For all those people who have been disappointed by the Intel Atom platform’s lack of reliable support for high definition video content, the perfect solution has arrived—and it’s not the NVIDIA ION (although it certainly could be; however, for the sake of this article, the NVIDIA ION will not hold the spotlight this time). The Broadcom Hardware Decoder BCM970012 is a PCI Express Mini Card that enables support for H.264 video compression and for playback of 1080p high definition multimedia content. This means that Mini-ITX motherboards like the Intel D945GSEJT “Johnstown,” which uses the 1.6 GHz Intel Atom (single core) N270 CPU and embedded 945GSE chipset, can actually drive HD multimedia content while still drawing minimal power. [The TDP of the N270 and 945GSE chipset combination is 11.8 watts and the Broadcom Hardware Decoder has a TDP of ~2 watts. The Intel Atom 330 and NVIDIA ION have a combined TDP of 20 watts.]
What’s really exciting about the Broadcom BCM970012 is that you have a little bit more versatility in the kind of motherboard/enclosure you want to use for the foundation of a digital media player. If the mainboard or system has a PCIe Mini Card slot, all it takes is less than $70 $50 to add in support for HD content. And, you don’t need a tall enclosure to accommodate a humongous CPU cooler, either. If you opt for the Intel Johnstown Mini-ITX motherboard, then you can go with an enclosure like the Morex T-1610 (which is less than 2 inches thick) and mount the entire system to the back of an LCD display or even discreetly tuck it vertically into a corner. And, did I mention the resulting system would be fanless?
Now, the Broadcom BCM970012 is not a GPU, so it’s not meant for 3D rendering. That means gamers are out of luck. But, the hardware decoder does significantly cut CPU load, which helps the overall performance of the system.
It also requires software that is able to utilize DirectShow Filters. Currently, Cyberlink PowerDVD and Arcsoft Total Media Theater allow Blu-ray playback; Media Player Classic is a free player that is compatible with most other formats. And, one other drawback is the device currently cannot support Linux operating systems (drivers are in alpha testing status). However, despite some minor kinks, the Broadcom BCM970012 is a lower power, more flexible alternative to the NVIDIA ION platform.
Update: Thanks to Scott Davilla and the crew over at XBMC, Linux support is well on its way. Broadcom have now released the Linux driver source code, and XBMC is hard at work implementing it in the next release. More information is available at XBMC.org and Anandtech.com.
Jarod Wilson has added some good context and information on developments for other Linux distros on his blog.