Summary: With its 3D comb filter and enhanced 5-line 2D filter (among other improvements), ATI's THEATER 550 PRO chip boasts improved image quality over previous ATI offerings. In addition, the chip no longer requires a pass-through cable, supports both PCI and PCI-E interfaces, features a new remote control unit, and most importantly of all, has a built-in MPEG-2 encoder. But what separates ATI's TV WONDER ELITE from other THEATER 550 PRO-based cards? In this article, we've rounded up THEATER 550 PRO boards from ATI, Sapphire, and TUL. See how THEATER 550 PRO looks in comparison to THEATER 200 when capturing TV programming as well as how the cards fare against one another in this article!
Nowadays, home theater PCs are all the rage. Consumers not only want a box that can perform the traditional PC functions, but can also act as a consumer electronics device. These media PCs are used for listening to MP3s, watching videos/DVDs, and watching and recording television programming. Slowly but surely, the PC has moved from the study/den, into the living room as the centerpiece of many consumers home theater system, while college students in dorm rooms have tossed their TV altogether in favor of a media PC to save space.
This is where ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER line comes in. Like a swiss army knife, ALL-IN-WONDER cards are known for their versatility. You can game with them, watch and record TV, make your vid caps and home movies, and with newer ALL-IN-WONDER cards, listen to or record your favorite radio programs.
But the one key downside to ALL-IN-WONDER is the 6-9 month product cycle ATI currently maintains. Quite frankly, ATIís desktop unit refreshes their product line roughly every 6-9 months; these newer cards deliver more performance and sometimes more features. With new, more powerful cards constantly coming out, the latest ALL-IN-WONDER becomes obsolete rather quickly. Technically, RADEON X850 XT and RADEON X850 XT PE both deliver more performance than the ALL-IN-WONDER X800 XT. ATI was also sluggish to replace the ALL-IN-WONDER 9800 PRO.
For enthusiasts who want to remain on the cutting edge of technology, this simply takes too long.
This is where dedicated TV tuner cards come in. Not only can you keep up with the latest graphics developments on the desktop, you can also migrate a dedicated TV tuner card to another PC if you wish. You can literally go through multiple graphics or motherboard upgrades while relying on the same TV tuner card. ATIís nearly six-year-old TV WONDER card can be used in todayís latest PCI Express motherboards.
But upgrade flexibility isnít the only aspect dedicated TV tuners have going for them, starting with the TV WONDER ELITE (and other THEATER 550 PRO cards), high-end dedicated tuner cards now boast higher video quality as well. In fact, ATI touts the TV WONDER ELITE as capable of delivering ďtheater quality videoĒ. Sounds like a killer combo right?
Today weíre taking a look at the first three THEATER 550 PRO cards to hit the market, ATIís TV WONDER ELITE, the PowerColor THEATER 550 PRO, and Sapphireís THEATRIX THEATER 550 PRO.
SIDEBAR: TV WONDER ELITE is the first TV tuner card to be certified by the Imaging Science Foundation
THEATER 200 introduced a number of firsts for ATI. For instance, THEATER 200 was ATIís first decoder chip to feature a 2D 3-Line comb filter. By moving to three lines, THEATER 200 was designed to more accurately process composite video signals, resulting in a cleaner, sharper picture. THEATER 200 also featured dual 12-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), another industry first (competing solutions offered 9 or 10-bit ADCs).
With THEATER 550 PRO, ATI bumps the video quality notch up one bit further, and rounds the package out with an integrated MPEG-2 encoder.
New comb filter
The key to THEATER 550 PROís improved video quality is its motion adaptive 3D comb filter. Up until the THEATER 550 PRO, 3D comb filters were only found in television sets. In fact, ATI claims that the THEATER 550 PROís 3D comb filter is the same one ATI uses in Sony televisions.
Another cool new feature THEATER 550 PRO supports is digital audio processing. In more traditional video solutions, including RAGE THEATER and THEATER 200, audio is sent through a loop-back cable to your sound card. This is inconvenient for users who use their line input connection on their sound card for other devices, and is also more difficult to install for less experienced computer users who arenít as familiar with working within a PC. With THEATER 550 PRO, the audio stream is passed directly into the THEATER 550 PRO chip, digitized with a 12-bit ADC, and then sent to the sound card internally. A loop-back cable isnít necessary.
