Asrock's latest mini PC certainly is an exciting addition to the company's lineup, delivering even more CPU performance thanks to the adoption of Intel's Sandy Bridge processors. The flagship 252B model that we reviewed stomped the competition in many of our CPU-intensive tests, namely the application and encoding benchmarks. The Core i5 2520M had no trouble outpacing the Vision 3D's Core i3/GeForce duo, the Phenom II X2 560, nor the new A8-3850 APU.
Despite dominating the CPU-oriented charts, the CoreHT 252B wasn't exactly unstoppable. If you intend to use this HTPC for a casual solution to PC gaming, you'll probably want to look elsewhere as the Intel HD Graphics 3000 engine just doesn't cut it. Relatively modern games such as Just Cause 2 are not even close to playable when using medium quality settings, with just 12fps at 1440x900, around three times less than what is required for an enjoyable experience.
Sandy Bridge's graphics core provided less than half the performance of AMD's new A8-3850 APU and it was generally two steps behind the GeForce GT 425M as well. This was a disappointing outcome considering how much headway Asrock made with the Vision 3D in the gaming realm. At the same time, we can't say we didn't know what the HD Graphics 3000 engine is (and isn't) capable of going into this, having reviewed various Sandy Bridge chips already.
Overall, the CoreHT is in somewhat of an odd position. We think its CPU is overkill for an HTPC, while its GPU is too weak to peddle it as a casual living room gaming box. It's more of a space-saving, power-conscious general purpose desktop computer. Those looking to perform tasks such as video encoding and editing as well as image editing will like what the CoreHT has to offer. For strict HTPC usage, we think the CoreHT is a step back from the Vision 3D.
Then there is the price. Asrock's early Atom-based mini PCs were only $400 fully configured. Then the Core 100HT came along and the price nearly doubled, though the Core i3 370M model can be purchased these days for $560. That price skyrocketed even further with the arrival of Asrock's Vision 3D lineup and the base model still fetches $750 while the flagship 156B costs $930. Pricing of the new CoreHT series is unclear as they're not available in the US yet.
Nonetheless, Asrock has stamped the flagship CoreHT with an MSRP of $800. Although that's not necessarily a bad price, we feel the Vision 3D 137B provides better all-round performance for slightly less cash. It's important that the CoreHT doesn't stray too far north of Asrock's $800 suggested price, as similarly configured laptops aren't hard to come by in that territory, and users might be easily swayed by the obvious benefits of owning complete mobile PC.
Although we've asked, Asrock hasn't graced us with an MSRP for the mid-range CoreHT 231B, but we believe this may be a better value than the 252B. As noted, the 252B's CPU is too quick for a basic HTPC and its GPU isn't quick enough for a low-end gaming solution, but the 231B has a slower Core i3 2310M that should make for a reasonably priced media PC. In either case, living room gamers should seek something more substantial than Sandy Bridge's IGP.