Many people’s quest for the perfect HTPC leads them to one conclusion: it’s probably better just to build it themselves. Of course, that brings an entirely new layer of complications to the simple concept of wanting a PC for your TV. It’s no wonder than so many people just default to AppleTV, Boxee Box, or Roku.
Of course, those are appliances, not computers. It would be nice to occasionally play a video game on your TV, or just browse the web with a familiar interface.
While building your own is a sexy idea, the cost can quickly get out of hand. This has become better recently, as technologies like AMD APUs have made high gaming and media performance possible without having to install a discrete GPU.
Shenzen Jiehe Technology seeks to solve both of these problems by offering a line of mini-PCs under their “Giada” brand. Giada mini-PCs come in both AMD and Intel flavors, but today we’re looking specifically at the A51, an AMD T56N-based mini PC that’s probably smaller than your Wi-fi router.
Giada A51 specs
- AMD T56N APU (64bit /1.65ghz dual core / 1mb L2 cache / 18w TDP)
- AMD A50M FCH chipset
- 2gb DDR3 1066
- 320gb HD
- Gigabit LAN + Wi-Fi 802.11n + Bluetooth
- 1 x USB3.0, 4 x USB2.0, 1 x Card reader (SD/MMC/MS/MS PRO)
- 1 x HDMI, 1 x VGA, 1 x S/PDIF-out
- 35w TDP
The AMD T56N is a Zacate-core embedded APU in the Brazos family. It is architecturally similar to the E-450 and includes an AMD Radeon HD 6320 running at 500mhz. Since it’s an embedded system, the APU is soldered onto the mainboard. The only upgradeable parts are the RAM and HD.
Taking the A51 apart isn’t as easy as it should be. There are two main screws holding the case together, and plastic tabs that hold the clamshell tight. Release the tabs without breaking them, and the case opens in two, with the motherboard screwed to the bottom half. The top half has an antenna wire running from the motherboard, and it’s soldered to a copper plate on the top half, meaning you have to be very careful when you’re separating the halves that you don’t snap the tiny wire or solder joint and ruin the Wi-fi antenna.
Most of the internals are soldered on to the board, as mentioned previously. The only real reason you’d open this up is to replace or upgrade the hard drive, or to add a stick of RAM.
The inside is essentially the same as many netbooks. Looked at another way, the Giada A51 is basically netbook internals in a clamshell without an integrated keyboard, trackpad, and display.
Despite its claims as being a “silent” computer good for HTPC applications, there is definitely some fan noise under any sort of load, but it’s very small and quiet.
Display options are HDMI and VGA. If you have a DVI monitor, you’ll need an adapter. Being that this device is intended as a television PC, the HDMI port makes sense.
The Giada A51 is about as barebones as they come. It does not come with an operating system, nor does it come with an optical drive, meaning you’ll either need to install Windows (or other OS) via USB, or buy yourself an external optical drive. I installed Windows 7 via USB. After installation, I had to head over to Giada’s website to download drivers for USB 3, IR receiver, and Bluetooth. Giada does ship a driver DVD, which makes no sense if you think it through.
Other than the useless driver DVD, the Giada A51 comes with an IR remote control and a transparent stand for vertical placement, as well as a power adapter. It’s going to be up to you to provide a keyboard, mouse, and operating system.
The AMD T56N APU (essentially an E-450) is going to push normal Windows operation at a perfectly satisfactory clip. One of the areas the APU shines is in media decoding; 1080p video in a variety of codecs plays perfectly well, and you also get the benefits of UVD3, AMD’s Steady Video and other video enhancement technologies. The A51 pulls a meager P344 in 3DMark11, which certainly isn’t going to be something to brag about to your gaming buddies. I did test Team Fortress 2 at medium to medium-high settings and was able to pull off 30fps with a few slight tweaks to the graphics options at 1920×1080. The 6320 is just not a powerhouse of a GPU. What it is, however, is an excellent UVD3-capable GPU that will easily handle all of your video encoding/decoding needs without flinching. H.264 performance is full speed ahead.
At only two cores, it’s not as great a multitasker as a quad-core chip, either. It can be slightly jarring if you’re used to a quad-core experience to find things like trying to do three things at once being frustrating as tiny delays pop up. As a daily Windows computing experience, it’s not really ideal, but it gets the job done. You can run plenty of casual games or games that don’t rely on crushing 3D performance (Hero Academy, for example, runs great on it!), but don’t rely on this to play, say, Guild Wars 2 on your TV.
Using this computer for its intended purpose, watching videos, is a far more compelling experience than trying to game on it. Many Radeon owners never look in their AMD Vision Engine control panel options to turn on things like enhanced color and Steady Video. These are UVD3 features that really can make a video-viewing experience better on a 1920×1080 display. You can check a single box and it will apply those settings to YouTube and other internet videos as well. This is one of the primary selling points of the AMD APU platform, because you get these good video enhancements without having to have a discrete GPU in your system.
The difference between this unit and a dedicated video unit like the Boxee Box is that you can customize your experience completely—it’s a regular PC. You can install Windows, or Linux, or anything you want. The price points are about the same, but you have more flexibility with a mini PC.
The Giada A51 is an interesting device. It’s tiny and quiet, and powerful enough to be a regular home computer for non-power users. If you are used to having a dedicated set-top box like a Roku or Boxee, and ever wished you could fire up Steam on it, this computer is probably up your alley. Even though it’s not a gaming powerhouse, it is indeed possible to game on this little guy.
Of course, when you factor in the cost of the OS, the equation changes a bit. E-ITX is currently selling the A51 for $319.95 with an extra $120 option for Windows 7 Home. At that price, the size, 35w power consumption, and tiny form factor become the big value adds. For that price, you can of course get a more capable machine, but it’s definitely not going to be this small.
This is one of those devices that is exactly right for a few people, but totally wrong for many. Where it fits in for you is up to you to decide.