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ATI All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro: Combining feature rich multimedia options, coupled with the fastest VPU in ATI's arsenal, it certainly has all the tools to be the best all round card.

Date: September 5, 2003
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The Theater 200

The Theater 200 is ATI's latest Video Processing Engine (VPE). Previously, the Theater and the Micronas stereo decoder handled the duties for the All-in-Wonder line, so the Theater 200 effectively kills two birds with one stone by doing both chores. The new chip is more than the sum of its parts though, and a few improvements were made along the way.

Thanks to its dual 12-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADC), image and sound quality gets bumped up a notch. The earlier cards used 9-bit converters, so the 12-bit ADC should improve things quite a bit by cleaning up some of the noise associated when converting an analog stream.

Image quality wise, there is a new (actually, it's third generation) 3-line comb filter. For composite video signals, the picture is improved because they are more accurately processed. Previously, only 2-lines were used for NTSC. Given the limitations of cable TV technology, the improvements may not be readily obvious, but a side-by-side comparison with an AiW Radeon 8500DV showed a slight improvement.

TV-Tuner

Since the 8500DV, ATI has reverted back to an analog TV-Tuner, rather than continuing with a digital tuner. I was a little confused with this decision, but since the majority of the public still uses an analog cable for TV viewing, there isn't really any point adding the digital tuner, which makes the chip more complex than it needs to be. This is also a cost saver, and in real-world use, the AiW 9800 Pro was no slower than the AiW 8500DV when it came to switching channels.

The Phillips TV-Tuner is used with the AiW 9800 Pro. Capable of tuning in 125 channels, in stereo where applicable, it should be enough for anyone with a standard cable connection. For satellite use, you'll have to tune into channel 3 or 4, and change channels via your satellite receiver.

One thing that has always bothered me was the inability to have picture-in-picture, or the ability to watch one station while taping another. The AiW 9800 does support this feature, aka MulTView, but you will need to have a separate TV-Tuner for this. I cannot verify what tuners are supported, but according to ATI, the TV-Wonder is required for this to work.

The Cobra Engine

Usually found in high end pro-sumer video cards, the AiW 9800 brings hardware MPEG-2 decoding and MPEG-2 encoding to the consumer level. The Cobra Engine is capable of Inverse Discrete Cosine Transform (iDCT), which is really a fancy way of saying it can decode MPEG-2 streams with minimal CPU usage. This can make a difference when viewing DVDs on your PC, as you no longer have to shop for a dedicated DVD decoder, and no longer have to rely on software based decoding.

Discrete Cosine Transform (DCT), or MPEG-2 encoding, is done in hardware, which for casual video editing buffs, means less work on your CPU. ATi claims a maximum of 20-25% of the encoding process can be taken off the CPU, which could result in less time needed to encode a movie file, or at least, more CPU processing power to perform other tasks.

Videosoap is a feature found within the Cobra Engine that cleans up the image. It isn't designed for MPEGs you already have, but rather, it uses four filters to clean up the signal coming in from the input video. Other than cleaning up the image, it also serves to reduce the file size since noise isn't something that can easily be compressed, so with less noise, you'll end up with smaller files.

ATI Remote Wonder

No TV package would be complete without a remote. You can read our full review here, but in short, it is a RF remote with a thirty foot range. It works through walls, though I doubt that will be something a lot of you will be doing while watching TV.

Installation

An important connection is the output cable, which is the Line Audio Out. You have to plug this into the line-in connection on your sound card. If you don't do this, you won't get any sound at all from the AiW 9800 Pro.

Video is outputted by a couple of methods. You have your standard DVI-to-VGA connection, or the video-out connection. How to use the VGA connection is obvious, and if not, you better click on the small "x" on your browser because I'm not going to explain why.

The AiW 9800 Pro comes with a video output cable that plugs directly into the video out of the card. This cable is used to output video (be it something you already pre-recorded, or if the PC is acting as a conduit for your home theatre setup) to a TV or VCR. Depending on the type of TV or VCR you have, you can output the video via S-Video or composite. Generally, as most home theatre junkies know (which I didn't, somebody just told me this), S-Video will result in a better picture, which makes sense, since the "S" means "Super".

The one obvious input is for the coaxial cable input. Be it cable or satellite, just plug the coax cable into the coaxial cable input, and you have access for up to 125 channels.

Other than being a TV-tuner, as well as a gaming beast, the other selling point of the AiW 9800 Pro is the ability to edit video. You have a 4-headed block, which is identical to that of the AiW VE, for the inputs that plugs into the video in port. The block provides a S-Video input and a composite video input. Like the output, you can only use one input at any given time, and which one you use will depend on how the video (VCR or camcorder) is being outputted into the input block.

For audio, the block also has left and right audio inputs. You will need to plug something in there if you want audio in whatever video you are outputting to the AiW 9800 Pro. The S-Video-in or composite-in only serves to run video into the card, so you'll need to run audio cables from the output device into the appropriate left/right channel inputs.

Oddly missing from the package is a FireWire connection. I suppose that there wasn't enough PCB real-estate, but since most new motherboards have onboard FireWire, this is not that big a problem.

Software

There are four major parts to the software bundle of the All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro.

ATI Multimedia Center 8.5

The real gem of the AiW software package is the new ATI Multimedia Centre (MMC) 8.5. As with previous versions, you can use this software to watch TV, play VCDs and DVDs, record your shows, as well as playing files much like Windows Media Player. The change with this version is the introduction of EASYLOOK. Those of you who have hooked up their computers to their TV are probably well aware that the interface for past MMCs was dreadful when viewing them from the couch. EASYLOOK is designed to make it less painful by offering a cleaner interface, which is friendlier for lower resolution TVs.

Guide Plus+

If TiVo functionality is what you want, Guide Plus+ is about as close as you'll get for the PC. From here, you can preview shows, set up recording schedules, and see what'll be on later that day or week. Every week, the program will need to download the latest schedule, and the big feature that it is free! Unlike TiVo, no monthly fees required.

One problem with the Guide Plus+ though is it isn't supported by EASYLOOK. As the standard EASYLOOK menu is easy to navigate from ten feet away, the Guide Plus+ is not.

Pinnacle Studio 8.4

For the aspiring Speilbergs, ATi packages Pinnacle Studio 8.4, which is an easy to use video editing software. It's not at the level of Adobe Premiere, but for casual directors, you can be editing Uncle Joe out of your home videos in no time.

Drivers

The days of shoddy ATi drivers are behind us. The ATi engineers have been pumping out great drivers since the introduction of the Catalyst, and they're quick to fix problems as they arise. They don't come out at the same frequency as nVidia's leaked drivers, but ATi is committed to making sure their drivers are WHQL certified.

Morrowind

Not really my kind of game, and not the best one to include to showcase the 9800 Pro's gaming ability, but I'm sure some of you will be happy it's included.


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