Mar 16 2007



Analog TV isn’t dead, yet.  Last month I bought an ATI TV Wonder 550 so I can watch TV and surf the web during commercials.  That’s what you call multitasking.  Given I spend most of my waking hours on the computer this was the way to go.  I didn’t quite feel comfortable getting ATI’s latest, the TV Wonder 650, knowing the problems people seem to be having with it.  Besides, for $40 the TV Wonder 550 is a third the cost of the Elite.

The card is an analog TV tuner and uses the ATI Theater 550 Pro chip while the TV Wonder 650 is analog and a digital tuner and uses the ATI Theater 650 Pro chip.  From what I gather from other people’s comments the 650’s analog performance is practically no different from the 550.

I had a Pinnacle TV tuner several years ago which I found horrendous to use.  The picture quality was not as good as a real TV.  My primary complaints were the highlights being overblown and the shadows being too dark.  Needless to say the brightness control was pretty much useless as that only fixed one of the problems at a time.  So, when I bought this ATI tuner card I was hoping things have improved in this regard.

Three days after ordering and I had the tuner card unpacked and in my computer.  I installed the latest drivers (v6.14.10.231) from ATI’s website and the Catalyst Media Center (CMC) which is included in a CD.  This is the program used for TV viewing and to listen to the radio.  It’s a stripped-down version of CyberLink’s PowerCinema.  I found it very easy to use.

Make sure you have a DirectX accelerated video card.  I initially used my onboard video and CMC simply locked up during channel scan.  I thought it was just a buggy software since other TV programs I tried worked.  But once I installed a Radeon 7200 things went much smoother and responsive.

Now, I don’t know whether to put-down ATI or praise them.  It’s nice of them to include CMC with the tuner but for the love of me why on earth offer a piece of software that doesn’t fully take advantage of the bells and whistles of the TV Wonder 550.  ATI touts the card as the best analog TV tuner for the PC with it’s advance 2D/3D filters and hardware mpeg2 encoding.  While all of that is nice on paper it’s another to actually get to see it in action.

My main problem with CMC and other similar programs I tried is the sub par picture quality.  This is due to the fact that what you’re actually watching is a compressed video of the TV signal and not the real-time air/cable feed.  Different programs use different compression strength and thus different video quality.  The video you’re watching is slightly delayed due to the compression overhead and the delay length depends on the program being used.  Inherently, a lag in channel flipping is also experienced.

I suspect this background compression of the TV signal is to aid the time-shifting feature.  Basically, time-shifting acts like a TIVO where you can instantaneously pause a live TV show and resume playback without missing a thing.  This can be disabled in CMC but the video is still compressed in the background.

I, for one, didn’t need a time-shifter.  All I wanted was a responsive program with the best picture quality an analog TV signal can provide.  Fortunately, there are programs available that do just that: ChrisTV, WinDVR, VirtualDub just to name a few.  They do not compress the live feed.  So what you’re watching is in real-time and the video quality is much sharper.   Unfortunately, none of them worked perfectly for me.  ChrisTV freezes after a few minutes of use.  WinDVR has no audio support for this particular card.  Lastly, VirtualDub stutters every second.  Although, flipping channels was instantaneous with all three programs.

Another downfall to CMC is the lack of recording options.  The TV Wonder 550 supports hardware mpeg2 encoding up to 15 Mb/sec; however, CMC only gives you three options for video compression: Good, Better, and Best.  There is also no way to select the resolution.

ATI does offer a program on its website that allows you to tweak the 2D/3D filters and the noise filters.  I disable the noise filters to get as sharp a picture as possible.  I really didn’t need to use it as my cable feed is pretty good.

My All-In-Wonder Radeon 7200 has its own TV tuner with a Theater 200 chip.  The same cable feed on this card produces very noisy video and simply testifies to how superior the TV Wonder 550 is.

I alluded to earlier about my Pinnacle TV tuner with overblown highlights and the overly dark shadows.  Unfortunately, the TV Wonder 550 produced the same results.  I’m wondering how hard can it be to code a filter where the highlights are toned-down while the shadows are lightened up a bit.    

Lastly, I didn’t play with the radio feature as much as I should, but it seems to work.  

In closing, I’m happy with this tuner despite the uninspired software included with it.  It’s sad the trouble I went through to get the card to work the way I expected it to.