In my seemingly never ending quest for the perfect home media centre PC, I’ve come across quite a few small form factor PC’s in the past, built a few of my own and looked at dedicated set top boxes like the Boxee Box. They all had one fundamental problem, however: they were either too large or used underpowered notebook parts.
When I came across the ASRock ION 330-BD Home Theatre PC (HTPC), I was dubious as to whether it would be able to handle all of the 1080p content on my hard drive, although including a Blu-ray player with the machine seemed to suggest otherwise.
The ION 330-BD is a compact media centre machine, with the glossy black case measuring 195 x 70 x 186 mm. There’s not much to see on the front of the machine, just the power button and Blu-Ray drive. I would have liked to see some USB ports on the front of the case like the LaCie LaCinema Mini HD has, allowing easy access for peripherals such as flash drives. Plugging these in at the back of the case can sometimes be a struggle, especially in a home theatre environment.
The lack of ports at the front, however, is made up with the abundance of options at the back of the case. You have your pick of 6 USB 2.0 ports for various peripherals and an ethernet port for internet access (you don’t really want to stream your content over wi-fi do you?). You can choose to connect the ION 330-BD to your monitor or HDTV with either VGA or HDMI. There’s also a HDMI-DVI adapter included.
For audio output, you have an S/PDIF optical audio output (this was one of the main reasons I went with the 330-BD) and three other audio connectors for 5.1 surround sound. There’s nothing too fancy about the case, although it’s very functional and offers lots of ports.
Just because the ION 330-BD media centre PC is small on the outside doesn’t mean that it’s underpowered inside. Fortunately, ASRock chose to use Intel’s Dual-Core Atom 330 processor which is clocked at 1.6GHz, as opposed to the single core (230) option. I was concerned that the Atom processor wouldn’t be able to handle full HD content, but ASRock make it incredibly easy to overclock, either in the BIOS or using their utility for Windows. I chose to overclock it to 2.0GHz in the BIOS, and it’s perfectly stable with little fan noise.
Of course there’s no use having a dual core CPU in the machine and then failing to deliver on graphics. The ION 330-BD, as you may have guessed from the name, utilises NVIDIA’s Ion graphics chip. The GPU used is the 9400M chip found in Apple’s Macbook Pro range (October 2008 model), so it certainly doesn’t disappoint.
You’ll also find 2GB DDR2 RAM in the 330-BD, which can be upgraded to 4GB in the future, and a 320GB 2.5” 5400RPM hard drive.
Software and Performance
The ION 330-BD ships without an OS pre-installed, which ensures that costs are kept as low as possible, and the user can choose what OS they wish to install. I settled on Windows 7 Home Premium, which took under 30 minutes to install.
ASRock ship a driver DVD with the machine which allows you to install all necessary drivers at once. I’d recommend this, as the infrared receiver wasn’t originally recognised by Windows 7 and graphics performance saw an increase with the proper NVIDIA drivers installed.
Naturally, the first test I ran, with the 330-BD being my HTPC, was to playback both a Blu-Ray disc and 1080p video file from my hard drive. The Blu-Ray disc played flawlessly, with no noticeable frame drops or A/V sync issues, so that saves the need to get a separate Blu-Ray player. When I played one of my larger, ripped movies, I was pleasantly surprised to see that playback was just as smooth, again with no dropped frames.
The ASRock ION 330-BD HTPC certainly lives up to the promise of being an ideal media centre, probably better than the likes of the Dell Inspiron Zino HD. It can handle full 1080p HD content without any issue and has a wide range of ports for various peripherals. I picked mine up for £367.94 including VAT, which was well worth the money considering the Blu-Ray drive was included too. If you want a cheaper model, you can get the ION 330 with just a standard DVD drive, which lowers the price another £60-70, either way it’s a great option for a home media centre PC.