Summary: With digital television becoming more widespread, ATI felt the need to provide a high-end tuning solution for this market. But the HDTV WONDER goes far beyond a conventional HDTV tuner, offering built-in analog and HDTV tuning and recording as well as timeshifting, features never before found in competing products. See how the card performs and why we came away so impressed with ATI's latest multimedia marvel in this review!
Slowly but surely, digital technology is playing an increasing role in the lives of not just technophiles, but your typical “average Joe” consumer as well: satellite providers have offered digital service since their inception, even the good ‘ol telephone is beginning to go digital. This transition is occurring in the television sector as well. In fact, many believe the arrival of digital television is the most significant advance in television technology since the introduction of color in the 1950s.
Broadcasters have already begun the transition to HDTV. All of CBS’ and ABC’s prime time shows are broadcast in HDTV; this includes popular shows such as CSI and Survivor, as well as Alias and the NBA/NHL Finals. Many of NBC’s prime time shows are also broadcast in HDTV as well, examples include the The West Wing and Law and Order.
In order to understand how DTV compares to HDTV it’s important to know the basics. The conventional analog television we watch today is only capable of displaying up to 480 vertical lines of information in an interlaced format, meaning that every other line is drawn per frame on the screen and thus reducing the amount of data that needs to be generated. This is frequently referred too as 480i or standard definition television (SDTV) and would be the equivalent of 640x480 at 30Hz on your monitor. The next step up is 480p (640x480 at 60Hz) with the “p” denoting progressive scan. 480p delivers the same 480 lines, only all of the lines are drawn every frame. This is considered DVD-level quality and produces a flicker-free image where text or fast motion video is used.
HDTV goes one level beyond DTV, whereas conventional DTV is limited to just 480 lines, HDTV offers two formats: 720p and 1080i. As its name implies, 720p is a progressive scan format, delivering 720 vertical lines for a base resolution of 1280x720 at 60Hz. In comparison, 1080i is interlaced, but delivers more lines, 1920 horizontal, 1080 vertical (1920x1080 at 30Hz).
Besides improved video quality, DTV and HDTV also provide six-channel 5.1 digital audio, while many HDTV programs are broadcast in a 16:9 format with Dolby Digital audio, just like going to the movies (SDTV programming may be either). DTV broadcasters can also send multiple digital channels with the same frequency (multicasting): this allows TV stations to broadcast multiple programs at once, weather or traffic information can be sent, or additional programming information is provided. In fact, the local PBS station here in Austin provides four different channels, while ABC and NBC both offer secondary weather channels.
The biggest limitation to DTV has been its cost. Manufacturers still charge a pretty hefty premium for HD-capable television sets, even cable and satellite providers get in on the action. ATI has decided to tap into this growing market by providing a low-cost alternative capable of displaying crystal clear images on your PC. After all, most monitors are more than capable of driving HD resolutions. Their solution? The ATI HDTV WONDER.
The idea of providing an HDTV tuner card is nothing new. In fact, card manufacturers such as Hauppauge have been providing HDTV tuner cards for years in anticipation of HDTV’s widespread adoption. Therefore going into the HDTV WONDER ATI knew they’d have to do something different in order to differentiate themselves from the competition.
One of the keys to achieving this is through the card’s hardware, as well as implementing some of the unique features found in their popular TV WONDER and ALL-IN-WONDER products. Therefore it was decided early on in the card’s development that ATI’s PC multimedia team (responsible for the ALL-IN-WONDER/TV WONDER line) would work with the company’s digital TV unit, whose products appear in set-top boxes and digital television sets. The chip at the heart of the HDTV WONDER, NXT2004, is a perfect example of this.
ATI’s NXT2004 Multimode VSB/QAM demodulator is configurable to work in either the ATSC compliant 8 VSB mode for terrestrial broadcasting or in the ITU-J.83B/SCTE DVS-031/ DOCSISTM compliant 64 QAM or 256 QAM modes for Digital TV-Cable Connect and Digital TV-Cable Interactive reception. What does this mean in English? The demodulator converts the 8VSB signals (the DTV signal) captured by the antenna and converts them into data the computer can understand, MPEG2, or when used by a cable provider, QAM demodulation is used. Basically, it determines which DTV signals the user is able to receive. The chip is designed for use in set-top boxes and off-air and cable digital television receivers, where ATI has scored design wins from manufacturers such as Samsung and Sony.
REMOTE WONDER is ATI’s highly-regarded remote control unit. REMOTE WONDER can be used to perform many common TV functions, such as channel changing and volume control, as well as providing the functionality found needed multimedia players (stop/play/pause, rewind/fast-forward, record, etc). REMOTE WONDER can even be used as a mouse – the directional thumb pad on the top of the remote is used for mouse control, while left and right mouse buttons flank the thumb pad. For added flexibility, six programmable buttons are also present on REMOTE WONDER, these buttons can be used to perform practically any function imaginable.
