It seems like the HTPC market is growing faster every day, and I don’t think there’s any better example of this than the fact that the last chipset/motherboard refresh gave us micro-ATX motherboards with built in HDMI outputs from ASUS, Gigabyte, Biostar, MSI, and Sapphire. The video card front is no different; both ATI and NVIDIA are marketing cheap video cards whose feature-lists contain little more than hardware video decoding, and have been HDMI compatible for a long time.
Putting together an HTPC today isn’t just easy, it’s also relatively inexpensive – $500 and a casual eye on a hot deals forum can produce a decent machine with money to spare because there are plenty of good hardware (and thus, rebate) options to choose from.
This brings us to today’s review of two ATI high definition TV Tuners. ATI has been making TV tuners for the PC since… well, since there were TV tuners for the PC, and their TV Wonder and All-In-Wonder product lines have been award-winning mainstays of the HTPC market segment since before the HTPC got its own market segment. Simply put, ATI knows what they’re doing. So we’re going to take a couple of ATI’s more recent TV tuner products for a spin.
The TV tuner is what brings the HT to the PC, so it’s important to know what your money is buying – unfortunately, it’s very difficult to provide a review that will be 100% accurate to every reader when it comes to tuning TV because there are a lot of external variables to deal with, and no universal benchmark to clearly measure performance. That said, we’re still confident that our subjective experience can help you make an informed buying decision. Let’s get to it.
According to the ADM website, the features of the ATI TV Wonder HD 600 PCI include:
The system requirements are easily met, but there is a pronounced lack of 64-bit support. Per the AMD website:
Our review samples came in plain white boxes without the retail packaging. The ATI TV Wonder 600 PCI package includes the tuner card itself along with an infrared remote control and USB receiver, and an adapter for stereo audio input.
The card is half-height, meaning that it will be able to fit in some of the smaller HTPC cases available with the use of a smaller PCI bracket. The card’s single TV tuner is clearly visible, and the remaining inputs are for stereo sound, composite video and S-video. Note that there is no FM tuning capability on this card.
According to the ADM website, the features of the ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB include:
An important note is that ClearQAM signals can only be viewed using Microsoft Vista.
The supported operating systems and system requirements are identical to the TV Wonder HD 600 PCI, with the exception that instead of a free PCI slot, you only need a free USB port and a nearby electrical outlet.
The ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB package includes the tuner box, USB cable and power cable, FM antenna cable, and an infrared remote and USB receiver. The infrared remote receiver is identical to the one included with the ATI TV Wonder 600 PCI, but the remote has a slightly different layout.
The receiver box has various cable connections on three sides, and can be laid flat or set upright on one side. There is a green LED on the face, which lights up when the unit is powered.
Here you can see on the left the two coaxial inputs, one for digital TV, and the other for coaxial TV and FM radio. On the right are the composite video and stereo inputs, as well as the S-video input.
From this angle the USB and power connections can be seen.
On the inside, two Samsung TV Tuners can be seen on the left, the AMD theater 314 IC can be seen top center, next to 256MB of Samsung DDR. The chip with the green sticker is ATI’s Theater 650 pro chipset, with a PLX USB controller on the lower right.