This is where the HD 3450 should make a world of difference, but unfortunately it fails to deliver consistent results. Now, it's worth pointing our that we're talking about performance out of the box, and that we got a pre-production sample, and Asus has probably fiddled with it a bit more over the past weeks.
The B204 struggles with some 720P formats, and 1080P in most formats is a bridge too far for the little Eee. Without tweaking, 720P Matroska, better known as .mkv, was not viewable, and neither were WMV or QuickTime. If you're thinking installing new drivers could help, you're right, but you can't download ATI's Catalyst 9.4, as it won't run on the Asus. You have to get vendor specific drivers from Asus, and once you install them, 720P is possible, albeit with relatively high CPU utilization. However, 1080P is still impossible to enjoy.
CPU utilization during 720P .mkv playback
In order to harness the power of ATI's UVD on the HD 3450, you need to use DXVA, which, in XP, is only available through Catalyst 9.4. The latest build of Media Player Classic Home Cinema (1094) supports DXVA, and so do a number of commercial players, but you still have to watch out for supported formats, codecs etc. It's all a bit too messy for a rig aimed at the clueless consumer market, not at enthusiasts who would try to play 1080P on a Spectrum Z80. If you struggle with HD playback, here is a nice howtodo.
Needless to say, HD support is anything but comprehensive, although we're sure Asus will offer some improvement through support software and future driver versions. Also, we believe Vista would have been a much better choice for HD, and it would be more future-proof. Unfortunately, the idea of running Vista on any single-core Atom is painful, ugly and slow, tantamount to letting me race Lance Armstrong, uphill, after a night out on the town.
Obviously, the conclusion ends up being a bit, well, inconclusive. The HD 3450 should be capable of delivering much more performance in terms of HD decoding, and we're sure that Asus, or a lone, rogue geek, will eventually put it to good use, and squeeze out that extra ounce of performance needed to play 1080P in all flavours. True, it has a bit less graphics power than the Ion, but in spite of that we believe it should be able to take care of HD content. However, to provide consumers with best possible HD experience, Asus should have used an HD 4000 chip which has an improved UVD engine, 7.1 audio, and even an HD 43xx should be on par with Ion.
Compared to the Acer Revo, the Eee Box B204 is a bit smaller, more stylish, has a nice remote, and most importantly, it's almost silent, whereas the Revo is pretty noisy. The Revo on the other hand has more RAM (although the Eee Box B204 has discrete graphics with 256MB of memory), a slightly faster CPU/chipset combo, and most importantly, it runs HD out of the box, without tweaking, downloading and installing drivers and watching out for codecs.
With 160GB hard drives, both systems lack storage as media center solutions, especially in a time when some vendors offer up to 500GB on their nettops, which don't have HDMI and aren't being marketed as media centers. At least Revo has an eSATA connector, so you can add external hard drives with the speed of an internal connection. If you've got a NAS, this isn't an issue, but a USB only connection is slow, although it will suffice for playback.
In his Revo review, Eliot said he liked the concept of a small, power efficient Atom-based media center, and he's not alone, I like the idea as well. Both Asus and Acer have offered interesting alternatives to full blown HTPCs or stand alone media players, but we found both to be far from perfect. Acer went with Ion and Vista, Asus tried a discrete Radeon and XP. Vista helps out a great deal in HD video playback, but you end up with an overbloated OS on an underpowered machine. With Asus, you get a more sensible OS, but you pay dearly, as it's crippled in terms of HD performance, at least until Asus manages to fix some issues or until you install Windows 7 RC.
In the end all we can say is that both of these systems bear promise, but we would advise you to wait a few weeks for the vendors to mend some flaws, and offer SKUs with more storage or even dual-core Atoms. Better yet, if you're not in a hurry, wait for Windows 7, it's just a few months away, and there's better things to do in the summer than watch movies at home anyway.