Friday, December 17, 2010

Sigma vs Realtek

This is an update on the current scenario since my previous post in March. The HD media player world is still dominated by chipsets from Sigma and Realtek. Sigma came out with the first HD media player chipset in 2008 while the cheaper Realtek chipset came out a year later and majority of the HD media players are now using chipsets from these two manufacturers.

Here's a partial list of popular media player brands using the two chipsets to give potential buyers some idea. Realtek has more manufacturers but mostly in the medium to low end market while Sigma has more players in the high end market apart from the popular WDTV Live. High end players will have more functionalities and may even have a blu-ray player built-in.

Sigma - WDTV Live, Popcorn Hour, Egreat, Dune Smart, HDX BD1

Realtek - ACRyan PlayOn!, Asus O!Play, Xtreamer, Patriot Box Office, Seagate Freeagent, Egreat, Yangxi HDPro+, Noontek, Eaget, Hornettek Phantom, DVico

Below are some items for comparison.

Video format support
Realtek - all common file formats.
Sigma - same as Realtek except it cannot support RMVB.

RMVB (RealMedia Variable Bitrate) files are very popular in the distribution of Asian contents such as Japanese Anime and Chinese TV series and movies so if you are going to use this type of files, then you must pick a media player that uses the Realtek and not the Sigma chip. Thus the popular WDTV Live is out in this case as it uses the Sigma chip.

Audio format support
Sigma - all common audio format including HD audio such as Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD MA.
Realtek - same as Sigma. Earlier versions of the Realtek chipset could not passthrough these HD audio but newer versions now have overcome this problem.

PQ or picture quality
Sigma has the better specs on paper but many prefer what they see from Realtek. There are supporters in both camps so it is very much a personal preference.

The Sigma chipsets generally have higher clockspeed than Realtek chipsets but probably not significant in real world applications.

Please note that the firmware used can also affect the performance of the player. New brands and models are coming out fast and furious and some may even change camps (Egreat seems to have models in both camps) so best to check the specs of a particular model to see what they can offer. The best is to bring along some test videos and physically check that your video can be played if this is possible, before parting with your cash. The
iboum website is a good place to learn more and check the specs of most commonly available HD media player.

Ronald Kwok

Saturday, December 11, 2010

HD Audio and Realtek 1055

Wow, almost 9 months have passed since my last post so it is time to add a new post that is long overdue. I mentioned in that post that I would talk about other attributes of a media player and I have actually forgotten what they were. What I can think of now is the user interface and firmware updates.

Before that, just an update on the Realtek 1073DD/1283DD chipset. The main problems with these chipset is that they cannot passthrough Dolby True HD and DTS-HD MA audio. To remedy this, Realtek released enhanced versions of these chipsets called 1073DD+/1283DD+ so if playing these HD audio files are important for you, go for players with these Realtek chipsets. The Sigma 864x and 865x chipsets can already support these HD audio formats so no issue for Sigma players using these chipsets.

For the lower end (i.e. inexpensive) media players, the user interface is pretty basic and more or less the same. Usually it will allow you to change settings for the system, the video and the audio to suit you own preference and requirement. Then there will be menus to select your photo, music and video/movie files for playback and also for simple file management like copying and deleting files. The more expensive players will have more elaborate user interface that are more appealing to some users.

The above are mainly cosmetic but more important is the support in terms of firmware update. User will come across problems for playing some media files and the manufacturers will come out with new firmware versions to overcome these problems. Thus it is important that the players that you buy come with this support apart from the physical support of repairs and maintenance. Make sure it is not one that is here today but gone tomorrow and there are plenty of these, mainly coming from China.

All players will also come with a remote control, ranging from teeny tiny ones to full size versions. So the choice is yours but most low-end players do not have any control buttons on the player itself (apart from the power on/off button) so a reliable remote control is important to keep you in business.

