Does HDTV belong on your PC?
As more and more people are designing and building Home Theater PC's (HTPC), and more and more regions of North America are being filled with Digital Television (DTV) broadcasts over-the-air (OTA), a void has been created, left wide open, just waiting for someone to fill it. That void would be receiving and decoding High Definition TV (HDTV) on your PC. You will most notably not find HDTV equipment included in your AIW or ViVo card, as the equipment needed to decode the amount of information in a DTV stream is as complex as the video card itself.
There are but a few HDTV cards to choose from that could fill this void, today I will be looking at a fairly new entry, from an old hat in the PC marketplace. As a primer, I wanted to mention that this articles purpose is not to go over the several formats of DTV, if you wish to learn more, follow that has much more detailed information on DTV or on the various formats and scan lines in DTV. Now that we got that out of the way, let's look at what we have to review...
ATI HDTV Wonder
ATI is well known for their industry leading technology, not only in the graphics market, but in several other factions, including various receiver technologies. ATI has developed several cards that cross function as receivers and a graphics card all in one. Today I am going to review their , a card dedicated to receiving and decoding OTA transmission of DTV signals. This card plugs into an available PCI slot and uses your existing video card to display the DTV information onto the screen. It is up to your graphics cards ability to display this information onto a television of some sort, as there is no output capability built into the ATI HDTV Wonder.
Minimum System Requirements
- Windows 98se, NT, 2000, XP
- 500MHz CPU
- 128MB RAM
- 2GB Hard Disk free space
- Open PCI Slot
- ATI Specific - GPU of 9500 or greater; Other Manufacturer cards - DX9 capable with 64MB or more memory.
Receives and Decodes OTA DTV Signals
- 1080i (North American HDTV - ATSC)
- 720p (North American HDTV - ATSC)
- 720i (North American HDTV - ATSC)
- 480p (EDTV North American)
- 480i (SDTV North American)
Included in Packaging
- ATI HDTV Wonder PCI Card
- OTA HDTV Antenna
- Composite and S-Video Breakout box
- ATI Remote Wonder
- MultiMedia Center 9.0
- RG6U Coax Cable
Initially when I had received the call to perform this review, I thought it to be a "toy" and not much else, I mean, who is going to want HDTV on their PC? I realize there is a group of you, getting larger by the week I am sure, that would love to have something like this. I also realize there is a large number of you already porting ViVo cards to your Widescreen televisions via the DVI to Component Video block or S-Video out. The inherent issues with trying to run HDTV from your PC is that you are limited in your ability to decode DTV programming transmitted by your local cable company, never mind that satellite provider that requires you to have one of their boxes with an authorized card to boot. So what is the point in the end? I guess the point is, that by 2006, all OTA broadcasts in North America will be of the DTV type...
So I opened the box, with an open mind. The box ships from ATI with all of the needed gear to get you started, an indoor DTV Antenna, Driver CD with MMC 9.0 (MultiMedia Center) and of course your ATI HDTV Wonder PCI card. The antenna that comes with the HDTV Wonder is small, very small in comparison to what I had to use to get local HD for satellite. I figured I was about to receive little to no signal with this antenna, being that I live ~25 miles from the source of most of our DTV signals, which is Boston. I, however digress, must remember, keep an open mind after all.
The HDTV Wonder card itself is not overly busy, however you could see why it would be an issue including this on a typical AIW card from ATI. The workhorse on this board is the ATI NXT2004 demodulator chip. This chip decodes OTA 8 VSB signals (ATSC Standard), and has the ability to decode QAM (DOCSIS Compliant Standard, as in cable company), one would have to wonder why in the world ATI would choose to disable the QAM portion? Also located on the HDTV Wonder is a Philips HDTV Tuner "Black Box". Plenty of circuitry hidden behind that Philips metal enclosure, hmmmm.
Physically installing the card is like that of any other PCI card, there are 2 Coax type connectors on the back of the card but they do not protrude enough to warrant concern while installing the card. Initial boot up with the new card in the system and Windows XP w/SP2 recognized what it was, but could not load the appropriate drivers.
Please read below for issues I ran into while installing the software. I am going to go over how the install went on the Foxconn test bed that ran smoothly as to keep an even flow.
