ATI's new TV-tuner cards no match for the real deal

ATI's new TV-tuner cards no match for the real deal

ATI Technologies has sold PCI-based TV tuners, and graphics cards with TV-tuning capabilities, for several years. Its most recent such products make TV on a PC look better than ever before - but they are still no match for the real thing, TV on a TV.

I looked at ATI's TV Wonder Elite, a $US149 PCI analog TV-tuner card that you install alongside your existing AGP or PCI Express graphics board. It uses ATI's Theater 550 Pro video processor, which incorporates a hardware MPEG-2 encoder, a 3D comb filter, and a 12-bit analog-to-digital converter (most cards use converters with 10 or fewer bits); all of these features are supposed to improve video quality.

I also tried ATI's All-In-Wonder X800XT, a $US499 graphics card that provides the company's best AGP-based graphics processing, in part thanks to 256MB of video RAM and a 16-pipeline 3D architecture. It also has a TV tuner, but MPEG-2 encoding is performed with software.

The TV Wonder Elite ships with an ATI-specific version of CyberLink's PowerCinema 3 software, which allows you to watch, pause, and record live TV and FM radio. The interface uses big text, visible across a room, so you could conceivably use the board in a computer hooked to a television.

Channel Surfing in Slo-Mo

Bypassing PowerCinema might be a good idea, because in this setup the application is dog-slow. It starts up slowly and then requires that you select the TV tuner, which took as long as 15 seconds to get going on my system. But changing channels is the most aggravating: When I held my finger down on the arrow button on my keyboard, PowerCinema got through only 23 channels in 60 seconds (using the included remote was equally bad).

For comparison, I dragged out my nine-year-old Apple PowerMac 7600, which has an ATI Xclaim VR graphics card and an external Xclaim TV-tuner box; that combination changed 173 channels in a minute - more than seven times quicker than the TV Wonder Elite. That's not progress.

Gaming Card Does Everything

ATI's All-In-Wonder X800XT is replete with toys. In addition to its formidable gaming capabilities, it has a DVI connector and a VGA connector, plus an analog TV tuner, an FM radio, and an incredible array of input connectors, both on the card itself and on three separate breakout boxes. As with earlier All-In-Wonder cards, the All-In-Wonder X800XT relies on ATI's MultiMedia Center for television and FM-radio tuning. The utility has components that can play CD and MP3 audio, as well as play DVDs and video CDs. The components work adequately, but they're all separate - if you're watching TV and you decide you want to watch a DVD, you must shut down the TV application and start up the one for DVDs. The delay is still an annoyance.

On the upside, the All-In-Wonder X800XT changes channels more than twice as quickly as the TV Wonder Elite. However, the image quality isn't as good as the Elite's. But overall, it isn't hugely inferior.

Facts and figures:

ATI TV Wonder Elite

Image quality looks good; channel-changing speed is extremely lethargic. RRP: $US149

ATI All-In-Wonder X800XT

Upper-echelon graphics card provides pretty good TV features. RRP: $659 The product is distributed in Australia by BBF Components and Peripherals and Servex Australia.

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