Media Center server update highlights CPU evolution

-August 21, 2017

What prompted my recent Windows Media Center screed (save for my most recent one) was my longstanding frustration with its program guide unreliability. Several times a year, updates would enter suspended animation for days or weeks at a time. More frequently, show descriptions would be wrong or completely missing, along with new-versus-repeat show coding and other tag irregularities, any or all of which led to either replicated or incorrectly skipped recordings. And Microsoft's switch from Zap2It to Rovi as its program guide data source in mid-2015 only seemed to make the problems worse.

In that same February 2017 column, I mentioned that a notable number of Windows Media Center aficionados were abandoning the default program guide for an independently enthusiast-developed and paid (albeit very economical) alternative called EPG123. And shortly after crafting that earlier writeup, I too took the EPG123 plunge, after yet another program guide outage, albeit cautiously at first. I didn't want my experiment to muck up what I'd already set up, in case EPG123 didn't work out. Fortunately, I had another headless Windows 7-based PC available to me that I could use as an EPG123 test platform.

As background (for all but the longest-time and longest-memory readers, who've heard this before), to date my Media Center Server had been based on a "headless" Foxconn R10-S4, built on an Intel Atom 330 CPU foundation. I originally purchased the R10-S4 for $89.99 (not including the HDD, RAM, optical drive and other extras) in March 2011; the Atom 330 was launched in Q3 2008, according to Intel's website. Here are a few photos:

The other system available to me is Foxconn's nT-i2847, which I purchased in May 2014 for $109.99 and is based on Intel's Celeron 847 CPU introduced in Q2 2011. Here are a few "stock" photos of it (mine happen to be white) and its freebie (at the time, thanks to a promotion) companion DVD drive:

And here's another photo of the two magnet-mated together and powered up, along with a banana on top for scale:

Obviously, the nT-i2847 is much smaller than its R10-S4 predecessor; to be precise, it has dimensions of 7.48"×5.31"×0.98", while the companion DVD burner is 7.48"×5.31"×0.79" (and the R10-S4 is 11.1"×12.4×3.75"). But that's not what I'm particularly focusing on here. Whereas the Atom 330 CPU employs a 1.6 GHz dual-physical-core (quad-virtual-core, thanks to HyperThreading support) architecture, the Celeron 847 is a 1.1 GHz dual-physical-core processor with no HyperThreading virtual-core augmentation capabilities. Both systems are also based on Seagate "hybrid" HDDs (rotating magnetic storage paired with a front-end flash memory cache); a 2 TByte 3.5" ST2000DX001 for the R10-S4, and a 1 TByte 2.5" ST1000LM014 for the nT-i2847.

On paper, the Celeron 847 would seemingly be slower than the Atom 330. But in reality, the nT-i2847 runs rings around its R10-S4 precursor. Take a look, for example, at the Windows Experience Index reports for the R10-S4:

And that of the nT-i2847:

And in action, whereas the Windows Media Center program guide takes around a minute to pull up when my Xbox 360 is connected to the R10-S4, the guide launches near-instantaneously on the nT-i2847; the Windows Media Center UI is otherwise similarly much snappier on the newer system. Part of the reason may be (although I doubt it) that the nT-i2847 includes a GbE wired Ethernet subsystem, whereas the R10-S4 only has a 100 Mbit Ethernet transceiver. The network chain (router, switches, cabling) between both PCs and any of my Xbox 360s is otherwise fully GbE-capable, but the Xbox 360s only offer 100 Mbit Ethernet support (therefore my doubt).

Operating system differences also bear mention; the R10-S4 is running 32-bit Windows 7 Professional, whereas the nT-i2847 employs 64-bit Windows 7 Home. And DRAM technologies and capacities also vary between the two systems; the R10-S4 includes 2 GBytes of DDR2-667 SDRAM, whereas the nT-i2847 uses 4 GBytes of DDR3-1333 SDRAM. But the bulk of the system performance improvement in the R10-S4 to nT-i2847 transition, I suspect, comes from CPU evolution, in spite of the newer processor's slower clock speed and lack of HyperThreading capabilities; among other things, the Celeron 847 supports out-of-order instruction execution, leading to greater IPC (instructions per clock) efficiency. PassMark benchmark results also bear out this hypothesis; a single-thread rating of 537 for the 1.1 GHz Celeron 847, versus 252 for the 1.6 GHz Atom 330. That's an impressive architecture-driven improvement, which has presumably continued with even newer processor generations from both Intel and AMD.

Post-transition, all's pretty much well. The new system's smaller, quieter, cooler, and faster than its predecessor. I even tethered an inexpensive 2 TByte external HDD to it as an alternative recorded-program repository, to supplement its comparatively diminutive integrated storage capacity (the nT-i2847 offers USB3 ports; the R10-S4 is USB2-only). And while EPG123 isn't perfect (it refuses to recognize that latest Season 8 broadcasts of Shark Tank are new programs, not repeats, for example), it at least updates reliably. Consider me pleased.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company's online newsletter.

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