The Little PCIe Card that Could

Broadcom BCM970012 Hardware Decoder

Broadcom BCM970012 Hardware Decoder

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.

About Kristina Bond
Kristina Bond was the Marketing Director for Logic Supply from 2007 to 2012. She graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia with an M.F.A. in photography and a B.F.A in photography and communication from Shepherd University in Shepherdstown, WV. While technology and Logic Supply remain close to her heart, she moved on from the company in June 2012 to do marketing for the restaurant industry. To get in touch with Kristina, please contact kristina@kristinadrobny.com.
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31 Responses to The Little PCIe Card that Could

  1. Qhartman says:

    If it accelerates flash video, I’d be interested… Virtually all of the video I view on my HTPC anymore is delivered via flash. Everything else is handled by the PS3.

  2. Edward says:

    I’ve been thinking about a low power video-playing box, so this is interesting. However I’ve only seen boards with a single mini-pcie slot, and I was already debating whether I would want to use it for a wifi adapter or a SSD, so this makes for another tradeoff.

  3. Kristina Bond Kristina says:

    Hi Edward,
    Yeah, unfortunately, if the board only has one PCIe slot, then you’ll definitely have to make a trade-off. The MSI MS-9A25 WindBOXII barebone has two PCIe slots, one for wireless or an SSD and the other for a hardware decoder. This is certainly advantageous, but limiting in platform flexibility because you’re locked into the design and feature set of MSI’s full barebone system. The Intel Johnstown board has a connector for a USB SSD that mounts horizontally, so that is certainly an option there. We’ll be offering USB SSDs from ATP very shortly to pair with this board.

  4. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Qhartman: You’re in luck – Adobe just released Flash 10.1 with support for hardware acceleration, and the BCM70012 is specifically targeted. We haven’t had time to test in-house yet, but the release notes look promising. For more info, please see Adobe’s website.

    As we have time to test this, we will be incorporating the decoder card into several systems; we have started with the T1610/Johnstown combination already

  5. Scott Davilla says:

    Hi, I send an email to info@logicsupply.com, must have got lost.

    We are working with Broadcom to open source the driver/libs for Linux and OSX usage. Thing are moving along nicely. Support for the Crystal HD hardware as already been added to XBMC (a media center app) in the crystalhd branch and will be merged to svn trunk in a few weeks. All three platfroms, OSX, linux and Windows are targeted.

  6. Matthijs says:

    Does anyone know if this mini PCIe card can be build into the new Dell Zino HD. This would make a great combination to run XBMC on!

  7. baba says:

    Do you know if there an mini PCIE to PCIE adaptor for this card ?

    Cheers

  8. Tony says:

    Scott: Fantastic work on the XBMC integration! As you know, we’re testing this internally right now with hopes of offering a turnkey fanless system very soon. In the meantime, we hope to have an updated blog post with step-by-step directions for DIY folks.

    Matthijs: Sorry, I can’t help you there. We do have some fairly similar systems that could be build for a comparable cost. If you see something you like on our site and the Broadcom is not offered as a standard option, please call our Sales department for a custom configuration.

    Baba: I think this is what you’re looking for: http://www.adexelec.com/pciexp.htm#PEX1IX-MINI

  9. abigail says:

    No luck on the Dell Zino with the BCM970012. While the Zino does have a minipcie slot open, it will only take half length cards. The BCM970012 is around 1″ to long and will hit usb and network ports. Would work if you wanted to use the zino mb outside of its case. Found this out the hard way after ordering a BCM970012.

  10. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Thanks for the update, Abigail; sorry it didn’t work out. I’ve heard rumors of a possible half-height version later this year, but nothing concrete.

  11. HongKilong says:

    It’s really a cool~

  12. Zack says:

    Is there any chance that you will be carrying the ExpressCard® 34 version of this card?

    I have seen it on all the press releases, but have not been able to find a single supplyer who carries it, let alone has it in stock.

    Pretty annoying since a press release dated several months ago calls it out and says “all versions are currently in production…”
    Thanks!

  13. Kevin says:

    What about the “soon to be released” update to the BCM970012… the new and “improved” BCM970015? It is difficult to find what is different. What is the timeframe for release? I *am* going to get one, but I just need to know if I should wait for the BCM970015.

  14. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Zack – We won’t be carrying the ExpressCard version for two reasons:
    1. We can’t find anyone making the full card either – I’ve looked. I can only assume Broadcom’s press release is implying that the chip is in production and that an ExpressCard version could be produced at this time.
    2. Unfortunately, it really doesn’t support our core markets and customers – we don’t sell anything that it could be used in, so we would leave it to a laptop retailer to carry.

    Kevin – The next-gen will be compatible with a broader range of file formats and use <1W; cost will be comparable. The chip is in production and cards are in prototyping phase right now. We won’t see production units until mid-April at the absolute earliest. If the current version supports all of the media formats you tend to use, there probably isn’t much benefit in waiting for the 15, especially if you’re looking to use it with a Linux distro.

  15. M. Keesmaat says:

    @tony .f

    Is there more news on the arrival of the 15?
    Please email on what the price will be with bulk orders (100+)

  16. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    @M Keesmaat: We’re expecting an engineering sample of the 15 to be shipped to us from Taiwan on the 13th. Once validated in our testing, it will probably be 4-6 weeks before we receive mass production volume. Unfortunately, we’re competing with major OEM’s (Dell, HP, etc.) for production, so we can’t just get them delivered as soon as we want them.

    For pricing, please contact our Technical Sales Team at sales@logicsupply.com.

