NVIDIA NForce, Soldam's Pandora S, and Us

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Some thoughts on integrated home entertainment systems – Paul Koepke

Author’s Note: Francis recently posted an article much like this one, only dealing with the Via Eden 1400 motherboard. I did not take any ideas from it, but it forced me to complete my article quickly so I would not be accused of plagiarism, and several parts were edited to avoid any suspicion of my lifting ideas, but those are the only effects the earlier article had on mine.

We, my friends, are on the verge of a new age in computing and entertainment. Okay, maybe “A New Age” is an overstatement, but if things go right, we could get some really cool stuff, and that’s all it takes to make up happy, right? At least until there’s some new cool stuff for us to get.

I hope all of you are aware of NVIDIA’s NForce chipset. If not, head over to Hard OCP for good articles and good links related to it. The basics of this new chipset released by the graphics powerhouse are this:

  • It’s supposed to be as good and as stable as chipsets from other, better-known chipset manufacturers;
  • It adds some really promising performance features, like a new memory architecture that *should* give large performance gains using regular DDR RAM;
  • It has an integrated GeForce 2 GPU that uses AGP 6X technology;
  • It has a Dolby Digital 5.1-compatible Audio Processing unit;
  • It integrates all sorts of great stuff right there on the motherboard (for instance, besides Dolby sound and 3d Graphics on-board, it also carries an on-board 10/100 base-T Ethernet connection).

So what does this mean? Why is it so great that I spent nearly 5 exhausting minutes writing this article on this new chipset? Taken alone, all it means is we should be getting some fast, expensive motherboards. However, there is something else I’d like to mention.

Some of you may have heard of Shuttle’s SV24 barebones system or the Soldam Pandora S barebones. Tech-Report has reviews of them. Both of these are tiny cube cases that have FlexATX motherboards stuffed inside them, and both are attractive, functional, and small. They have one PCI slot and room for one hard drive, one or two CD/DVD-ROMs, and one floppy.

Their selling point is their size, and the secret to their size is integrating as many functions (video, sound, Ethernet, USB, Firewire, etc.) into the motherboard as possible. Unfortunately, as on most motherboards with integrated features, these integrated features suck. And neither have enough expandability (like an AGP slot) to become powerful machines. So, they will be relegated to users who want cute cases and don’t know fps from bps from resolution. (Your laugh here)

If you haven’t guessed where I’m going with this, I’ll spell it out right now: A cube box (or an even smaller, flat design), with a FlexATX motherboard that has the NForce chipset crammed onto it, would be the coolest thing to happen to computing since AGP. Powerful graphics, Dolby 5.1 sound, and enough power to sate all but the most rabid users, all in .01 cubic meters (the approximate size of the larger cube case).

I realize that no self-respecting OCer is going to toss out his PIV 2200 @ 4500 (aren’t you guys up to that yet?) for a box that’s “cute.” I certainly wouldn’t.

But this computer has the promise of becoming an all-in-one entertainment center for your household.

Toss out the DVD player: Lose the CD burner, get rid of whatever your speakers were connected to. From this box, you could burn Blink 182 CDs, watch Pearl Harbor, listen to Led Zeppelin, download Reservoir Dogs – legally, of course 🙂 – and then return to your power box for some Quake deathmatch action. Or just deathmatch from this computer, and have the image put up on your 57″ big screen!

Some or most people already have all of these things (DVD, stereo, etc.) and may not feel the need to buy this box that doesn’t really do anything new. But there are some real advantages to this design.

Centralization is the biggie.

If you want to watch movies, play CDs, see MPEGs, and listen to MP3s in the same room and from the same TV and speakers, you must buy all the disparate parts, string the DVD and computer to the stereo and TV, and if the pieces don’t fit or don’t all play nice, you may still end up running from DVD to TV to stereo to computer, burning gigs of MP3s for your CD player, and unplugging and replugging wires (like DVD and vidcard TV-out wires competing for a spot on the TV).

This situation won’t necessarily happen to everyone, but it will happen to some. Would you rather buy several new pieces so they all go together, or purchase a single unit that will do everything easily and quickly while taking up 1/10th of the shelf space? (Shelf space that could be used for more important things, like spare PC parts or Lava Lamps!)

Let’s hope the companies have the same prophetic vision I have and bring this one to market. Sold not as a computer, but as an entire entertainment system with a powerful computer integrated, this system would prove valuable for both power users and Joe Sixpack (assuming he can point and click). Therefore, with good implementation and good marketing, it could be a wildly profitable, wildly popular product.

I know that some people are already doing this, or at least could do it, if you cared enough to try. I’m not saying it would be way too difficult to do with what we have today. What I am saying is the technology has matured, and its time to expand the “PC-as-Home-Entertainment-Center” idea by integrating all the parts, including the Internet. It’s easy to do, centralized, attractive, and a part of every digital household, not just those with people who know how to unlock their Athlon XPs.

*Another Author’s Note: This article and the earlier one on the same topic actually compliment each other quite well. The other article on the same subject proves my point: That this sort of entertainment setup is possible, and we are ready for it.

Francis has described a cost-effective solution, while my system would be good for the aforementioned “power users.” He acknowledged something I failed to – the need for an inexpensive, low-power, low-heat processor, and I saw something he didn’t: That not everyone would be enthralled with a less-powerful computer, as they might want to use it as a regular PC in addition to its role as an entertainment center.

Kudos, Francis. You have shared my “prophetic vision.” How’s it feel to be a prophet?

Paul Koepke

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