- Review Price: £57.00
Buying graphics cards for your media centre PC has always been a bit of a challenge. Finding a card that is small enough to fit in a slim case, that’s quiet enough to not disturb your film watching, has the outputs you require, and that gives you the performance you need is quite a tall order. However, with its Bravo 9500, Asus thinks it has produced the perfect media centre graphics card. Join us as we find out if it deserves a rapturous round of applause or a slow hand clap of disdain.
As you may have guessed from its name, the Bravo 9500 is based on nVidia’s GeForce 9500 GT, so this isn’t going to be a powerhouse of a gaming card. Instead, the processing power of this card is primarily meant to provide enough grunt to effectively offload video processing from your CPU in those programs that support it. Not to say that it won’t play any games, but the latest graphically intensive games will be limited to low resolutions and low in-game detail settings.
The first ‘media PC ready’ box that the Bravo 9500 ticks, then, is its height. At 70mm tall, it is classed as ‘half-height’, though it isn’t strictly half the height of a standard graphics card. Nevertheless, it’s short enough to fit in low-profile PC cases that are commonly used for media centres. As standard it ships with a full-height retention bracket with a VGA connection above the DVI and HDMI connections, but in the box is a double-width/half-height bracket so you can still have all three video outputs in a low profile case.
Another of the features Asus is mooting as a key media centre consideration is the included remote and accompanying light sensor. Starting with the remote, this isn’t meant as an alternative to the official Windows Media Center remote but rather as a standalone unit to work in conjunction with the included Asus software. Said software is an alternative media centre that gives you quick access to music, pictures, and videos as well as a media conversion tool. Its interface is much like that seen on the Asus O! Play HDP-R1 media player, in so much as its very basic.
Files are found and played by browsing through drives and folders rather than through a slick thumbnail driven library interface, like that of Windows Media Center. Also, the media conversion option just opens an included copy of Roxio’s MediaShow Espresso media conversion tool while the video playback is done in Windows Media Player (though you can at least change this to your choice of media player software).
Such simplicity was acceptable in a cheap standalone unit like the Asus O! Play HDP-R1 but for software that’s running on a fully fledged PC and is meant as an alternative to Windows Media Center, it is just mind boggling. Why on earth Asus would spend time producing its own software rather than just creating a plug-in for Windows Media Center, we do not know. Likewise, it could have worked with Roxio to get its software slickly integrated as well.
For what it’s worth, MediaShow Espresso is actually a decent piece of software that is easy enough to use with just the remote. Files convert quickly as the processing is offloaded onto the graphics card rather than your CPU (which is assumed to be a relatively low power unit to keep power consumption, heat, and noise down) and format support is superb. In our tests we were quickly able to load up three short video clips (2 x .mov HD trailers and an .mp4 HD clip) totalling 399 seconds/276MB and convert them into iPhone size/format. The conversion took a total of one minute and 19 seconds and the results were exactly the right size and aspect ratio and played back perfectly.
Moving onto the light sensor, it is on the same USB dongle that contains the remote sensor and works with Asus’ software to automatically brighten or dim your monitor/TV depending on the ambient lighting conditions. It’s quite a neat trick and could certainly be useful if you like to watch movies in a completely blacked out room. However, with it only affecting the computer’s output, rather than the monitor’s, you may still want to manually dim your display’s backlight to get the best black levels and picture quality.
Another media-centric aspect of the Bravo line is the video enhancement effects available through the Splendid software. Now Splendid is actually available with many Asus cards, but here it is also integrated with the media centre software mentioned above. Essentially it enables you to choose from a selection of video modes that ‘enhance’ the look of media you’re viewing. ‘Picture’ increases saturation and contrast to make photos look more vivid, ‘Gaming’ enhances detail in darker areas, ‘Theater’ softens the contrast for a more traditional softer look to your films, and ‘Auto’ tries to pick what it thinks is the most appropriate for the thing you’re currently doing. They all work as advertised to some degree but they also lead to colours being compressed (i.e. blown out highlights, loss of dark detail) and detail being lost. As with the light sensor, if you’re watching on a TV you’d probably be better off leaving such tweaks to the TV’s own processing to get the best results.
Getting back to the card itself, we were also slightly concerned by the presence of a small fan on the card. Small fans are notorious for getting annoyingly loud if required to spin fast, so we were keen to see how quiet this card could be. So, we popped our test bed into our sound isolation box and set our decibel meter to task. The ambient noise level in our noise isolation booth was 33dB and with the system idling, the noise from the graphics card brought this up to 42dB. We then ran our Crysis benchmark a couple of times but found the fan didn’t spin up any more than it already had so our reading was still around the 42dB mark. This lack of increase in noise is most impressive, but the initial figure of 42dB isn’t all that great considering you can get passively cooled, and thus silent, versions of this card.
Taking price into consideration, this card is about £10 more expensive than the average 9500 GT, but considering the extras you get, we think this is a fair price to pay. However, that’s only if you want the extras and, all told, we’re not really sure they’re worth it. Sure, you get onboard HDMI whereas most alternatives require a DVI-to-HDMI adapter but we feel the remote, light sensor, and extra software will just end up discarded and seldom used.
With its Bravo 9500, Asus has tried to create the perfect media centre graphics card. It’s low-profile and includes a remote and video enhancement software all of which sounds great. However, we just feel these extras don’t actually bring enough to the party, so you’re probably better off opting for a cheaper low profile version of the nVidia GeForce 9500 GT.
Score in detail
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