Summary: While ATI's Theater 550 Pro is highly regarded for its image quality, one of its chief drawbacks is its lack of support for DTV broadcasts. That's where Theater 650 comes in. The chip actually boasts improved image quality and it's capable of tuning high definition programming. In today's article we take a look at the TV Wonder 650 which is based around Theater 650. But how does it compare to Theater 550 Pro? Find out in this article!
Watching TV on the PC has become very popular over the past few years, especially with the introduction of Windows XP Media Center Edition. Many of these preconfigured Windows MCE computers come with a TV tuner, sometimes two and are designed for the ultimate media experience.
Unfortunately, often times the TV tuners in OEM computers are proprietary and cheap. Many of these tuners deliver subpar image quality, and do not have dedicated hardware onboard to encode the recorded video and sound. Essentially, these tuners are just bridges between the cable signal and the PC. Fortunately, there are several aftermarket alternatives available on the market that are quite capable performers.
Todayís latest TV tuners offer features like hardware MPEG-2 encoding, which offloads the work from the CPU when you record TV. There are filtering algorithms that reduce background noise and features found on TV sets like 3D Comb filtering for a clearer picture. Some even come with HD programming and FM radio tuning capabilities.
ATI has been a leader in the TV tuner department for some time now. After the release of their HDTV Wonder and Theater 550 Pro cards, they were widely considered to be one of the best TV tuner manufacturers thanks to the high quality picture and low CPU utilization their cards produced. Weíll be looking at ATIís newest tuner, the TV Wonder 650, which is based on ATIís new Theater 650 ASIC. It is an update of their previous award-winning chip, the Theater 550 Pro. Like most TV tuners it is a single tuner card. New features include over-the-air HD reception, MPEG-4 and DivX encoding (via the Catalyst Media Center software), and more.
Letís take a look at the card itself!
We received the retail variant of the TV Wonder 650. This card is exactly what you would find in stores. The card came bundled with necessary software, an FM radio antenna, and an A/V input breakout box. To receive an over-the-air HD signal you must purchase an antenna/signal amplifier separately.
While all Theater 550 Pro-based ATI TV Wonder Elite cards came with a Remote Wonder Plus remote control unit, for the TV Wonder 650, ATI no longer ships the card with a remote included inside the box. Instead ATI offers a coupon that must be mailed in to receive a free remote control unit. This is something we highly suggest you do if you decide to purchase a TV Wonder 650 card, as ATI makes some of the best remotes in the industry.
In the pictures above, the TV Wonder 650 is at the bottom, in deep purple. For a comparison, we included a Theater 550 Pro card manufactured by Powercolor. Our TV Wonder 650 came in the PCI flavor. Some manufacturers will also be producing x1 PCI Express cards to suit the needs of users who have no PCI slots available.
If you just glance at the two cards, you may think they generally look the same, except for the PCB color. They both have the Theater processing chip in the center. Next to it is 16MB of DRAM. This acts as a buffer when the chip performs recording and encoding functions. On the back, there is a Rage Theater chip, not found on the Theater 550 Pro. The Rage Theater chip is found on ATIís All-in-Wonder series, video cards with a TV tuner on board. The Rage Theater chip may help with VIVO (Video In, Video Out) functions. There are also two chips on the back near the PCI connectors that are not present on the Theater 550 Pro board.
Improvements over the Theater 550 Pro
First you select whether you have a standard aspect (4:3) or widescreen (16:9). Because widescreen PC monitors are 16:10, you will have thin black bars on top and bottom. Also, for some 17Ē and all non-widescreen 19Ē monitors which are 5:4 aspects, you will have to set the 4:3 aspect and will have moderately sized empty black bars on the top. Next, you select the signal type. Unless you buy a special antenna for HDTV, youíre all going to use standard cable, or an analog signal. Finally set the analog signal type which would be cable for 99% of users. Nobody should have OTA antennas now. The reason you have to set the connection type is for the next step where the program searches for channels. Finding channels on a TV tuner is different than finding channels from an antenna signal.
