Hardware MPEG2 TV tuner round-up
PVR for all
by Tuan Huynh — 1:01 AM on April 13, 2005
DirectX 9-class graphics cards have been available for some time, but a year ago, hardware MPEG2 TV tuners were only widely available from Hauppauge. This situation changed recently with the release of ATI’s TV Wonder Elite and NVIDIA’s NVTV, both of which offer hardware MPEG2 encoding. Hauppauge has also been busy revising and expanding its PVR lineup with products specifically designed for Media Center Edition 2005. But which hardware MPEG2 TV tuner reigns supreme? We’ve rounded up ATI’s TV Wonder Elite, NVIDIA’s NVTV, and Hauppauge’s PVR-150MCE-l.p to find out.
At a glance
Before we dive further into the specifics of each card, let’s take some time to compare some of their key features.
|ATI TV Wonder Elite||eVGA NVTV||Hauppauge PVR-150MCE l.p.|
|Hardware encoder||ATI Theater 550 Pro||LSI DVXPLORE||Conexant CX23416|
|TV decoder||ATI Theater 550 Pro||Philips SAA7173HL||Conexant CX25843|
|Tuner type||Digital silicon||Digital silicon||Analog|
|Slot type||Full-height PCI||Full-height PCI||Low-profile PCI|
|Bundle||Remote Wonder Plus, Cyberlink PowerCinema||NVDVD decoder||None|
Although all three cards feature hardware MPEG2 encoding, each uses a different encoder chip. Of the three cards, ATI’s TV Wonder Elite is the only one to use an MPEG2 encoder that was developed in-house. eVGA’s NVTV takes a different approach and uses LSI Logic’s DVXplore, which is a part of NVIDIA’s reference design for the NVTV. Hauppauge has a history of using Conexant chips, and the PVR-150-l.p. integrates Conexant’s latest CX23416 low-power MPEG2 encoder.
Since MPEG2 encoders can’t decode cable signals on their own, TV tuner cards also need a decoder. ATI’s Theater 550 Pro integrates the MPEG2 encoder and TV decoder into a single chip design, while the NVTV and PVR-150MCE-l.p. use Philips and Conexant decoders, respectively. A single-chip design can reduce board complexity, but shouldn’t offer any tangible benefits to end users over two-chip designs.
Since decoder chips need a signal to decode, each card has a tuner to interface with cable TV, over-the-air, and FM radio signals. ATI and eVGA equip their cards with silicon tuners, while Hauppauge uses an old-school analog tuner. Silicon tuners can theoretically offer superior image quality to analog tuners, but we’ll have to see if this proves true for the cards we’ve assembled today.
While we’re looking at tuners, note that all of these cards use standard-definition TV (SDTV) tuners that cannot decode over-the-air high-definition TV (HDTV) signals. This limits each TV tuner’s input quality to 480i, as regulated by the FCC.
All three cards in this round-up are physically low profile in height, but the PVR-150MCE l.p. is the only card with the appropriate back plate for low-profile cases. It may be possible to modify the ATI and eVGA cards to fit inside low-profile enclosures, but probably not without voiding their warranties.
Introduction — continued
ATI’s multimedia stable is divided into two product groups: Swiss Army knife All-in-Wonder cards and stand alone TV Wonder products. The product lineups co-exist, with the AIW integrating video capture and TV tuning into a regular graphics card while the TV wonder concentrates purely on TV tuning. ATI’s latest addition to the TV Wonder lineup is the TV Wonder Elite, which sits above the mainstream TV Wonder Pro and replaces the OEM-only E-Home Wonder. The TV Wonder Elite is ATI’s first retail TV Wonder with hardware MPEG2 encoding capabilities and support for Windows Media Center Edition 2005.
Aesthetically, the TV Wonder Elite strays from the norm and comes on a dark purple board. The card also features a faux-gold back plate and tuner, just like the most recent All-in-Wonder X600 and X800 cards. Bling bling.
The Theater 550 Pro chip that powers the TV Wonder Elite was announced back in September of last year and is only now finding its way into actual products. While some MPEG2 cards use separate chips for video decoding and encoding, the Theater 550 Pro packs encoding and decoding functions into a single package, reducing board complexity. On the Elite, the Theater 550 Pro is coupled with 16MB of Samsung DDR memory that it uses for video processing tasks.
In addition to its hardware-accelerated video processing capabilities, the Theater 550 Pro also features an adaptive 2D and 3D comb filter to improve image quality. The adaptive comb filter can choose between 2D and 3D filters depending on which is ideal given the source content. However, the comb filter can only be used for composite and coaxial video input, not S-Video. Hardware noise reduction algorithms and anti-aliasing filters also accompany the 3D comb filter to help clean up noisy cable broadcasts and high-motion video.
The Elite uses a silicon tuner for cable and FM tuning. Aside from taking up less board space than most analog designs, silicon tuners can offer superior image quality to their analog brethren.
Like most other ATI multimedia products, the Elite has a Barney purple breakout box for audio and video input. S-Video and composite cables are also included with the package. The bundle also includes some software that we’ll get into in a moment.
ATI’s new Remote Wonder Plus also comes packaged with the TV Wonder Elite. The new remote resembles the Remote Wonder II, but the Plus’s narrower width fits more easily into my hand. However, the Plus is also thinner than previous designs, which makes it harder to wrap one’s hand around than the original Remote Wonder.
The Remote Wonder Plus uses the same responsive mouse divot as the Remote Wonder II. The divot is within thumb’s reach on the remote and provides fast cursor tracking with user-defined acceleration. All of the remote’s other buttons have a neutral feel and response that’s neither too soft nor too firm. Goldilocks would approve.
At first glance, the Remote Wonder Plus’s receiver bears some resemblance to the old Remote Wonder I receiver, but looks can be deceiving. The new receiver works at up to 60 feet, a range previously only possible with the Remote Wonder II’s larger, bulkier receiver.
Despite the new design and feel, the Plus still uses the same driver applet we’ve become accustomed to with existing Remote Wonders. The Remote Wonder Plus’s software comes with the same four pre-installed plug-ins as its predecessors, though two of them are for ATI bundled applications that don’t come with the TV Wonder Elite. Since the Remote Wonder has been around for a while, plenty of third-party plug-ins are available, as is an SDK.
The Remote Wonder software also allows users to assign keyboard events and applications to each of the remote’s six programmable buttons if a suitable plug-in isn’t available.
POST : Irfan Moch R / 08243016 MI-NR-D3
Filed under: Irfan M.Rizky