PCs in miniature enclosures are nothing new. However, when this enclosure is merely two centimetres thick, and the graphics card in the PC NVIDIA’s ION 2, what is your first thought? This might just be the new ideal candidate for the living room media centre? We thought the same.
Sapphire Edge HD was presented four months ago on CES, and even then, we were able to catch glimpses of its brilliance. Hardware-wise, this is a PC based on an Intel Atom dual-core CPU, which means that it’s perfectly usable for surfing the internet or office tasks, especially due to its appearance that fits perfectly with black TFT monitors. Sapphire wasn’t cutting back on memory, and this PC’s two gigs of RAM will enable smooth work of newer operating systems such as Windows 7. The key to the multimedia capabilities of this PC is NVIDIA’s aforementioned ION 2, i.e. a GeForce core with a hardware video decoder and 512 MB of its own DDR3 memory, which means that the functioning of the rest of the system will remain completely unhindered by multimedia.
The 250 GB hard disk inside the PC is split into two partitions, and the only thing that’ll welcome you upon first start is a DOS prompt, just so that one cannot say that Edge doesn’t come with an OS preinstalled. Naturally, as this PC is unlikely to be used in a DOS environment, we installed a 32-bit Windows 7 with SP1. Sapphire was kind enough to provide a 1 GB flash drive containing all the necessary drivers for Windows XP, Vista and 7, in both 32-bit and 64-bit versions, together with the PC; this means that you can make the PC entirely functional even without the use of internet. Let’s just mention that the PC’s BIOS is as standard as possible, containing options that we usually encounter in OEM PCs (ergo, no overclocking), and if you believe that this PC should be running on Windows XP (for reasons unfathomable to us), make sure you turn off the SATA controller’s AHCI mode.
Having ION 2 in mind, the logical place of this PC would be in the living room, right next to the HDTV set. The advantage of this type of device compared to a standalone DVD or Blu-ray player with a USB port is that in this case, you don’t need to get acquainted with the new interface at all - everything you do on your primary PC can be done on this one as well. However, we’d still recommend using Windows 7 and running on Windows Media Centre, the latter being far better designed and more usable than the version that came along with Windows XP. Why choose Windows 7, you may ask? The reason is simple enough - ION 2, i.e. GeForce, is able to take over the HD video decoding process entirely using the DXVA interface (available only in Vista and Windows 7), so that all videos, even 1080p-encoded ones, run perfectly smoothly on the screen while barely putting any load on the CPU. We tried playback without hardware decoding just for comparison’s sake - 720p material was supportably fluid, while 1080p material looked more like a slideshow than actual video, despite the CPU load only showing values between 30% and 40% (Atom’s hyperthreading is to blame for this, since it deceives the software decoder into believing that the CPU has twice as many cores). This is why it’s of critical importance to use a player that supports DXVA acceleration, such as the very popular Media Player Classic HomeCinema. Those that want to enable hardware decoding regardless of the player are free to install Haali Media Splitter and the CoreAVC Pro codec, which will enable CUDA decoding in any DirectX-based player, which is pretty much every player in existence on the Windows platform (including Windows Media Centre).
Now that we’re through with the software section, let’s move on to the PC’s everyday features. Due to the extreme compactness of the enclosure, the cooling couldn’t have been passive, but the chosen fan is very quiet and virtually silent in all usual environments. The device isn’t exactly cool all the time either, although heating won’t be a problem as long as the PC has at least ten centimetres of breathing room on every side; we tested this thoroughly by keeping Edge under load throughout an entire day. The cooling fins on top and bottom of the enclosure suggest that the PC be placed upright, and so does the accompanying metal base with a screw added for additional firmness.
Out of four USB ports, two are located on the front mask, concealed behind a lid, while the other two are placed on the back, together with the remained of the available connectors, so that they don’t disturb the monolith appearance of the PC. Owners of more expensive equipment could blame the PC for not having an S/PDIF sound output, but since Edge has an HDMI port, sound and image can both be delivered via a single cable all the way to the HDTV, which is what 95% of potential buyers are interested in in the first place. The bundle contains the aforementioned flash drive with the drivers, but also a 1.5 m HDMI cable, while users aspiring to connect this to a typical PC monitor also have an HDMI-to-DVI adapter. Finally, the PC can be easily connected to cheap monitors or projectors via the analogue D-Sub output, which covers every scenario that Edge could play a role in. What you don’t get with the PC is a mouse & keyboard, but these will only be required for Windows installation and software configuration anyway. A wireless mouse will serve perfectly as the PC’s remote, or you can buy some of the specialised PC-compatible remotes that cooperate with various media centres. As far as network connections are concerned, you have gigabit LAN and b/g/n wireless at disposal. With a sufficiently fast internet connection, you can even watch 720p directly off YouTube or play multimedia off another PC in your household or mini-server, and all this without the need for a USB file transfer.
|7-Zip 9.20 comp./decomp.||1,837 / 33,496 kB/s|
|Cinebench R11.5 OpenGL / CPU||6.9 fps / 0.53 pts|
|Everest 5.50, memory read/write/copy||4,366 / 2,954 / 2,898 MB/s|
|Everest 5.50, memory latency||96.8 ns|
|HD Tune Pro 4.5 read / Access Time||67.9 MB/s / 16.5 ms|
|3DMark Vantage, performance preset (Total/CPU/GPU)||859 / 1,591 / 774|
|Resident Evil 5, 1280x720 medium||8.8 fps|
|Unigine Heaven 2.5, 1280x720 medium||17.7 fps|
|Power consumption (idle/max)||20 / 28 W|
Edge certainly isn’t the first or the latest miniature PC with the primary purpose of serving as the household media centre, but it definitely is the best designed and most compact of the ones we’ve had the chance to see thus far. It has respectable hardware for this device class, which makes it productive as well, and you might even play older games on it. A dual-core CPU that won’t be stricken down by several programs running at the same time, GeForce that chews on any video that you put in front of it, sufficient RAM to make Windows 7 jump around, complete support for all types of video/audio formats and subtitles, and all this for a price of a good Blu-ray player - what else could you wish for?
|Sapphire Edge HD|
|CPU||Intel Atom D510 dual-core 1.66 GHz|
|Graphics adapter||NVIDIA ION 2 (512 MB DDR3, 16 CUDA cores, 4 ROPs, GPU @ 535 MHz, CUDA @ 1,230 MHz, VRAM @ 1,580 MHz)|
|RAM memory||2 GB DDR2-800|
|Hard drive||Samsung 250 GB, 8 MB cache, 5400 RPM|
|Connectivity||4 x USB 2.0, D-Sub (VGA), HDMI, 1Gbit LAN, stereo out, mic in|
|Size||193 x 148 x 22 mm|