Once that’s done, assemble the HDTV antenna. The procedure is pretty simple and doesn’t require any tools, just snap the upper portion of the antenna into the base. From start to finish, installing the HDTV WONDER shouldn’t take more than 5-10 minutes. Once the hardware is installed, ATI’s software suite can be installed in a few mouse clicks, and just like setting up a TV, the receiver can automatically scan for stations in your area.
For DTV stations, ATI even provides a handy signal strength meter. You can use this tool to find the optimum location to place the HDTV antenna. The indicator shows signal strength ranging from 0-100% and provides audio feedback so you can position the antenna even while your back is turned away from the monitor.
If you also have an HDTV-ready television and a ATI RADEON 9500 or better and ATI’s HDTV component adapter, you can output content from the HDTV WONDER directly to your HDTV. There’s only one caveat with HDTV WONDER: it requires a DX9 graphics card.
Multimedia Center 9
Multimedia Center is the launch pad for all the software applications that ship with the HDTV WONDER. It includes all the players needed for operating the HDTV WONDER, we’ll discuss the two core players, the DTV player and TV player on the next page, but the file player can be used to watch a variety of video formats, while the CD and VCD players support audio and video CD playback. There’s also a DVD player that includes dual subtitle support among its list of features.
The DTV player is used to watch digital television stations. The digital TV tuner can support up to 70 channels, and as we mentioned before can be used to automatically scan for all major and minor channels in your area. The DTV player functions just like a normal TV player, with channel up and down buttons, and even provide parental control functionality for locking out stations from the kids.
Like other ATI multimedia products the DTV player allows you to capture still images and supports timeshifting, ATI refers to this feature as TV-ON-DEMAND. This allows you to pause live TV, get up and answer the phone, and return later to pick up right where you left off. You can even fast-forward to skip to another section of the programming, or if you wish, you can jump straight back to the live broadcast. HDTV WONDER is the first non-ALL-IN-WONDER product to provide this feature, and the first HDTV tuner card we’re aware of with timeshifting capabilities.
When paired with another tuner card, the HDTV WONDER can provide picture-in-picture support (mulTView), while an ATI card is required for THRUVIEW (which provides a translucent mode that can be used to set the TV as a transparent image behind your work), EAZYLOOK, and the channel surf feature, which is useful for browsing dozens of stations simultaneously.
One new feature ATI has added to the DTV player is “What’s On Now!”. By clicking this button, you can see the program that is currently on as well as a brief description, it will also tell you what’s coming on next. Keep in mind that the availability of this feature will not only vary depending on the channel, but even the content that’s currently on. In other words, your local ABC station may provide this information one hour, and then the next it’s unavailable.
ATI has made one change with recorded DTV content. Since DTV recordings are so large (19.2Mb/sec or about 5GB per hour), DTV recordings are only accessible from within the media library. You can’t access them from anywhere else until they’re exported from within the media library. Once there you can export them into a smaller file (say for instance, for fitting on a DVD or CD) to conserve space, or you can maintain the original DTV quality of your recording.
The HDTV WONDER’s TV player is unchanged from previous ALL-IN-WONDER and TV WONDER products. It’s a stereo TV tuner capable of supporting up to 125 channels and provides TV-ON-DEMAND, VIDEOSOAP (for cleaning up video captures) and Gemstar GUIDE Plus+ in addition to the features we’ve already mentioned for the DTV player. By combining the digital functionality of an HDTV tuner card with the features found in ATI’s analog TV WONDER/ALL-IN-WONDER, ATI’s got all their bases covered. You can watch over-the-air DTV content in standard definition and high definition quality while premium cable channels such as HBO, ESPN, and Cinemax can be watched, scheduled, or recorded with everything you’d expect in an ALL-IN-WONDER card.
Multimedia marvel: With ATI’s HDTV WONDER you truly can do it all. It’s the first product besides ALL-IN-WONDER to provide timeshifting, which is provided for both standard analog signals as well as the DTV stations. Even competing HDTV tuner cards from manufacturers such as Hauppauge don’t provide this feature. Besides providing out-of-the-box DTV watching and recording, HDTV WONDER also supports the same features that have become the norm on ALL-IN-WONDER such as mulTView, EAZYLOOK, and THRUVIEW, provided you have the right hardware.
DX9 cards only: Just yesterday we received word that the HDTV WONDER requires a DirectX 9 video card for operation. This means you’ll need a RADEON 9500 series or better graphics card, or one of NVIDIA’s GeForce FX cards. ATI will be providing a complete list of compatible graphics cards when the HDTV WONDER ships in the first half of July.
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