs on the network. For home theater media playback, this is the way of the future.

The Echo 1’s form factor is rather plain, a rectangular black box sitting on our shelf that’s so nondescript, we hardly knew it was there except for its blue LED flickering from time to time. But its small size worked out beautifully in our home theater. Another great plus is the lack of noisy fans inside, making this PC absolutely silent.

This little PC showed us what’s possible with Atom processors and Ion graphics. It’s not going to be used by 3D animators or oil and gas explorers, but to play back movies and Blu-ray discs in the home theater, letting you check your e-mail and look up things on the Web, as well as play back Flash videos with ease, makes it a worthy addition to any home theater. And, its $827 price can’t be beat. Highly recommended.

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