IntroductionMy recent review of Tranquil PC's T2.e/MCE2005 media center PC highlighted some of the key points to be considered when considering buying, or indeed building, a Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 PC. It's clear that the hardware and software configuration needs to be up to the job, to let you avoid issues that the basic MCE2005 software just exacerbates.
The basic hardware configuration of Tranquil's MCE2005 unit afforded them just the right amount of performance, traded off against form factor and cooling considerations, to get the majority of the formula correct. It was clear hower that more basic power would possibly be required to edge closer to the mark. Choosing VIA's EPIA MII platform as a basis gives you no scope for a processor upgrade, fixed as that component is, and the CLE266 bridge is a little anaemic in terms of memory bandwidth both to the 1.2GHz C3 Nehemiah-core processor and to the MPEG2 decoding engine built in. So dropping in anything more than DDR333 memory buys you nothing and you yearn for a bit more general oomph from the platform.
To continue to use Mini-ITX, the form factor that the T2 chassis is built around, but gain some more general power, Tranquil have to manoeuvre sideways in VIA's EPIA product range to find another more powerful base EPIA. If you'd have asked me yesterday if that was possible, I'd have had to officially say no. However, with a VIA product announcement today, Tranquil get the basic power boost that will go a long way to smoothing over the MII-based T2.e's bumps and foibles.
VIA's EPIA-SPLaunched in March last year, VIA's CN400 C-series embedded core logic has been around for a while. Other companies producing Mini-ITX hardware have made use of the bridge, and VIA themselves have used it on the EPIA-N Nano-ITX product, but they've left it off of Mini-ITX EPIAs until today.
Compared to the CLE266 bridge usually found in Mini-ITX EPIAs, CN400 gives you more memory bandwidth (it's got one of VIA's FastStream64 memory controllers and DDR400 is supported, up from DDR333) and the integrated graphics core gets a bunch more features and some extra speed. The UniChrome IGP core can do MPEG4 hardware assist (along with MPEG2), offloading some processing from the CPU, along with hardware deblocking of video (albeit with a single filter kernel at the time of writing), and it's got more general purpose 3D muscle to help the rendering of MCE2005's flashy interface.
In terms of processor support, VIA will supply the EPIA-SP, duly equipped with CN400, with a 800MHz Eden or more interestly a 1.33GHz 'Nehemiah' C3, giving you 133MHz more CPU frequency than a 1.2GHz EPIA MII.
Finally, an EPIA is paired with VIA's VT8237 southbridge ASIC for the first time. Soon to be supplanted by the VT8251 as the flagship I/O processor in VIA's line-up, the VT8237 nevertheless occupies a rarified position of greatness in VIA's complete core logic range at the time of writing. As far as consumer level discrete I/O processing goes, it's hard to beat. So it showing up on an EPIA is a big deal, since it brings native 2-port SerialATA support with RAID, support for six-channel audio CODECs and a 100Mbit Ethernet MAC in its 539-pin package. Those are all things you'd look to integrate into a media PC these days; SATA RAID especially, for media center PCs looking to offer large amounts of video storage space.
XP MCE2005's problem is that it can't span video data across data volumes available to the OS. As I understand it, you can only tell the OS to write to one drive volume with its data. So to take advantage of more than the space afforded by cost effective big hard disks, or even Hitachi's upcoming 400GB and 500GB units, you need to make the data volume span more than one disk. That means RAID. VT8237 lets EPIA-SP do that cheaply with no extra ASICs, the two native ports supporting RAID0 for combining drives into a single volume.
It terms of supporting silicon for CN400 and VT8237, EPIA-SP also comes equipped with no less than four other VIA chips. VT6103 provides the physical layer for the 100Mbit/sec Ethernet MAC on the southbridge, VT1617A is the 8-channel Vinyl Audio variant, running in 6-channel mode, VT1623 is the TV coprocessor for powering the SP's TV-out port and finally VT6307S is a low-power FireWire400 complete ASIC, supporting both MAC layer and physical interface on a single chip.
To sum it all up, it's a faster C3 processor, much nicer integrated graphics than previous EPIAs, DDR400 support for the first time, and VIA's all-singing, all-dancing VT8237. Just what the doctor ordered for a company like Tranquil.
You can find more on the EPIA-SP here.
So Tranquil will be offering EPIA-SP-based T2.e units very shortly. To partner our preview of that product they placed it in their evolution T2.e chassis, to let us have a look at the tweaked design they'll have in full production on the 1st of March.
So today's article is a first-look at the the revised T2.e evolution chassis, with EPIA-SP under the hood. Onwards.