Date: February 28, 2008
Author(s): Nate Marion
AMD recently released two new ATI TV Wonder HD tuners, both of which have been in our lab for the past few months. In that time, we’ve put them through numerous tests to see what each one was made of. While the 600 PCI left a bit to be desired, the 650 Combo USB proves to do a lot of things right.
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.
Both tuner cards being reviewed today use identical driver installation schemes and can be operated with the same ATI Catalyst Media Center program or with Windows Media Center. Installing the WDM drivers and Catalyst Media Center is very straightforward regardless of the operating system being used.
Windows XP users will likely want to install Catalyst Media Center and AVIVO drivers for the most functionality, but users running Windows Vista or Windows Media Center may opt to install the WDM integrated drivers only, because Windows Media Center can control all of the functions of these ATI tuner cards while offering more functionality.
Installing the infrared receiver for the included remote is as easy as plugging it in and positioning it. Other than putting batteries in the remote, nothing more is required to remotely control the ATI Catalyst Media Center.
Some readers may appreciate more information on Catalyst Media Center, including a demo, which can be found here.
Once the card(s), drivers and Catalyst Media Center are installed, setting up the cards in Catalyst Media Center is fairly simple. Note that ClearQAM digital cable signals can only be properly received in Windows Vista – only analog cable or over-the-air ATSC broadcasts can be viewed in Windows XP.
The process is easy except for setting up the electronic programming guide (EPG). The list of signal providers can be rather long and include duplicates, meaning that it may take a few tries in order to receive the correct channel information. This is one area where there is definite room for improvement – Windows Media Center’s EPG is much more accurate and automated – more in that later.
Once the setup wizard is complete, users are returned to the home screen of Catalyst Media Center.
From the home window of Catalyst Media Center, users can watch live TV, DVDs, and recorded video in multiple formats, as well as listen to live radio and update/change the settings. The extras include free trials of three different Cyberlink software products. Considering that Catalyst Media Center is itself only a slightly modified version of Cyberlink’s PowerCinema, this shouldn’t be very surprising.
Watching TV is as easy as choosing an available channel and selecting it.
The EPG is pretty standard, if you can get it to work. After running the setup wizard dozens of times, I don’t recall the EPG ever having all of the correct information for the channels that were displayed, regardless of the signal settings or EPG selection. This will no doubt vary by region and carrier, but a quick glance around the web was quick to turn up many discussions regarding problems with the Catalyst Media Center EPG. Some programs will allow a user to schedule recordings using the programming guide – Catalyst Media Center is not one of them.
Aside from that, there were no issues watching TV. Simply enable time shifting in the settings menu, plug in the IR receiver for the remote, and enjoy.
Setting up a recording schedule in Catalyst Media Center is fairly simple. The scheduling options are found in the TV menu, and here users can set up recording times.
There are a few quirks, however. First and foremost, Catalyst Media Center does not allow the user to select the video input to record – this effectively means that only one TV tuner can be used effectively with this software – recording one channel and watching another or recording two channels at once is not possible with Catalyst Media Center.
Also, Catalyst Media Center apparently thinks it has a maximum recording time of three hours – attempting to schedule a longer recording will trigger a message that the recording exceeds the maximum limit – but then the recording appears on the schedule seemingly without a problem.
I was able to successfully record for over three consecutive hours, with the only notable issue being that the maximum file size was just over 4GB, so I ended up with several files for a single recording, but it doesn’t look like any content was cut out of the recording. This effect is common of many 32-bit designed multi-media applications, however.
Once a file has been recorded, viewing it is as simple as selecting it in the videos menu.
Catalyst Media Center supports recording and playback of several different formats, but using them isn’t as straightforward as it could be.
In order to specify the format in which to record video, users first need to create a custom profile in the recording settings menu.
Choosing to create a custom profile will allow users to select their desired recording format.
Once the profile has been created and named, (to avoid confusion, names should not contain spaces) it can be used to record TV in the settings menu and to convert existing video files by right clicking on them in the videos menu.
Of the two tuners being reviewed, only the ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB has the capability to tune radio signals. Getting this feature set up with the included FM tuner cable is easy. First, Catalyst Media Center scans for radio stations. Once the scan is complete, users can view a list of the stations that were found, name them, and add them to a list of favorites. Users can also change the recording and fine tuning settings in the settings menu. Recording options include WMA 32K, 64K and 128K.
