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Video playback
Our last round of tests covers one of the E-350's most notable features, accelerated playback of H.264 video. To see what the practical difference would be between an unaccelerated dual-core Atom and an E-350, we played the trailer for Iron Man 2 in various formats: three QuickTime .mov files with H.264 encoding at the three most commmon resolutions, and then in the Flash video format via YouTube. We used Window Media Player to view the QuickTime files and Firefox 4 beta 11 for the bulk of the YouTube videos.

The CPU utilization numbers you'll see below are what we observed via Windows Task Manager while playing the video. They're not intended to be super-precise, and heck, we have reservations about how accurate they really are on the Atom due to Hyper-Threading. They should give you some sense of how close the CPU was to the limits of its capability in each case, at least.

  Atom D525 AMD E-350
  CPU utilization Result CPU utilization Result
H.264 480p 1-16% Perfect 2-10% Perfect
H.264 720p 6-49% Perfect 5-18% Perfect
H.264 1080p 34-64% Perfect 3-64% Perfect
YouTube 720p windowed 46-64% Smooth 36-49% Smooth
YouTube 1080p windowed 79-90% Choppy 37-50% Smooth
YouTube 1080p full-screen - Choppy - Smooth
YouTube 1080p windowed - IE9 beta 72-86% Choppy 11-37% Smooth

The QuickTime H.264 videos are no problem for either system. Because these are dual-core CPUs, the unaccelerated Atom D525 isn't quite the basket case that, say, a single-core Atom in a netbook might be when asked to handle these video formats. The D525 even deals with a 720p Flash video in an expanded windowed view pretty well. It hits a wall at 1080p, however, and just can't cope.

The E-350 copes well with our higher-definition Flash videos, all the way up to full-screen 1080p.

That's not to say that Flash video is always a breeze on Brazos. The scores in the table above come from a release candidate version of Flash 10.2 that was supplied to us by AMD. The final version of Flash 10.2 has since been released by Adobe, and it doesn't properly support UVD3 acceleration on the E-350. Without help from the video decode hardware, CPU utilization is substantially higher, and 720p Flash videos can be choppy in full-screen mode.

AMD has been telling us for months that it's working with Adobe on Flash acceleration for the Brazos platform, so we were taken aback by the lack of support in the public 10.2 release. The latest official word from AMD on the issue reads like so: "AMD is working closely with Adobe to resolve this issue and we expect an updated 10.2 in the near future."

We're hopeful AMD and Adobe will get this issue resolved, but we're not entirely comfortable recommending Brazos as a platform for web video playback at present. We need to see a working, public version of Flash with proper acceleration, and ideally, we'd like to see acceleration working properly through several generations of Flash releases. Brazos' basic competency at web video playback relies on successful collaboration between AMD and Adobe—not just once, but consistently. The problems with Flash 10.2 serve to illustrate how fragile that competency can be. If you want to be absolutely certain your system will be up to the task of handling HD Flash video, the only sure-fire option is getting a faster CPU.

Then again, good things are possible with really robust GPU support, as our foray into testing with the IE9 beta shows. IE9 includes GPU acceleration for all of the browser's visuals, and Flash 10.2 makes use of it. On Brazos, that combination yields markedly lower CPU utilization. Further good things look to be possible once Adobe's grand plan for its Stage Video API unfolds, although we understand that sites like YouTube will have to modify their player programs to take advantage.

Curious about its potential to serve as the engine for a home theater PC, I spent some time trying out our Brazos system with Windows Media Center. Playback of a recorded HDTV program from a local drive was seamless, and skipping forward and back around commericals and such was quick and stutter-free. I was even able to access 720p recorded videos on my home theater PC and use the Brazos system to play those. Quick jumps ahead or back were occasionally hindered by networking speeds—my HTPC is on an 802.11n Wi-Fi connection—but the E-350 looked to be quite happy in the Media Center extender role.