Once again, the layout of ATIís Catalyst Media Center is similar to Power Cinema. However the main difference between the two programs is that one actually works. Sometimes, when changing your aspect ratio from widescreen to standard, or vice versa, nothing would happen. Other settings also didnít change or reversed when Power Cinema was shut down. We made sure ATIís Catalyst Media Center options worked. One more difference between the two programs is that ATIís Catalyst Media Center has the DVD authoring software integrated. Just click on the Video button at the main menu. Cyberlinkís Power2Go is a separate DVD authoring program. Both are similar in function, but Cyberlinkís variant is much easier to use. You can just buy it yourself if you donít like ATIís solution.
Our Test System:
As you can see, the CPU utilization while watching TV on the system with the Theater 550 Pro card (left) was 19% on average. However, when the 650 Pro card was installed (right), the CPU utilization while watching fell to 13% on average. The change was not noticed, but it definitely shows. Notice however than when the 650 Pro card was installed, the amount of processes went up by 3 and the page file usage went up 26MB from 283MB to 309MB.
Watching and Recording:
When recording the CPU utilization naturally went up on both cards about the same amount. The CPU utilization on the configuration with the Theater 550 Pro card (left) was higher at 21% than the 16% utilization of the configuration with ATIís 650 Pro tuner (right). The page file usage was up 27MB when ATIís Theater 650 Pro tuner was installed. Again, the difference is not noticeable unless you open up task manager and have a look at the numbers. This low CPU usage is all due to the hardware decoding and encoding of the Theater chips and the onboard buffer memory. Older TV tuners sometimes forced the CPU to do all the work, which often resulted in 100% CPU utilization on slower CPUs.
You should really clock on the thumbnails to see the full size snapshot to compare the differences (or lack thereof) better. The main difference between the two pictures is quality. Everything is smoother with the Theater 650. There are no imperfections in the picture, no lines or distortions. In the Theater 550 Proís snapshot there are a couple of distorted lines arranged horizontally across the screen. The girlís orange hair is orange throughout in the Theater 650ís image. The 550 Proís image shows some red, light orange and other colors in the girlís hair. The Theater 550ís colors are not as uniform as those of the Theater 650.
Here are two more examples of images from each tuner. The Theater 550 Proís images (left) are slightly distorted. It has difficulty displaying one (or several very similar shades) over a large area of the screen. The night sky in the back and the girlís hair show irregularity. All colors are smooth and the edges are round in the Theater 650ís image. Colors are also slightly brighter with the Theater 650 Pro.
The Theater 650 Pro can accept ATSC signals with an optional antenna. The Theater 550 Pro can only accept standard cable (analog), but the 650 can receive digital signal as well.
Another improvement from the 550 Pro is the picture quality. Colors are less distorted and more uniform. As we observed from the sample images, the new edge enhancement algorithms in the Theater 650 helped to soften the edges a bit. Everything is brighter with the 650 Pro, but this can be adjusted to the userís preference. System utilization went down, rather than up. Despite all of the visual enhancements and software improvements, the CPU utilization with the Theater 650 went down anywhere from 3-5%. Page file usage did go up, because our test system only had 512MB of system memory. However even while encoding, we saw no lag or slowdowns. The Theater 650 does much of the work on its own, so you donít need a very powerful system to have a great home theater experience.
The software is also enhanced significantly. ATIís Theater 550 Pro cards were bundled with Cyberlinkís PowerCinema program. It had enough features to take full advantage of the cardís power, however the program was extremely unreliable. Glitches and bug prevented some changes from taking effect or others from functioning at all. ATIís Catalyst Media Center is a much needed improvement. It has the same visual layout of PowerCinema, but every setting works like described. Both the Theater 550 and 650 are compatible with almost every TV program, including Microsoftís Media Center, BeyondTV, SageTV, and many others. You should be fine with just the Catalyst software unless youíre a hardcore home theater enthusiast.
We definitely recommend this ATIís new Theater 650 for any home theater PC setup. There is no doubt that this is the best analog TV tuner on the market. With street prices at roughly $120 at the time of writing, it is also one of the best values on the market.
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