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

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Quick and Easy way to choose a HD Media Player

If you just want to connect your HD Media Player to a TV to watch videos from your USB Hard Disk Drive, below is a quick and easy way to pick a HD Media Player. I am assuming you either use a HDMI cable to connect to your HDTV or the RCA cable (red, white, yellow) to connect to your old analogue TV. Thus you are not concerned about the sound quality as long as there is sound coming out of your TV.

Currently the two most popular media player chipset used is the Sigma and the Realtek and they come in different models as well. As an example we will pick the Sigma 8655 and the Realtek 1073DD which is in the midrange price and some of the major HD Media Players that use them are

Sigma 8655 - WDTV Live, WDTV (mk2)

Realtek 1073DD - ACRyan PlayOn!, Asus O!Play, Apacer AL460, Hornettek Phantom, Patriot Box Office, Seagate Theatre, HDPro, Noontek A6

(There is a third chipset, the Amlogic 8626 but this cannot support WMV,VC-1 videos. Examples of media players that use this chip is the Kworld and Modeo. These are in the lower price range and usually not full 1080p but since things are moving so fast, there may be models that can output full HD. Check the specs.) 

There is another group of media players and they are the high-end stuffs such as the Popcorn Hour, Dvico 6500, HDX BD1 and HDMax which has better audio handling capabilities but since we are only concerned with basic sound, these are not considered as they are more for HiFi buffs.

Anyway, from the above you can see that there are more players using the Realtek chipset than the Sigma. Since the chipset is the brain of the media player, it determines what it can or cannot do. Thus the functions of all the media players using the Realtek 1073DD will be basically the same. One major difference is that the Sigma 8655 cannot play RMVB files. These are mostly TVB serials files and other Chinese programmes so if you intend to play these files, forget about the WDTV and just pick any of the others that fancy you.

For playing the other common formats, which (the Sigma or the Realtek) has the better video quality? Based purely on measurements, the overall results seems to be in the Sigma's favour but from users point of view, many prefer the Realtek. So this is really quite subjective and depends on your eyes and your preference. This also sometimes depends on the HDTV set that you are using since some brands seems to work better than others with a particular chip. The media player itself can have adjustments for brightness, contrast, hue, saturation, etc so you can fine tune to your heart's content. (Some will have more adjustment than others.)

Thus once you know a player can support the format of your video files at the resolution that you want, just pick the cheapest one that you can find using the same chipset, bearing in mind the above points about the chipset used. Again, this is just for watching videos with sound from the TV set. But if you need other features and has other considerations, then you need to investigate further and wait for my future posts. HeHe.

Ronald Kwok

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Choosing a Media Player

Media player is one item that has mushroomed recently and as more and more brands appear, buyer find it very difficult to make their choices. Hopefully this Blog will make it easier to pick one that is just right for you. As the title of the Blog suggests, this is only about HD Media Player. Here HD refers to High Definition and not Hard Disk as this can also be confusing. What is High Definition? In the HD video world, this is any resolution from 1280x720 (720p) to 1920x1080 (1080i or 1080p) which is full HD.

Points to consider in choosing a HD Media Player
1. What do you want it primarily for? Obviously you want to watch HD videos. If it is just for listening to MP3 music or watch JPEG photos, you can buy the cheapest normal media player you can find and it will do. All HD media player can play MP3 music files and display JPEG photos and it is in the area of HD videos that each media player function a bit differently. But if it is some exotic music or photo format, check to make sure.
2. What video format will you be watching? Make sure the file format is supported by the player and it is best to have a sample file and test it on the player itself if it is possible. The WDTV series cannot support RMVB so if you need to watch video with this format, look elsewhere.
3. How do you connect to your audio visual equipment? The simplest will be via HDMI to your HDTV or just the RCA connector (blue, red, yellow cable) to older TV sets. Or you may want component connection (red, blue, green) and audiophile may want coaxial and optical connections. Look at the back of the player to see if what you need is provided as not all are available.
4. How do you want your sound? For most users, as long as there is sound it is OK. (Actually, sometimes there can be no sound for certain player running certain video format, hence the need to test). But for the more serious, they need DTS5.1, true HD, etc and these should be pass through to their amplifiers to do their job. This is difficult to test in the shop since you cannot bring along your Hi-Fi gear to do an actual test.
5. Do you need the player to house a Hard Disk Drive(HDD) internally? What physical size, 3.5" or 2.5"? All players can connect a USB external HDD though.
6. Do you want to have networking? Most can have physical LAN connection, some can work with WiFi either built-in or using USB dongle.
7. Do you need a built-in card reader? But it is easy to plug in one via USB.
8. What is the physical built and does it blend it with your other gears?
9. How does the graphical user interface (GUI) look and what other bells and whistles are available?
10. What about firmware update and after sales support so that your player is kept up-to-date? Anyway there is only so much you can update before a new chip comes along.
11. And finally the price. Do I get value for money?

So you never thought that buying a HD media player can be so complicated and this is only a summary. I'll go into more details in my later posts. Good luck in your choice. 

Ronald Kwok