Test bed 1: Intel 875P Chipset: Foxconn 875A02-6EKRS, Intel P4 2.4C, 1GB OCZ PC3700, Hitachi Deskstar SATA 80GB, ATI Radeon 9600 XT 128MB, Win XP SP2
Test bed 2: ATI RS350 Chipset: FIC P4M-RS350, Intel P4 2.4C, 1GB OCZ PC3700, Hitachi Deskstar SATA 80GB, ATI Radeon 9600 XT 128MB, Win XP SP2
Test bed 3: Intel 915P Chipset: ASUS P5GDC Deluxe, Intel 530, 1GB Kingston HyperX PC2-5400, WD SATA 80GB, ASUS Extreme N5900 128MB, Win XP SP2
I dropped in the ATI included driver disk, selected "install" from the main menu and let it go about its business of installing ATI's Multi Media Center (MMC 9.0) software and drivers. Little did I know that its business was going to take a full 20 minutes to install, once done, there was of course the proverbial "reboot". During this time I installed the included antenna with RG6 cable and positioned it near a window pointing towards Boston. Following the directions (yes I read the manual& sometimes), I went to the ATI website and downloaded updated drivers and MMC 9.02 as well.
With the amount of software that was installed and the time it took, I was waiting for there to be issues once the system came back up. To my surprise, everything appeared to work perfectly, appeared to anyway. This was entirely dependent on the system in which I installed the software of course.
I launched the DTV application and the software went through a setup process that included how much time I wanted to capture of the stream to hard drive as well as scanning the area for digital channels it could receive. Surprisingly, there is 24 digital channels in the Boston Metropolitan area (at least what I can receive with the included hardware), maybe this little antenna isn't so little after all.
Once scanned, the system locks on to the first channel and displays not only what is playing but at what resolution it is being broadcast at (780i, 780p or 1080i etc.). Initial launch of the screen is dependent on the source resolution and ratio, it can take anywhere from 80% of your monitor in 4:3 mode to a mere 30% at 16:9. The window launch size is configurable and can even be set encompass the entire screen on startup. It is also very easy to go to full screen and back with a double click of the mouse anywhere in the viewing area. There is a channel selector / setup panel that you can use to control all facets of the equipment and software, as well, of course, the Remote Wonder.
Once running, you can fine tune the application through the setup section. There is also the ability to fine tune your antenna, although depending on the stations transmitter locations, you might be adjusting this for each station you tune in.
You can also choose to install the Guide as seen above as this will give you channel listings as well as what is on today, tomorrow and even up to 4 days in advance (if supported in your area).
Although the picture on my 17" Hitachi LCD is small by comparison to a 47" + widescreen television, it is none the less impressive in its appearance and display of 1080i or 720p information. There is a lot of power inside this little card and the ability to display broadcast media at high resolutions is awing, even on a mere 17" LCD.
In the end, the reviewers here at VL are just like you. The only difference being perhaps is that we research a product after its determined who is going to review it, instead of prior to purchasing it. I have read many instances where there were issues installing this setup on non-Intel and/or non-ATI systems.
Unfortunately, (or fortunately?) I only have Intel currently, I do however, have one non-Intel chipset. The first installation went on the Foxconn 875 chipset motherboard with the Intel P4 2.4C. Everything installed fine as stated above.
My second install went on the FIC P4M-RS350 motherboard, yes, an ATI chipset. Of course, just because we're talking about PCs, there has to be an ironic twist, and that is the simple fact that getting the HDTV Wonder to work on the ATI RS350 chipset motherboard was nothing short of heroic. After 1 hour of working with the on board video, and then realizing the HDTV Wonder requires a 9500 GPU minimum (the RS350 is a 9100 IGP Pro), I had to install the 9600 XT into the micro ATX motherboard. Once that was completed it only took a mere 8-10 hours more installing, reinstalling, and tweaking to finally get it working properly. Of course, the fact that initial installation semi-worked and I was able to get some factions of MMC to work caused the initial blunder on my part as to GPU requirements.
My third install went on the ASUS P5GDC Deluxe. Once again an Intel chipset based motherboard. The install went smoothly on this motherboard as well. The HDTV Wonder appeared to not have an issue with the NVIDIA graphics card. I guess it can hand of video information to anyone as its just pumping it out, not looking for notification it actually did anything with it. You just need to make sure the GPU can handle it so you actually get a display.
If you do not have an Intel P4 chipset, I would research plenty to ensure that you would be able to install this card and required software, as it can be a task you might not want to take on.