VIA marketing differentiator has been producing "green" computers. Tree huggers aside for anything other than basic computing tasks and network devices the embedded processors were woeful. Via, with help from their latest C7 processor wanted to readdress the balance between performance and power usage.
When looking at any EPIA system it's important to remove the warm fuzzy feeling that seem to emanate from its diminutive proportions. Yes, you could fit it alongside that healthy apple in your lunchbox but the fact is this EPIA EX motherboard/processor combo will set you back around £160, so it's far from bargain basement.
The EPIA EX series is unashamedly aimed at the home theatre PC market, with component and DVI video, SP/DIF and coaxial audio outputs. It also features S-Video and composite video terminals if you have a hankering for VHS quality video. Processing power is handled by the VIA C7 processor embedded onto the board. Available in two frequencies, 1.0GHz and 1.5GHz of which we tested the latter variety. There's only one DDR2 slot with support ending at PC4200 and 1Gb which is a shame as the chipset supports dual channel and we already know that 2Gb is more favourable with Microsoft's latest and (not so) greatest.
As you would expect using the EX15000G, giving its full moniker is perfectly fine for work related tasks. But as most will consider the EX for their home theatre machine (HTPC) the principle test is video playback. And that's where the problems begin.
If you are building a HTPC today you'd do well to consider machinery which can at the very least play back 720p, the lower of the two current high definition resolutions. When you pay north of £150 for a motherboard and processor, especially when the processor isn't upgradeable, it simply must be able to play 720p without dropping any frames. As a benchmark, an Athlon 64 3200+ and suitable motherboard without help from a graphics card can manage it for less than £100.
So when we opened up VLC and loaded an episode of Heroes, encoded with H.264 at 720p resolution we were shocked to see, or rather not see, two or three consecutive frames in any fluid motion. In fact it was so bad that there were pauses of 15 seconds between frames, although audio continued just fine. Clearly it was far from being watchable. Although VLC doesn't support hardware acceleration, worse still came from running the Terminator 2 1080p WMHD demo. For the first 45 seconds Arnie, or anything else for that matter, wasn't visible on the screen. A quick look in task manager's CPU usage meter showed 100% utilization from the moment of decoding.
What's interesting is VIA's hardware support for hardware decoding of MPEG 2 and 4 standards through their CX700M2 "system media processor" yet omit the most important standards, VC-1 and H.264, which both HD-DVD and Blu-Ray support. We can only imagine the MPEG 4 support is for Part 2 rather than Part 10 (which is often referred to as H.264). There are MPEG 2 encoded Blu-Ray and HD-DVD disks out there but most new content will utilize VC-1 and H.264.
This problem could be reduced if the CX700M chipset would work on part rather than the whole of the video decoding 'pipeline', much like NVIDIA's Geforce 7 series did. But it sits idle so all the decoding is handed to the incapable 1.5GHz C7 processor. Another possible solution would be if the solitary expansion slot was PCI-Express, but its good ol' PCI. So what that means is you've got the ability to add a TV tuner card or wireless networking, which is probably all you'll need as you won't have to stream anything near the bandwidth required by high definition.
There are those who will cry out that we've missed the point of EPIA boards. Yes they are small and superbly energy efficient but the fact remains this one is simply not fit for purpose. While hardware MPEG 2 and 4 support is present these formats aren't what newer high definition content will be encoded with. There's no doubt that H.264 is extremely computationally expensive but it's a must for any HD capable home theatre machine.
So what exactly is the VIA EPIA EX15000G good for? Well, if you want a home theatre PC which can play back standard definition content then it's a fairly good choice for three reasons. The energy footprint is so low that if you kept a DVD player, set-top box and some sort of music playback device on standby, together they would consume similar amounts of power as this Epia board. Secondly it is very quiet. Not quite silent but near enough not to be heard in an average sized room. Finally, the size does mean you can do away with large cases, even specialized, over priced HTPC ones.
But none of these factors matter. When you're spending so much on a motherboard and processor for a HTPC you want something that will playback high definition content available now and in the future. This board simply doesn't and there’s nothing you can do about it other than not buy one.