THEATER 550 PRO also features a built-in MPEG-2 encoder, making it the first ATI ASIC to support this feature. Both audio and video care compressed on THEATER 550 PRO, ensuring that CPU utilization rates arenít as intensive for these tasks. Besides lower CPU utilization, another benefit of dedicated hardware encoding is fewer dropped frames. Finally, because dedicated hardware encoding frees up your CPU, you can perform other tasks while youíre encoding videos such as browsing the internet or reading email. And since audio and video encoding is handled on the same chip, audio and video remain in sync with each other.
To help ensure that frames arenít dropped during the encoding process, THEATER 550 PRO cards are equipped with 16MB of memory. This allows THEATER 550 PRO to handle MPEG encoding at up to 15Mbps.
New silicon TV tuner
In previous ALL-IN-WONDER and TV WONDER cards, ATI has gone with a TV tuner from Philips to provide TV functionality. The Philips tuners were quite responsive changing channels quite rapidly, and didnít generate a lot of heat, but the Philips tuner was massive, often taking up the bulk of space on the PCB.
This space savings allows ATI and their board partners to use half height PCBs on their THEATER 550 PRO cards, making the cards ideal for cramped areas such as those found inside of a small form factor chassis from Shuttle or Biostar. In addition to TV tuning, the MT2050 also tunes FM radio signals, providing FM and TV tuning capabilities to THEATER 550 PRO cards.
In operation, weíve found the new tuner delivers good visual quality, although its performance is definitely less than exhilarating. Changing channels with the new tuner takes more than two seconds to complete, making rapid channel changes in increments of 1 (say for instance, going from channel 40 to 50 one-by-one) a very tedious process. The Philips tuner ATI used previously was considerably faster.
SIDEBAR: We were able to run the TV WONDER just fine on both AMD and Intel platforms, including nForce4.
ATI ships the TV WONDER ELITE with an S-Video and composite video cables, ATIís familiar purple VIVO box, an antenna for FM tuning, driver CD and manual, a copy of CyberLinkís PowerCinema software (ATI Edition) and most importantly, ATIís latest remote control unit, REMOTE WONDER PLUS.
REMOTE WONDER PLUS
ATIís remote control units are highly regarded throughout the industry for their ease of use and performance. Quite simply, ATI provides the best remotes on the market. Fortunately, REMOTE WONDER PLUS continues that tradition.
But a smaller chassis isnít REMOTE WONDER PLUSí only distinguishing feature, as ATI has also taken the time to redesign the remoteís layout. One example are programmable buttons C, D, E, and F, which are now located further away from the playback and recording buttons on REMOTE WONDER PLUS. For instance on REMOTE WONDER II it was easy to mistake the rewind button for the programmable F button. All six buttons can be programmed to perform practically any function you want, including handling basic Windows tasks such as closing an application, or for TV viewing, going back to the channel you just flipped from.
Sadly, REMOTE WONDER IIís four backlit auxiliary buttons are removed, but REMOTE WONDER PLUS still retains the improved thumbpad for mouse control: the thumbpad on the original REMOTE WONDER was incredibly mushy.
Overall we give a big thumbs-up to the changes ATI has implemented in REMOTE WONDER PLUS. Our initial REMOTE WONDER PLUS remote control unit shipped with a weak remote control unit, so there may be a few quality control kinks that may need to be worked out.
SIDEBAR: ATI continues to provide batteries with REMOTE WONDER PLUS
Other than these differences, hardware-wise the boards are indistinguishable. All three boards are also PCI-based, although ATI says THEATER 550 PRO also supports PCI Express. In fact, itís pretty surprising just how similar all three boards are Ė not only is the hardware the same, you also get the same software bundle, right now to the same copy of the ATI Edition of CyberLink PowerCinema with all three cards.
The biggest difference separating the TUL-PowerColor and Sapphire cards from the ATI TV WONDER ELITE is their remote control unit. Both third-party cards ship with the same black CyberLink remote control unit.
The CyberLink remote is IR-based, so you will need line-of-sight to manipulate the remote controlís buttons. A small IR blaster is included in the packaging of both cards, as well as batteries for the remote.
