ATI TV Wonder Elite

ATI TV Wonder Elite

Written by John Yan on 3/31/2005 for PC  
More On: ATI TV Wonder Elite

Ever since ATI announced the new Theater 550 chipset, I was pretty excited at the possibilities new All-in-Wonder and stand alone TV cards utilizing the technology. Whenever someone asks me what TV card they should get for their HTPC system, I would never hesitate in saying the Hauppauge PVR-150 for single tuners and the PVR-500 for those looking for dual tuners. With the release of the TV Wonder Elite from ATI, the choice for single tuners is not just Hauppauge anymore.

ATI’s produced a plethora of TV cards and multimedia cards in their days but the only thing that I felt that held it back was the lack of true hardware MPEG-2 encoding to reduce the CPU load when recording TV. The Theater 550 chipset changes that and with the change should come greater picture quality and no frame skipping. The ATI TV Wonder Elite is the first card to come out that uses the new Theater 550 chipset. For those that don’t know about the Theater 550, here’s some information from our preview we did a few months ago.

The TV Wonder Elite features the new Theater 550 chip that has many HTPC users buzzing. HTPC users will be happy to see that it makes the jump to hardware MPEG encoding providing CPU usage relief and allowing you to ease up on how powerful a CPU you will want to purchase for your HTPC machine. I’ve been experiencing 6-10% CPU usage on recording with hardware based cards and I expect the same with the TV Wonder Elite.

A quick overview of the new Theater 550 chip : 12-bit Video decoder with hardware 3D Comb Filter, Hardware Noise Reduction, DVD quality MPEG-2 encoder, stereo audio support, and more. There will be support for both PCI and PCI Express. An option of including an FM tuner is also available and should be integrated in for MCE cards. I’m hoping to see these chips appear in the All-in-Wonder line giving you truly the best of both worlds in gaming and multimedia.

From the looks of the picture, the card now features a blue/black PCB with gold trimmings. The tuner’s size looks to have really decreased and changed from the silver finish to the gold as well. It also looks like there will be hope for a low profile version as the card itself looks pretty small. It’s definitely a lot less bulky than the TV Wonders that they currently have. Then again it is a stock photo and it can change when the final product is finally released. Two Coaxial connectors are located on the back and I assume one is for a radio antennae while the other is for a TV signal. Finally, it looks like there’s a connector for the common ATI breakout box with additional connectors.

Users of SageTV, BeyondTV, or Windows XP Media Center Edition will really want to check the card out for a multiple tuner setup. With software assisted encoding tuners, the CPU usage would hit pretty high on some systems when using more than one. With the TV Wonder Elite, you should be able to record multiple stations at the same time with multiple cards and not be worried that it might skip a beat from taxing the CPU and that the picture quality of each show should be great.

The TV Wonder Elite is certified by Imaging Science Research Labs Inc. From ATI’s website itself:

The Imaging Science Research Labs (ISF RL) certification and logo identify ATI’s Media Center Edition-ready products as best-in-class multimedia components, tested and verified to meet a superior level of technical performance, and the approval of the most discerning eye and ear.

Imaging Science Research Labs (ISF RL) has established industry standard video quality specifications for Windows® XP Media Center Edition in cooperation with Microsoft®. ISF’s certification signifies that ATI’s PC components and products designed for Microsoft® Windows® XP Media Center Edition have been rigorously tested to comply with the most exacting audio/visual quality standards, and are optimized for the highest quality multimedia performance. Together, ATI and ISF RL are working to ensure that ATI’s retail products intended for Windows® XP Media Center Edition meet or exceed all home entertainment-based quality criteria, including artifact-free video playback performance, superb color rendition, reliability, and low-noise operation.

If you’re worried that this product might not give you the quality you want in a MCE system, then this certification can ease some of it. It might not mean much to some people and it might to others so take this as you will.
So now that we have a full retail card in our labs after the announcement a few months ago. From what we have here, it looks exactly like what was presented in the picture a few months ago. The PCB is actually a purple-ish color now that we can see the product in person. Included in the package are the card, a new Remote Wonder Plus, a radio antenna, and Cyberlink’s Power Cinema ATI Edition. If you plan on connecting a video source with S-video or composite connections, there's the breakout box that is in many of ATI's All-in-Wonder products.

For the past few years, I’ve said on my reviews of All-in-Wonder cards how ATI’s Multimedia Center needed a facelift and some better integration with a guide program. Well, ATI decided against support for this card in MMC and instead went with a third party program in Cyberlink’s Power Cinema. The guide issue hasn’t been resolved because, well, there is no guide currently with the ATI Edition. Fear not as ATI has stated that there will be a free upgrade for the program to include guide information. It will be annoying if you use this card with the included software but for those buying the card for use in XP Media Center, BeyondTV, SageTV, or some other third party program this won’t be an issue.

There were two programs I had on hand that I really want to test this card with. One was Snapstream’s BeyondTV and the other is Microsoft’s Windows XP Media Center Edition. As you read earlier, this one of the first cards to get the ISF RL certification making the card ideal for Media Center Edition. First up though was getting it to work with BeyondTV.