A common complaint is that the fan that is normally built-in a player is noisy and spoils the listening pleasure. So some come without fan but run the risk of over-heating. Realtek has come out recently with a new chipset that runs cooler. This is the R1055 but the downside is that this does not support networking so not Wifi or LAN enabled. For users who only play media files from a HDD, this is not an issue so they should consider players using this 1055 chipset since it will be cheaper than those with network support. And also dead quiet since there is no need for a fan for cooling. Anyway, let your ears be the judge as far as fan noise is concerned.

There is now a wide range of HD Media Player in the market. So choosing a media player can be quite daunting. To make it easier, first you must know what you need it for and then check the specs for what it can do. If they match, go for the one within your budget after considering all the other factors mentioned. Good luck.

Ronald Kwok.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Inputs, Outputs and other physical aspects

Now once you've determine the type of video files you'll be watching, you'll be able to narrow down your choice. For example, if you need support for RMVB files, you can forget the WDTV and Xtreamer and other players that use the Sigma chipset. However, this will still leaves you with a lot of choices. 

Next is to consider the input and outputs of the player. First the inputs. They are used to connect the source of your media to the player. In most cases, the media files are stored in an external HDD (hard disk drive) and the most common method is to connect the HDD to the player via the USB port. So an USB port is a must in a player and normally the player will have 2 USB ports and some even have 3 USB ports or more, some at the back and some in front for easy access. The USB port can also be used to connect your pendrive or USB flash drive and any other storage device that uses a USB connector.

Some media player will also have a multi-card slot (for your SD, xD, MS and other cards) where you can slot in your media card directly to view your photos or videos. This is nice to have but not essential since you can always connect an external card reader to the USB port for the same function.

Some players have a bay where you can slot in a HDD inside the player itself. If you want to have this option you'll have to decide if you need the player to accept a 3.5" or a 2.5" HDD. The maximum memory size of a 3.5" HDD is bigger (2TB?) and also physically bigger but the cost/memory is cheaper then that of a 2.5" HDD. So the choice is yours. Also players that do not take in a HDD internally are sleeker and smaller in size and usually carry the name of mini. Those that take in a HDD will have a fan to cool the HDD and this may add a bit of noise depending on the quality of the fan.

On the subject of cooling, a player with a metal body will run cooler than those with a plastic body since the metal dissipates heat better and works like a heat sink. 

For media players that take in a HDD internally, there will be a mini USB port to connect to your PC to do all the normal file management, just like using a normal external HDD. 

Next are the output connections. They are used to view and hear your media files. Most of us will use the HDMI output to connect to a HDTV for both audio and visual as the simplest way. For those still using a CRT TV (while waiting to upgrade to HDTV), they will use the RCA connectors - the Yellow (video), the Red (right audio) and the White (left audio) for their connections. These are the basic connectors found in all media players. The red and white audio output can also be connected to an external amplifier for better stereo sound.

You may or may not find these next group of output connectors in the media player you are considering and if these are important for you, this may help you make your decision. For better videos on your CRT TV, you'll need the component connection - the Red (Pr), the Blue (Pb) and Green (Y) connectors. For better audio where you can connect to your Hi-Fi amplifier, you'll need either the coaxial or optical connectors. For most of us, just the HDMI connection will suffice.

Finally if you need networking, you'll be looking for a LAN interface for wired LAN connection or readiness for WiFi conection. This could be either built-in or you need to buy a WiFi doggle that plugs in the USB port.

I hope the above will help you somewhat in deciding your media player purely on the physical aspects. BTW, the media player that I chose, the HDPro can house a 3.5" HDD internally and uses a doggle for WiFi and has all the connectors and card slot mentioned above so it is best value for money at the price I paid compared to all the other branded players. The picture quality is the same as any player that uses the Realtek 1073DD chipset. The only unknown factor is the reliability and this, only time will tell.

I'll talk about the other attributes of a media player in my next post.

Ronald Kwok