Thursday, December 11, 2008

Popcornhour A-110 Review #3 - Peek inside the Box

Introduction

Part #3 of the Popcornhour A-110 review will take you on a journey traveling inside the A-110. The trip starts from disassembling the A-110’s well designed mechanical case. Then, the secret and the benefits of the A-110’s miniature design will be revealed. At the end, we are going to compare the A-110 with the HDX 1000, again, down to the component level inside the case.


Ready to open the case?

Good Mechanical Design

While disassembling the A-110 case, I realize Popcornhour must have spent quite some time on the mechanical design. Many details are thought out in the R&D process. As a customer, I have the feeling of being very well taken care of.

On the four corners of the top cover, you will see four big thumb screws. There is no need to grab a screw driver if you just want to lift off the cover. The shining thumb screws also serve for cosmetic purposes. They take away that monotonic and computer device type feeling and create a trendy appearance.


The Shining Thumb Screws at the Four Corners

There are slots constructed on the four corner supports. You can slide the four side walls into these slots. This preformed-metal-design reduces the screw usage and guarantees an easy assembling / disassembling experience.


Slide out the Rear Panel

Two of the four side walls have venting holes built-in, to improve the A-110’s convection cooling performance.


Two Side Walls Equipped w Venting Holes

The bottom case is equipped with two long narrow-shape stand-offs. It assures that there is enough clearance between the internal SATA HDD and the bottom case (if you want to put one in). Besides, the internal HDD can be directly connected to the SATA connector on the PCB. There won’t be a long, messy SATA cable hanging around inside the case.


Room Reserved to Install SATA HDD

Miniature Footprint

The small footprint of the A-110 is achieved by a jam packed PCB design. Popcornhour’s engineer has made use of every spot on both sides of the PCB and has successfully kept the distance between parts, short. The size of the A-110 PCB is 3.5” x 5”. Compared to the HDX 1000’s main PCB: 5.5” x 5.5”, it is relatively small. If it was not necessary to reserve a space inside the case for the installation of an internal SATA HDD, Popcornhour A-110 could really be as small as an IstarHD Mini.


HDX 1000 Main PCB (left) & A-110 Main PCB + Output Interface Daughter Board (right)

The A-110 internal layout design is really compact. Components, including the main PCB, output interface daughter board and the optional SATA HDD, are arranged to sit side by side, but in a very clean and neat way. The only thing I don’t like in this arrangement is the long on/off switch cable running across the output interface daughter board. This long cable can work as an antenna and pick up noise from the busy output interface.


See the Red and Black Cables Running Across the Output Section?

A-110 vs. HDX 1000

After carefully observing the PCBs from both vendors, I found that they use identical parts on the PCBs in many positions. For example, they both use Sigma’s SMP8635 as the main processor, Silicon Image’s SiI9134 as the HDMI 1.3 transmitter chip and Nanya’s NT5DS32M16CS as the DRAM. It makes me wonder if there is a reference design published by Sigma or Syabas. With the identical hardware components and the NMT software installed, you can expect to have a very similar experience when using Popcornhour A-110 and Digitech HDX 1000. (They are even produced by the same factory!)

The most significant difference between the two machines is on the heat management mechanism implemented. This is where the HDX 1000 excels. Except the thicker sheet metal and the larger metal surface area mentioned in the previous post, the larger PCB footprint on the HDX 1000 helps to improve the thermal performance, too. The big components (usually the heat generating sources) are placed further apart on the PCB. Thus, the heat density is lower in the HDX 1000 machine.

In addition, on the HDX 1000, the hottest part: Sigma SMP8635, is attached to the case through a flat aluminum heat-sink (equal to the chip size) and the white thermal grease. From my previous life as a power supply design engineer, I used to have this argument with the production engineers about the thermal grease. They always complain that the grease is too messy to use on the production line and want to replace the grease by silicon pad. But, I always find the grease ensures better contact between two hard objects and helps to drain the heat faster. Guess what... Silicon pad is what they use on the A-110 to connect the SMP8635 heatsink to the case. This is another reason why I think the HDX 1000 can have better thermal performance than the A-110.


The White Thermal Grease used on the SMP8635 Heat-sink in HDX 1000


The Silicon Pad used on the SMP8635 Heat-sink in A-110

There is also a myth about the memory size. According to the manufacturers’ website, the A-110 has 256MB and the HDX 1000 has 512Mb DRAM installed. It makes some people think that the HDX 1000 provides more memory. However, when I opened up the machines, I found both machines are equipped with 4pcs of Nanya 512Mb DRAM. What Digitech puts on their website is the DRAM type (512Mbits) they use in the HDX 1000. What Popcornhour lists is the total memory size (512Mbits x 4) / 8 = 256Mbytes in the A-110. The two machines actually carry the same amount of the DRAM, and both vendors are telling the truth. However, I found the information on the Digitech website is a little misleading.


#1 and #2 Nanya DRAM on the A-110 PCB component side (You can also see the heat-sink on SMP8635)


#3 and #4 Nanya DRAM on the A-110 PCB Solder Side


All four Nanya DRAM on the HDX 1000 PCB

The other minor dissimilarity to mention is that the HDX 1000 does not have the watch battery installed on the PCB. (The A-110 does.) According to Digitech, the battery is used to provide time information to the machine. Considering there is no time shift or advanced recording functions offered by the NMT player, the time information actually has little use. The lack of the watch battery on the HDX 1000 PCB won’t affect its performance.


Watch Battery Installed on the A-110 PCB


Battery not Installed on the HDX 1000 PCB

Check out the HDX 1000 Product Page on AmperorDirect

12 comments:

blaise said...

Very interesting and informative comparison, thanks! :)

Brad S said...

I appreciate your technical insight, it is nice to see someone pay attention to the features that really define the quality of the unit. One other feature i'd really like to see on future revisions is an HDMI and/or Ycrcb input passthrough. Some of the higher end DVD players have this and it allows home owners with integrated wiring and remote mounted equipment to add components to their systems without the expensive and potentially signal altering external switching device. Just a thought...

Rommel Pascual said...

Hi,

I placed an order on a PCH A110 but had to cancel because of excessive delay and uncertainty in delivery. Then came across the HDX 1000. After a closer look at the specs, I concluded that I will get the same functionality and its already available in the shop. Your post is very helpful, I opted for the HDX 1000 without hesitation.

Abdul-aziz said...

I used Eureka LX350 HD for over 3 years now and it was good. I just got PCH A-110 today and I have to say I am impressed from streaming locally to Internet features. I would recommend it to any one. My questions are, do I have to install the internal battery? What the battery slot is used for? and what the second white socket is for?

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David Pincheira said...

Thank you so much for the time and effort placed on making this comparison. I have been in the market for a media tank for the past few days and came across your blog while doing some research. This has set me on the right direction and think the HDX may be at the top of my list so far.

Sean said...

Howard, great job man! You really are an expert in the PCB field. I'm just beginning to learn about PCB design layouting and PCB etching. Anyway, I'm just wondering if I can get tips from you regarding the best software to use when it comes to designing.

Very informative. Thanks Howard!

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