Sunday, January 2, 2011

For Linux XBMC machines, there is no ATI... only NVIDIA

< View Part I

When selecting a video card for a Linux machine, there is no ATI... only NVIDIA. NVIDIA is actively writing Linux drivers for their awesome PureVideo and other high end video cards while ATI (to my knowledge) is writing zero Linux drivers.

So the video card choice was pretty simple. Pick the best NVIDIA card with PureVideo (more about this in a few minutes) for the best price. Now I say the choice was pretty simple, however there were actually several factors beyond just the price that needed to be considered. Since we're using the very compact Dell GX620 SFF...

1. Must be PCIe x16
2. Must be low profile
3. Must have no less than 256MB RAM
4. Heat sink/fan must be very thin
5. Must be low power consumption

And the winner for just a little over $30 is...

The Zotac NVIDIA 8400GS with PureVideo is exactly the card we needed for this machine and it's only $31.99 at Amazon!

We spoke about NVIDIA PureVideo above and I mentioned getting back to that so lets do this now. PureVideo was an absolute, unwavering, can't-live-without requirement for this video card. PureVideo is NVIDIAs high definition video processing hardware and software technology. PureVideo technology is what will allow us to play 720p and 1080p high def movies beautifully smooth on the relatively weak single core P4 2.8GHz machine. You can read more about NVIDIA PureVideo here. The Zotac NVIDIA 8400GS will handle nearly 90% of the video rendering heavy lifting. This will leave the low horsepower PC processor gently idling during movie playback.

If the Dell GX620 SFF case were larger (but then we wouldn't have chosen it for this XMBC HTPC machine right?) you could chose from a few different NVIDIA PureVideo cards. One of the biggest factors in choosing the Zotac NVIDIA 8400GS over some of the other NVIDIA PureVideo cards is it's wonderful thinness. Because of the rather cramped quarters inside the Dell GX620 SFF case, there is a very small amount of space between the PCIe slot and the side of the hard drive cage. About 3/4" of space is available for the heat sink and/or fan. The Zotack NVIDIA 8400GS fits very nicely within this space.

Even if we had extra space for a larger heat sink and fan, the power consumption requirements would start to become an issue. The Dell GX620 SFF comes with a non-standard shape 275 watt PSU. Because of it's shape, it will be very difficult to impossible to upgrade. A lot of high end video cards come with fairly large PSU requirements. The Zotac NVIDIA 8400GS does not.

Click the Zotac NVIDIA 8400GS pic or link above to buy one from Amazon. Heck, buy 2 or 3 for the additional XMBC HTPCs you know you're going to build ;-)

Coming up in the next post... Bump up the RAM

Thursday, December 23, 2010

There are many small PCs, but the Dell GX620 SFF wins

The first big challenge in building a small HTPC is finding the right size box and at the right price. Sure you can go out and buy an Acer Revo or one of the Zotac micro boxes, and you would do very well with any of these I'm sure. Call me cheap, but they're still at least twice the price I want to spend. My goal was to stay as close to $100 as possible. In the end, I exceeded $100, but not by much!

Dell makes a few really small PCs. They're all called SFF cases. (S)mall (F)orm (F)actor. The three I investigated are the Dell GX620 SFF, the GX270 and the GX280. Both the GX270 and GX280 come in one really small case design. Both are smaller than the GX620 SFF. The GX270 and GX280 are really neat little PCs, but they do not have the power nor the available expansion slots I need for the NVidia HD graphics card. So they were immediately eliminated. The Dell GX620 comes in three different sizes. There is a Tower, Desktop and a SFF case. Obviously you want the SFF case. This case is quite small and fits very nicely in your media cabinet. It's only 12" wide by 13.5" deep by 3.5 high. This is the SFF...

The Desktop and the SFF look nearly identical in pics on eBay so be very careful about which one you're actually bidding on. You can recognize the SFF by the slim CD/DVD drive that extends above the two USB ports. The Desktop case is significantly bigger in reality but it looks nearly identical to the SFF in the tiny pics on eBay. The Desktop case has a full size CD/DVD drive that does not extend over the USB ports. Hopefully the seller will label the machine correctly but just in case, it helps to know how to visually tell the difference.

I bought three GX620 SFFs, 2.8 Ghz single cores, 512MB RAM with 40GB hard drives for $210 with $30 shipping. Yeah that's cheap! That's only $80 per machine! Quite a nice savings when compared to a bare bones Zotac for $300!

I ended up pulling the two 256MB RAM sticks from one machine and replaced them with two 1GB (I'll discuss this later). That was another $30. There is a faster dual core version of this machine which I would certainly recommend if you don't mind spending a bit more. I have one of these too and it does run very fast. I actually use it as a server. However, the single core GX620s with HT (Hyper Threading) have more than enough power since we off-load over 90% of the HD video processing to the NVidia HD graphics card. We'll be talking about that later too.

Coming up in the next post... Which video card?