After handling REMOTE WONDER PLUS, the CyberLink remote feels rather primitive. Itís larger and features a simpler layout, with quick launch buttons for other CyberLink products. Unfortunately, the remote doesnít include programmable buttons, but you do get more advanced DVD playback buttons, such as changing the angle or language, as well as adding subtitles. The CyberLink remote also has buttons for timeshifting as well as navigating the submenus found within DVDs, but you donít get a thumbpad for mouse control like you do with REMOTE WONDER PLUS.
One thing Windows Media Center Edition 2005 users should keep in mind with all three remotes is compatibility. Right now, Microsoftís remote control unit is the only remote that can boast 100% compliance, but that doesnít mean that other remotes such as REMOTE WONDER PLUS wonít work.
SIDEBAR: TUL-PowerColor THEATER 550 PRO Product Webpage
Unlike previous ATI multimedia offerings, which have relied on ATIís excellent Multimedia Center software, all three THEATER 550 PRO cards weíre evaluating today, including ATIís own TV WONDER ELITE, utilize the ATI version of CyberLinkís PowerCinema software for TV viewing/personal video recording. Unfortunately, this is where things begin to go downhill.
For starters, and most importantly, the ATI version of PowerCinema doesnít ship with an electronic programming guide (EPG). If you want to see whatís currently on TV, youíll have to whip out your local newspaperís TV listings, or head to an online source such as tvguide.com. This is a definite step back from ATIís own Multimedia Center software, which ships with Gemstar GUIDE PLUS for this functionality. ATI is working with CyberLink to get the electronic programming guide implemented for TV WONDER ELITE users in the near future, but we werenít given an exact ETA by ATI on when this will occur. For now, your only option is to upgrade to the full version of PowerCinema, or purchase other third-party PVR software such as SnapStreamís BeyondTV, Multimedia Center didnít work with any of the THEATER 550 PRO cards we tested.
Another problem with PowerCinema is the depth of recording options; there just arenít enough. CyberLink provides three basic settings, thatís it. You also canít adjust volume control for your recordings. When saving files youíve recorded, PowerCinema wonít allow you to specify where youíd like to save television programming you record, everything goes in the default ďDocuments and SettingsĒ directory of Windows XP.
File types supported are also limited, PowerCinema only supports MPEG-2 for video (bit rate adjustment isnít provided) and WAV/WMA for audio (when saving your FM recordings). Surprisingly enough, the MP3 format isnít supported! When files are saved, the filenames arenít descriptive at all, merely naming the recordings based on the time they were recorded.
Recording in general is a frustrating process, since thereís no EPG you literally have to enter in the time, date, and channel you wish to record for each program. If you remember the old days of programming your VCR by hand manually, the experience is pretty similar.
CyberLink was good enough to provide a ďpreviewĒ feature in the ATI edition of PowerCinema, which takes snapshots of other channels so you can see whatís on, but herein lies the THEATER 550 PROís other problem. Itís MT2050 tuner is so slow that it takes some time to scan through all the channels.
ATI says that they moved to PowerCinema because ďa standalone TV tuner product such as the TV WONDER ELITE needs to provide a compelling and easy to use software solution in order to gain acceptance from not only enthusiasts but mainstream users alikeĒ. In the case of mainstream users, ATI certainly accomplished their mission, as the PowerCinema interface is easy to use and looks appealing. But the problem is that in the process of making PVR software with an easy to use interface, CyberLink loses too much of the functionality thatís needed on a high-end card like TV WONDER ELITE. Itís like getting a shiny new Enzo Ferrari with 10Ē tires and wheels. Sure, it looks good and has impressive specs on paper, but you can only expose 50% of the productís functionality Ė whereís the fun in that?
SIDEBAR: Sapphire THEATRIX 550 PRO Webpage
In order to test out the improvements ATI has implemented in THEATER 550 PRO, weíve compared the TV WONDER ELITE to ATIís ALL-IN-WONDER X800 XT. Both cards ship with the same Microtune TV tuner, but the AIW X800 XT uses ATIís older ASIC, THEATER 200, while the TV WONDER ELITE uses THEATER 550 PRO. This way we can isolate the differences between the two chips. We should also note that we used a Motorola signal booster (Part No 484095-001-00) to boost our cable signal. 90% of the time the analog cable signal is the biggest detriment to getting optimal image quality from a TV tuner card, so we wanted to ensure we were getting the strongest signal possible. Motorolaís signal booster provides an additional 15dB, helping to improve image quality. Youíll also note that the images between the two cards arenít identical frame grabs, due to a delay in processing the signal on our TV WONDER ELITE. We did our best to compensate for the delay.
