Digital TV Option 2: ATI TV Wonder 650 PCI Express

By Frank Ohlhorst  |  Print this article Print

Can vendors make Microsoft Vista ready for the switch to digital TV? Take an in-depth look at two DTV tuners that may have all the answers and learn how solution providers can profit from the transition to digital television.

At $119.99, the ATI TV Wonder 650 Combo PCI Express shouldn't bust any budgets, especially considering the product's capabilities and software bundle. What's more, the TV Wonder 650 is Windows Vista premium logo-certified, which indicates the product should work fine with Windows Vista. We installed the card and software on a test system running 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate Edition. The test system featured a quad-core Intel CPU, 8GB of RAM and an Nvidia Quadro FX5600 display adapter, which should have been more than enough horsepower for most any video solution.

Installation proved to be straightforward, with the most complicated part being physically installing the PCI Express Card. Here is one area where a USB 2.0 device does have a clear advantage, eliminating the need to disassemble and reassemble the PC. The included Catalyst Media Center software was also easy to install and featured a setup wizard that configured the card and viewing preferences for the user.

The card features several connectors, a coax connector for digital signals, a coax connector for analog signals, an S-Video connector and a 3.5-millimeter stereo audio connector. The S-Video and audio connectors are useful for capturing video and audio from a camcorder, VCR or DVD player. On the other hand, having two coax connectors can be a problem. For our test, we were interested in watching both Clear QAM (digital cable) and analog cable channels. We were forced to use a splitter to connect both signals to the card, adding an extra expense and degrading the analog signal. In contrast, the Pinnacle product works with just a single coax connection.

With the product installed in our test system, all of the appropriate cables connected and the software installed, it was time to launch the configuration wizard. The configuration program presents the user with a few logical choices (such as signal type and program guide) to ease the initial setup. While, in theory, that should prove to be a good way to get started, we encountered a few issues. First off, the setup application forces you to choose a single signal source, so we were unable to use the setup wizard to configure both our analog and digital signals. Secondly, the channel guide portion of the setup could be a little more informative by letting the user know what some of the specifics are about the channel guide source and how it will update.

Our biggest issue with the setup program (and ATI CatalystMC in general) was the frequent program crashes when we scanned for signals. ATI CatalystMC identifies watchable content by scanning frequencies over the cable connection, a lengthy process that can take more than 10 minutes. When we got to this point in the setup, our frequency scan would get up to about 70 percent and then the application would crash with a generic Windows error message: "ATI MX Main Program has stopped working." We were unable to resolve the problem, and additional runs of the setup wizard or a new channel scan would always result in the same error. We could find no information on the company's Web site or any patches to fix the problem.

We also encountered this same problem after manually configuring some channels and then trying to switch channels using the applications channel selector. In that case the error would pop up randomly. That makes the ATI CatalystMC application unusable in our opinion, and we would suggest that users choose to use Windows' own Media Center with the card to watch or record TV. There is one catch here, though: Windows Vista Media Center does not support Clear QAM directly, and ATI does not offer a driver or patch for this card that will allow Media Center to use Clear QAM.

In ATI's defense, readers should remember that our setup used the 64-bit version of Vista, and most TV cards on the market offer no support for 64-bit at all. Tests by others have shown that ATI CatalystMC works without problems on the 32-bit version of Vista.

In our case, when the application worked, the ATI product did offer excellent video and audio quality. Thanks to the hardware acceleration built into the card, users will be impressed by the quality of high-definition TV broadcasts and how smoothly the ATI product decodes digital transmissions, with no loss in quality or dropped frames.

Frank Ohlhorst Frank J. Ohlhorst is the Executive Technology Editor for eWeek Channel Insider and brings with him over 20 years of experience in the Information Technology field.He began his career as a network administrator and applications program in the private sector for two years before joining a computer consulting firm as a programmer analyst. In 1988 Frank founded a computer consulting company, which specialized in network design, implementation, and support, along with custom accounting applications developed in a variety of programming languages.In 1991, Frank took a position with the United States Department of Energy as a Network Manager for multiple DOE Area Offices with locations at Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPL), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL), FermiLAB and the Ames Area Office (AMESAO). Frank's duties included managing the site networks, associated staff and the inter-network links between the area offices. He also served at the Computer Security Officer (CSO) for multiple DOE sites. Frank joined CMP Technology's Channel group in 1999 as a Technical Editor assigned to the CRN Test Center, within a year, Frank became the Senior Technical Editor, and was responsible for designing product testing methodologies, assigning product reviews, roundups and bakeoffs to the CRN Test Center staff.In 2003, Frank was named Technology Editor of CRN. In that capacity, he ensured that CRN maintained a clearer focus on technology and increased the integration of the Test Center's review content into both CRN's print and web properties. He also contributed to Netseminar's, hosted sessions at CMP's Xchange Channel trade shows and helped to develop new methods of content delivery, Such as CRN-TV.In September of 2004, Frank became the Director of the CRN Test Center and was charged with increasing the Test Center's contributions to CMP's Channel Web online presence and CMP's latest monthly publication, Digital Connect, a magazine geared towards the home integrator. He also continued to contribute to CMP's Netseminar series, Xchange events, industry conferences and CRN-TV.In January of 2007, CMP Launched CRNtech, a monthly publication focused on technology for the channel, with a mailed audience of 70,000 qualified readers. Frank was instrumental in the development and design of CRNTech and was the editorial director of the publication as well as its primary contributor. He also maintained the edit calendar, and hosted quarterly CRNTech Live events.In June 2007, Frank was named Senior Technology Analyst and became responsible for the technical focus and edit calendars of all the Channel Group's publications, including CRN, CRNTech, and VARBusiness, along with the Channel Group's specialized publications Solutions Inc., Government VAR, TechBuilder and various custom publications. Frank joined Ziff Davis Enterprise in September of 2007 and focuses on creating editorial content geared towards the purveyors of Information Technology products and services. Frank writes comparative reviews, channel analysis pieces and participates in many of Ziff Davis Enterprise's tradeshows and webinars. He has received several awards for his writing and editing, including back to back best review of the year awards, and a president's award for CRN-TV. Frank speaks at many industry conferences, is a contributor to several IT Books, holds several records for online hits and has several industry certifications, including Novell's CNE, Microsoft's MCP.Frank can be reached at frank.ohlhorst@ziffdavisenterprise.com

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