My test setup consisted of:

AMD64 3800+
MSI RS480M2-IL motherboard
Sapphire X800XL
Maxtor 160GIG 7200RPM HD
2 – 256MB OCZ PC3200 RAM

I also had the test setup output to the TV via S-Video and Component cables.

Right off the bat, BeyondTV detected the card after all driver and program installations. The program was displaying picture and sound in the preview of the setup screen after working through the program wizard. I had problems with my Hauppauge PVR-250 at this stage even though it worked but the TV Wonder Elite didn’t error out like the PVR-250. So after setting up the recording settings of BeyondTV to Best and downloading the guide, I began watching the Ohio State University upset of undefeated Illinois in NCAA men’s basketball. Picture quality is on par with the Hauppauge card albeit a little softer on the monitor. The card did a great job at keeping up with the action and I didn’t notice any pausing or skipped frames. Transitions and quick motions were smooth. Picture quality was top notch and watching it on my CRT TV with component inputs produced a great picture. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised as I expected the card to do well and it didn’t disappoint.
To compare with the Hauppauge, I recorded a news program at the same time with both cards and using the same cable line. From a naked eye perspective and taking account color, motion, and clarity, the picture quality between the two was very comparable. With an upclose capture of each picture, I found the two to be similiar with both producing great quality. The TV Wonder Elite does seem to have edges that are a little softer than the Hauppauge card. Of the two pictures, I liked them both and found that it was hard to tell when you output them to the TV which is which.

Plugging the Remote Wonder Plus in, I was navigating through BeyondTV’s interface without any adjustments to the program. I was a little surprised that it worked without any hitches and was very happy I could use the included remote with the program. The thin profile remote didn’t show any lag between the time of pressing the command and having the function initiated. It’s also a very comfortable remote to hold with good feel on the buttons and everything labeled very clearly.

This card’s being marketed at being a great Windows XP Media Center Edition card. With that in mind, I installed my copy of the OS onto the machine. With a clean setup, I walked through the installation wizard and I was watching TV with the card. Picture quality was almost the same as with BeyondTV. With the included radio tuner, I had no problems listening to my local stations with Media Center. The included antennae picked up most of the signals successfully. Changing channels seemed to take the same amount of time for the TV Wonder Elite as it did for the Hauppauge card. There’s a slight delay, perhaps a second or a second and a half, before the channel changes.

Recording with both programs had the CPU usage sitting at around 8-12%, which is what I expected from a hardware MPEG-2 encoding capable card. You should be able to pop a few of these in a BeyondTV or SageTV server and record many stations at once without worrying about load on the CPU. We don’t have two cards in the labs just yet but we’ll try to get one paired up soon and also we’ll do a quick update on how the card will behave with a Hauppauge in there as well working in tandem.

If you don’t have a DVR program, the Cyberlink product isn’t too shabby. It has plenty of features such as a picture viewer, Live TV, and radio tuner that you have in other DVR programs. The interface is similar to Media Center XP but without the flair that makes MCE loved by many. But when you’re used to such polished programs as MCE and BeyondTV, the Cyberlink program isn’t as strong.

ATI’s first product using the Theater 550 chip is a great success. I didn’t have any driver issues and the cards ran like a champ for a few days straight and without a restart. The Remote Wonder Plus is a definite improvement over the original design with its low profile and a great bonus that comes with the card. The price is $50 more than a Hauppauge PVR-150; a product that also includes a remote but no FM tuner. The Cyberlink package is a little lacking especially with no guide currently but that will change with a software update. There’s also no MMC support currently and there’s talk that there won’t be. I’m not that upset over it as this card is really suited to be used in other applications. Put this card in a system with a HDTV Wonder and you’ll have some great TV viewing on your hands. I’m holding out on a dual tuner version of this card and with the smaller tuner box, they shouldn’t have any problems putting them on a PCB and still keep the size small. The TV Wonder Elite is a good buy for those looking for a single tuner card and now I can recommend another brand of TV cards besides Hauppauge when someone asks me what tuner they should get.

-Update- There seems to be a problem with the TV Wonder Elite in combinations with some motherboards (ABIT) and ATI video cards. The system would work fine until the TV Wonder Elite card was inserted. The system would not boot and you'd get a beep code of one long and two short. Putting the cards in different systems with different motherboards worked without a hitch. If you change the video card from an ATI brand to NVIDIA, it would work as well. It's hard to pinpoint who should fix this but I'm leaning towards the motherboard manufacturer. If more information pops up, I'll be sure to update this article.
There's another TV card I'd recommend to those building an HTPC and this is it. The TV Wonder Elite gives ATI a solid TV capture card and one that works well in MCE and other programs.

Rating: 9 Excellent

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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I've been reviewing products since 1997 and started out at Gaming Nexus. After writing for a few different sites that went under, it's nice to bring back a site that's not dependent on revenue and just wants to deliver news and reviews of products.

I'm  married, and enjoy first person shooters, sports games, and real time strategy games.

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