SIDEBAR: PowerCinema Website
Clearly ATI got the REMOTE WONDER PLUS unit right. The new remote control unit is slimmer, with buttons that are intelligently laid out and function well, with good tactile feedback and crisp response. We still think the original REMOTE WONDER and RWII units had a little more range than REMOTE WONDER PLUS, but the overall design is better than any other remote ATI has produced to date.
The hardware is also very good. THEATER 550 PRO definitely produced images that were superior to a similar card setup with THEATER 200. Noise in our cable signal was reduced as was feathering, and text appeared sharper. In our subjective opinion the final image is a little softer on THEATER 550 PRO as well, which may be a pro or a con depending on your particular tastes and preferences. The weakness in our opinion however is the speed of the new Microtune MT2050 tuner; while the space savings will no doubt be appreciated by small form factor or HTPC users, those of you with larger cases would probably be willing to sacrifice a little bit of space for a faster tuner. We know we sure would.
The real downside to the THEATER 550 PRO cards weíve tested today however has nothing to do with the hardware, and everything to do with CyberLink PowerCinema. PowerCinema is a huge step backwards from Multimedia Center (MMC). Sure, PowerCinema is easier to setup for newbies, but thatís because half of the features found in MMC have been removed! If ATI really wants to make their multimedia offerings more user friendly, weíd suggest they color-code more hardware parts, and provide more documentation with their products, perhaps even a video demonstrating proper installation techniques on the software CD. Donít dumb down your products by taking away features youíve provided for years now. ATI says they wanted to de-emphasize MMC with TV WONDER ELITE, instead focusing on getting their products to work with third-party software applications, but that just isnít a good excuse. When you fork over $150 for a high-end TV tuner card like the TV WONDER ELITE, you shouldnít get software thatís worse than what you provide in the $69 TV WONDER PRO. But thatís exactly whatís happening now.
Fortunately there are alternatives to PowerCinema. We tested the TV WONDER ELITE and the Sapphire and TUL-PowerColor cards with Microsoftís Windows Media Center Edition 2005 with no problems. MCE 2005 ships with an EPG, and solves the other gripes we mentioned on the PowerCinema page, and setting up the TV WONDER ELITE to run with this OS is a snap. Just make sure to install a MCE 2005 compatible DVD decoder such as PowerDVD 6 for best results. If you already own a copy of MCE 2005, consider the TV WONDER ELITE an Editorís Choice Product, as the board clearly delivers superior quality. Another good solution is BeyondTV 3 from Snapstream. A trial version can be downloaded for free off Snapstreamís website if youíd like to try it out for a bit.
And to answer another popular question, how do the Sapphire and TUL-PowerColor THEATER 550 PRO cards compare to TV WONDER ELITE? Fundamentally, theyíre essentially the same. You get the exact same hardware and software, with the key difference being the remote control unit used. TUL-PowerColor and Sapphire rely on CyberLinkís IR-based remote, while the TV WONDER ELITE ships with REMOTE WONDER PLUS. REMOTE WONDER PLUS is clearly the better remote out of the two, but with online retailers such as Newegg selling the TUL-PowerColor and Sapphire boards for over $50 less than TV WONDER ELITE, you have to ask yourself, is the extra money worth the remote? We think the answer for most of you will probably be ďnoĒ, especially with OEM versions of the TUL-PowerColor and Sapphire cards curently selling for $75 in the case of the Sapphire card, and $90 for the TUL-PowerColor on Newegg. In comparison, TV WONDER ELITE currently sells for $145.
For users looking to pick up an inexpensive TV tuner card, this is the route weíd recommend. You get all the best features of TV WONDER ELITE, most importantly of course being THEATER 550 PRO, without the hefty pricetag or the forgettable software. You can then spend the money you saved on a better remote, or a copy of MCE 2005/BeyondTV 3.
Itís because of this that weíve awarded the Bullís Eye Award to both Sapphire and TUL-PowerColorís THEATER 550 PRO cards. Pick one of these boards up if the superior image quality and video encoding found in ATIís THEATER 550 PRO chip appeal to you.
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