Radio output quality was as good as any radio I’ve listened to, and will depend on local signal strength/weather/geography.
From the Video menu, users can choose to burn a DVD.
Here, users select the video files to be burned.
The chapter order, menu background and menu music can then be set. Once this is done, the burning process can begin. When the burning process starts, Catalyst Media Center informs the user that Catalyst Media Center can be minimized so that the user can work on other things, but notes that burning requires a lot of resources – man, they aren’t kidding.
Even with an Intel Q6600 CPU clocked to 3.2GHz, CPU usage was consistently 80% or more on all four cores, with occasional pauses as chapters are completed. I also ran into another problem.
Catalyst Media Center froze before the disc was complete on two occasions. On my third try, I didn’t select any menu music (I had selected an mp3 file on the previous attempts) and the burn process completed without a problem. I can only assume that the mp3 music file was causing a problem, since that was the only different between the attempts. ‘Polished’ is not the word here.
While certainly good enough for basic use, the Catalyst Media Center is not without its quirks. I had a problem when switching from analog to digital input, where the digital signal would be full of artifacts (if it appeared at all) and generally required either Catalyst Media Center or the entire machine to be restarted in order to get the digital signal displayed properly (rescanning channels didn’t work).
I also found that trying to record an analog signal after changing the input from digital to analog often resulted in artifacts and sound errors unless the machine was restarted. For most users this won’t be a problem, but I think it is a point against the robustness of Catalyst Media Center.
While it appeared that I could control both TV tuners at the same time with CMC, I found that using what appeared to be the more recent version of CMC (shipped with the ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB), I was completely unable to get acceptable reception of digital TV with the ATI TV Wonder 600 PCI. While the analog signal was simply a little noisy, the digital signals were completely garbled regardless of how many times the channels were scanned or the system was restarted. I even saw a couple BSODs while trying to restart the machine. The only way to get a digital signal with the TV Wonder 600 PCI was to reinstall the version of Catalyst Media Center that originally came with it – and even then I had a couple problems getting the audio to work.
I was able to control both TV tuners at once with the Catalyst Media Center, to the extent that I could switch video inputs between the cards. However, when scheduling a recording, there is no option to distinguish between the video inputs, meaning that recording one channel while watching another is not possible using Catalyst Media Center. The lack of this feature, and the questionable reliability of the built-in electronic programming guide are the biggest flaws with the program. Aside from a few technicalities when it came to setting up recording formats, the CMC was fairly functional and intuitive.
A Note on Windows Media Center:
After installing and setting up the Catalyst Media Center, doing the same with Windows Media Center was a breeze. Basically all it asks is that the user verify that the setup should be performed automatically. The TV signal was always set up correctly, and the EPG exactly matched the one shown on my main TV hooked to my cable box.
There was only one problem – the ATI tuners would not tune any HD channels, which, in my case, start at channel 702. I could tune channels 2 through 78 only, none of which were HD. Using Windows Media Center to reassign channels (another convenience CMC lacks) did not solve this problem. While CMC may not have displayed all of my available channels in any one setup, it was able to display some HD content with the right settings. The inconvenience caused by such inconsistency will likely vary widely depending on users service providers.
Recording with Windows Media Center was also much easier. Simply open the guide, and select the show to be recorded.
An entire series can be scheduled for recording with one click.
Aside from not being able to view HD content (probably due to channel numbers), I preferred Vista Media Center over the Catalyst Media Center due to ease of use and the ability to record and watch different channels.
In order to test the performance of each TV Tuner, I used each to view both analog and digital TV signals broadcast by my local cable provider, Cablevision. Below you will see several screenshots for comparing picture quality as well as CPU usage information.
It may be worth noting that I also tested both cards with over-the-air (OTA) ATSC antenna, and verified that there were no distinguishable differences in picture quality.
The test system is as follows:
All screenshots were taken using the Catalyst Media Center to view the TV signal in full screen mode at 1920×1200 resolution, and have been resized to 1000×750 resolution with GIMP. A custom recording profile was created to encode the recordings in MPEG-2, with all other options left at default settings. I chose to use MPEG-2 because the TV Wonder HD 650 has hardware MPEG-2 compression, while the TV Wonder HD 600 encodes via software.
Analog TV via coaxial cable:
You can see that there’s quite a bit of noise shown here, which is disappointing. I remounted and reinstalled the PCI card, cable, and software multiple times, each with the same result.