  17. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Update on availability: Due to circumstances beyond our control (component and labor shortages in Asia), the BCM970015 release has been delayed significantly. We are now hoping to see them sometime in late August. Retail pricing is still to be determined, but it should not be more than the current BCM970012.

  18. Paul Macklin says:

    Tony, I just noticed that logicsupply started listing the new card (searched BCM970015 site:logicsupply.com):

    http://www.logicsupply.com/products/bcm970015

    Should we be getting hopeful? :-)

  19. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    You’re right on top of this, Paul!

    That page is currently under development, with most of the specs copied from the BCM970012 page, so please don’t take anything there at face value at this time.

    We are on track to meet or beat the last estimate of late August. We may have a very limited supply as early as late next week, with a larger shipment to follow.

    Last time I checked, the Linux drivers for the BCM970015 were still under development, so it might be a while before XBMC users can benefit from the new chip. You’ll want to look for posts by davilla in the XBMC forums for the latest info.

  20. Paul Macklin says:

    Thanks for the ueberfast response, Tony.

    Well, I’m not doing anything quite as hardcore as XBMC. My primary interest is to accelerate xvid (and BBC iPlayer) on my HP Mini 210, as HP doesn’t ship the HD version in the UK.

    I use my Mini in academia for collaborative meetings with biologists and oncologists, mostly for sharing xvid-encoded movies of tumour simulations, powerpoint, and the like. So, the BCM970015 and its improvements could be very good for me, especially if I can get PowerPoint to use DirectShow and the card for embedded xvid movies.

    Once I get a card in hand, I plan to write a short tutorial/review on how to install and configure the card in the netbook, how well it improves performance and power consumption, and its suitability for academics and other people on the go. I’ll most likely submit to overclockers.com, as there’s growing interest in ATOM platforms over there.

    I’ll look forward to when I can get my hands on a card. :-)

    All the best, and thanks for the response. — Paul

  21. Ulf Axelsson says:

    It looks like Logic Supply does not ship to Sweden (It says so on (google) checkout) so is there any good alternatives out there?

    (I also want to put a BCM970015 in my HP Mini 210 :-)

    /Ulf

  22. Paul Macklin says:

    Ulf, I can’t help you on the Sweden shipping aspect, but I can let you know how installation goes on my 210. I plan to write something up on overclockers.com when finished. I’ll post a link up here when finished. (Still waiting for the card in the meantime.)

  23. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Hi Ulf,

    We can certainly ship to Sweden, the problem lies with the Google/DHL interface. If Google doesn’t receive a response from the DHL server fast enough, it times out and doesn’t give you complete options. The problem is not exclusive to Sweden; unfortunately, there isn’t anything we can do to remedy it with our current system.

    You can either try to resubmit the order a couple of times, or contact our sales team and they can do a manual Google transaction for you.

  24. Ulf Axelsson says:

    Ok, thanks. I tried different browsers and everything, I guess I should have been even more persistent :-)

    /Ulf

  25. Paul Macklin says:

    This might be a good case for skype, Ulf. I called my order in using skype credits, and it worked very well. — Paul

  26. Ulf Axelsson says:

    Actually the problem was having > 7-bit characters in city _and_ street name. Not quite a 21st century implementation there… But DHL is delivering tomorrow.

    /Ulf

  27. Ulf Axelsson says:

    After installing (rather easy since I already knew how to crack the shell on the 210) video performance is up.

    For a prescaled (to 1024×600) H.264 movie (SG-1 S1 Ep1-3) I now have slightly less than 20% cpu used in ArcTMT, more or less 20% in WMP, sort of 30% in VLC and around 40% in MPCHC. As far as I can remember none were below 60% before with MPCHC stuttering somewhat.

    Before Flash 360p (Google IO 2010) were watchable unscaled, now up to and including 720p works in an unscaled youtube window and up to 480p scaled to full screen. That flash control seems to be not so good at scaling.

    All things considered, a big improvement.

    /Ulf

  28. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    Thanks for the update, Ulf! Glad you’re happy with it.

    I’ll pass the shipping info on to our software engineers.

  29. Ulf Axelsson says:

    Oh, the shipping problem is on Google:s side as far as I can tell.

    /Ulf

  30. Tony Fiset tony f. says:
    Logic Supply

    There are a number of known issues with shipping when using Google Checkout, so I thought the additional details you provided might be useful to them. As you suggested, it is on Google’s end and there’s nothing we can do about it.

  31. Paul Macklin says:

    Working okayish in my HP Mini 2010. Youtube accelerates pretty well at 480p and okay at 720p embedded and fullscreen.

    Streaming BBC iplayer works very well, both windowed and fullscreen. However, the BBC desktop player, which downloads the entire episode and plays it locally with some DRM, is a slideshow. From what I’ve seen, it’s very sensitive to what version of flash. As I understand it, newer versions of flash disable hardware acceleration if they detect interleaving (or some sort of related flag that indicates the mere potential for mixed progressive/interleaving), and evidently it’s clashing with the way most of these BBC episodes are encoded. From what I can tell, the BBC iPlayer desktop program isn’t using the hardware whatsoever, except for the initial “logo” screens.

    I haven’t had a chance to try a hacked version of Flash to ignore the flag check.

    Acceleration of xvid seems to work pretty well. Alas, I haven’t had a chance to benchmark with and without the card, but CPU use seems pretty minimal, including during PPT with embedded xvid. But I’d have to check it more carefully to be certain that it’s being hardware encoded.

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