Asus M4A78-HTPC/RC: A Complete HTPC Solution?

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Audio Features

Providing independent power to the onboard audio via a molex connector did not result in any increase in power consumption. We noticed a moderate decrease in static and background noise when the extra power connector was on, but nothing to write home about. The "DTS Surround Sensation" was not tested as we do not believe it is a worthwhile feature in this type of product. Most enthusiasts capable and willing of building a true HTPC will have a real multi-channel sound system, so synthesizing a multi-speaker setup with stereo speakers would be pointless. Emulated surround sound is probably more effective with headphones but not many HTPC users use them. The gold-plated RCA connectors are convenient for stereo speakers since you do not require an adapter, but the plating itself has little value outside of preventing oxidation.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The Asus M4A78-HTPC/RC is a very capable motherboard in its own right, i.e. if we ignore the remote and audio extras. It has plenty of features including HDMI, S/PDIF, and eSATA, and its heart, the tried and true HD 3200 IGP, is fully capable of high definition video playback. With SpeedFan, one can fully control three fans connected to the board independently, or if you prefer the set-it-and-forget-it option, the board's automatic fan control system works well too. When paired with a low TDP processor, it is one of the more energy efficient boards in its class, both when idle and stressed. It does exhibit high power consumption when paired with an AM3 chip, but that seems to be a universal problem with all AM2+ motherboards. The BIOS is very restrictive and lacks the ability to undervolt, so those who like to tinker with their systems to get the lowest power consumption possible will have to look elsewhere.

With a solid base, Asus added features to cater to the Home Theater crowd. The included IR remote is simple and intuitive, but the software it is paired with lacks both polish and functionality. The current version doesn't hold a candle to Media Center, though that could change if Asus continues working on it. If the current version is the best they can do, it might as well have been shipped the board with a regular MCE remote. You can use the bundled remote with Media Center, though there are a few buttons that will only work with Home Theater Gate.

The additional audio functionality is of limited use, in our view. Powering the board's audio independently does reduce some static and noise but it falls short of being a compelling must-have, must-try feature. "DTS Surround Sensation" has limited value for a board of this type — it is probably better used in a typical desktop environment with stereo speakers or headphones rather in the living room with a HTPC. The gold-plated RCA connectors may give the board a level of cachet but true audiophiles will recognize it as a gimmick.

To summarize, the M4A78-HTPC/RC certainly can be a good base for a home theater PC, but it is not necessarily our top choice. The core hardware is excellent, but the extras that differentiate it have marginal value, in our opinion. If the audio features came at no extra cost, and the remote was made for use with MCE rather than Home Theater Gate, it would appeal fine. As it stands, we can pick out any 780G board with the appropriate feature-set and an MCE remote for functionality just as good as the M4A78-HTPC/RC package Asus is offering. The board will probably not be released in North America, so there is no official price for US/Canada. However, an online search came up with a price of 7,100 Rupees in India and 6,300 Rupees without the remote. That translates currently to ~US$150 and ~US$134, not exactly bargains in North America where mATX 780G board rarely crack $100. IT goods are often priced higher elsewhere, however, so do take our comments about value with caution.

Asus M4A78-HTPC/RC
PROS

* Low power consumption
* Independent control of up to 3 fans
* Feature-rich
* Remote works well
CONS

* Questionable audio features
* Remote software lacking in capability
* Restrictive BIOS; does not allow undervolting

Our thanks to ASUSTeK for the motherboard sample.

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