CPU usage was a little more pleasant:
CPU usage never went above 4% while watching SDTV, but this isn’t much of a saving grace given the poor quality.
Recording this signal in MPEG-2 bumps CPU usage up slightly:
Usage bounced between 6-8% in general, but if the picture was minimized, usage dropped back to 4%.
Digital TV (1080i) via coaxial cable:
Thankfully, the Digital signal reproduction is excellent. Users will definitely be able to enjoy high definition content.
The CPU Usage while viewing 1080i HD content at 1920×1200 can be seen below.
Overall CPU usage hovered between 9-11%, while the Catalyst Media Center actually used about 8%. Recording didn’t change much:
CPU usage while recording a 1080i broadcast bounced between 9-11% overall, ~8% due to Catalyst Media Center. By minimizing the window, usage dropped to 2-4%.
From what we can see here, the TV Wonder 600 PCI is a very capable digital TV tuner, providing very good quality reproduction of high definition content and requiring very little CPU power to view and record. The story is quite different when it comes to analog content though. Analog video was so noisy that even the most indifferent of viewers would be hard pressed to watch it, but with the ever-increasing adoption of digital transmission, many users may never have cause to notice this shortcoming.
Analog TV via coaxial cable:
The ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB clearly does a better job with standard definition signals; the quality is great.
Here you can see the CPU usage while watching full screen SDTV blown up to 1920×1200 resolution:
CPU usage fluctuated around 6-8% in general. Here is what happens when that same SDTV signal is recorded in MPEG-2:
CPU usage was practically unchanged from simple viewing, bouncing from 7-8% in general, with the occasional bump to 10%. However, with the picture minimized, CPU usage was practically nil, from 0-3%.
That’s hardware MPEG-2 encoding at work.
Digital TV via coaxial cable:
HDTV looks great as well.
Here you can see the CPU usage while watching a full screen 1080i signal blown up to 1920×1200 resolution:
CPU usage fluctuated around 7-10% in general. When that same 1080i signal is recorded, CPU usage appears increases notably:
When recording, CPU usage seems to increase sharply, but the task manager itself is causing that – the usage by process clearly indicates that Catalyst Media Center is only using 8-10% of the CPU, which can be reduced even further by minimizing the picture, to a mere 2-4%.
The TV Wonder 650 Combo clearly did a much better job with analog signals, but there was only a minimal advantage when it came to CPU usage or recording quality. The hardware MPEG-2 encoding might be more noticeable with a slower CPU, but is undetectable in this environment.
Both of the ATI TV tuners tested performed very well when it came to digital content; the picture was crisp and clear, the recording quality was excellent in general, and the CPU footprint was minimal – rarely exceeding 10% even while recording 1080i broadcasts. Encoding with H.264 caused CPU usage to increase to ~20% in general with both cards. Either of these two TV tuners would be a great choice for digital TV.
Users who may want to view broadcasts via analog cable will want to steer clear of the TV Wonder 600 PCI due to the very poor picture quality.
When it comes to radio broadcasts, the TV Wonder 650 Combo USB is as good as any radio, but isn’t going to perform any miracles when it comes to weak FM signals.
On the software side, I have to say that I’m very unimpressed with the Catalyst Media Center program. The ability to effectively control two video input devices such that one channel can be recorded and another viewed is a very important feature that Catalyst Media Center leaves out – especially considering that the TV Wonder HD 650 can accept both a digital and analog video feed simultaneously.
The finicky EPG and somewhat unintuitive recording settings won’t be putting smiles on many faces, and the technical difficulties I experienced while installing/uninstalling new/older versions to get a particular tuner to work correctly help to round out that ‘this software was just an afterthought to give marketing something to say on the box’ feeling. That said, I will remind you that many of the issues I ran into are unlikely to be experienced by the average home user simply because there will be fewer variables.
Catalyst Media Center is otherwise functional and fairly intuitive, but I would still recommend some version of Windows Media Center; and if your goal is to view ClearQAM, you’ll need Vista and thus have Windows Media Center anyway. ATI also advertises that the Theater 650 cards are compatible with Cyberlink Powercinema, Intervideo Home Theater, and Snapstream BeyondTV. The more the merrier, I say.
Let’s wrap this up with some ratings, shall we?
If a digital TV tuner is what you want, the TV Wonder 600 will do the job well.
The ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo USB is much easier to recommend due to its excellent picture quality regardless of the type of signal.
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