Digital TV Option 2: ATI TV Wonder 650 PCI ExpressBy Frank Ohlhorst | 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.