TV on Your PC with the All-in-Wonder X600 Pro
The All-in-Wonder series of cards from ATI needs no introduction. For years, the Canadian company has combined its 3D graphics cards with TV tuners, giving users a one-slot solution to viewing TV on their PCs without making huge sacrifices in graphics performance.
We typically recommend users to go with a standalone TV tuner card if they want TV on their PC. There’s a better variety of higher-quality cards with hardware MPEG-2 encoders, and you can always change out your graphics card or the TV tuner without necessarily getting rid of the other. Today, that recommendation isn’t as easy to make. Small-form-factor PCs are all the rage, and their limited slots prevent users from installing all the cards they want. The single-slot solution has never been more practical.
ATI’s latest All-in-Wonder product carries the X600 Pro moniker. With an MSRP of $249, it’s a lot more affordable than the high-end All-in-Wonder cards that include more powerful 3D graphics. “More affordable” does not guarantee a good value, however. Let’s take a look at ATI’s latest Swiss army knife video card and find out what makes it tick. Continued…
If there has been a problem with previous All-in-Wonder cards, it has probably been the rat’s nest of wiring it creates behind your PC. All the inputs and outputs used to be attached to a one-foot cable that plugged into the back of the card, and that made it very difficult to attach new input or output devices. ATI has made strides in this area with the AIW X600 Pro, which features a small silver dongle that screws into the top-back of the card.
The coaxial inputs for cable or antenna TV and FM radio screw directly into this dongle, while S-video, composite, and left/right RCA audio jacks are moved away from the back of the system. They reside on a pair of little I/O blocks—one for inputs and one for outputs—with cords long enough to make them accessible without digging around behind your PC.
The input jack looks just like that, only without the little extra audio pass-through connectors. The idea is that they stack together neatly, with little rubber discs holding them securely together. It’s a good idea and it helps alleviate some of the cable hassles associated with these cards. Still, we would prefer that component inputs and outputs be included as well. (Component output is possible with a separately-purchased dongle, but component input is not.)
The All-in-Wonder X600 uses a new digital tuner that’s much smaller than the old analog tuner found on previous models. This new tuner makes the card a lot smaller and slimmer, and helps reduce noise interference, but it didn’t appear to do a lot for the TV picture quality. We still picked up a good bit of grain and fuzz on some channels. This may have as much to do with the video processor chip—the Theater 200—as with the tuner. The much newer Theater 550 chip in use on the company’s TV Wonder Elite card delivers far better TV picture quality. Continued…
The All-in-Wonder software bundle hasn’t changed a lot over the last year or so, but minor improvements are continually made. The heart is the tuner application, which lets you view content from any of the video input sources: TV (antenna or cable), S-video, or composite. The oval interface smacks of three-year old design, and it’s really time for ATI to go back to the drawing board and redesign their TV and video applications. Think iTunes or Windows Media Player 10, not PowerDVD circa 2001. Still, it is perfectly functional and easy enough to use.
All-in-Wonder cards have separate applications for all the things it can do, and the apps all look pretty much the same. The video player looks like the TV tuner, which looks like the FM radio. By default, a new sidebar is installed on your desktop for instant access to these apps, but you can easily set it to auto-hide or get rid of it altogether. The apps work fine, but we think it’s time to see a single unified app that encompasses all these features and manages your recorded video library as well.
There’s always EasyLook, ATI’s own 10-foot user interface that brings these things together. But that’s really meant for pointing a remote control at a TV, and the AIW X600 Pro doesn’t come with a remote like some of the company’s high-end AIW products have. The video recording app has been improved over time to include more video encoding options. It’s rather complete now, with support for generic AVI encoding, ATI’s own “VCR” codec, MPEG 1 and 2, and Windows Media Video 8, but we’d like to see WMV9 compression in there instead of the more dated WMV8 currently offered.
TV listings are provided through Gemstar’s Guide+ software. Again, though we like the functionality of it, we can’t help wishing the guide data was integrated into a more attractive, holistic TV/video application. While we’re making wishes, how about faster channel changing? There’s a good 1- or 2-second pause when flipping channels. This isn’t uncommon for PC TV tuner cards, but it’s something we’d like to see go away. The Guide+ software is your primary interface for PVR functions, and it’s a snap to pick programs to record. Continued…
Since the All-in-Wonder is based on an X600 Pro graphics card, it will ask for you to sacrifice quite a bit when it comes to 3D game performance. This is a four-pipeline card with a core clock speed of 400MHz and 256MB of 600MHz memory. It’s not a horrible card by any means, but ATI has introduced far better graphics cards at low price points. For example, the $199 X700 Pro comes with 256MB of 864MHz memory, has a 420MHz core clock speed, and has twice the pixel pipelines. In other words, buying into the All-in-Wonder X600 Pro will cost you $50 more than the X700 Pro, and you’ll sacrifice quite a lot of 3D graphics muscle.
To demonstrate the difference between ATI’s $250 All-in-Wonder card and their $200 card offering only 3D graphics, we ran a couple of quick benchmarks on the following system:
Pentium 4 560 (3.6GHz) (check prices)
Abit Fatal1ty AA8XE (check prices)
1GB 533MHz DDR2 RAM (check prices)
Sound Blaster Audigy 2 ZS (check prices)
Seagate Barracuda 160GB (check prices)
ASUS DVD/RW (check prices)
Windows XP Pro w/SP2 (check prices)
If what you care about is 3D graphics performance, you can save $50 and double your frame rates in graphics-intensive games like Doom 3. Future shader-heavy games will probably run twice as fast as well, if 3DMark 05 scores are any indication. Modern games like Unreal Tournament 2004 are less of a disaster, as they tend to be limited by CPU power more than just pixel-pushing muscle. Still, we ran these benchmarks at a modest resolution of 1024×768. If we crank up the resolution and turn on features like anti-aliasing or anisotropic filtering, the All-in-Wonder X600 Pro falls way behind again. Continued…
ATI’s more affordable All-in-Wonder card isn’t necessarily a bad choice if you meet certain qualifications. If you care a lot about 3D performance and have the cash, the pricey All-in-Wonder X800 XT (check prices) won’t ask you to sacrifice frame-rate. If you don’t have a small and cramped PC, you can get a cheaper, faster video card with no TV capability and just use a $50-100 PCI TV tuner card. The TV quality of this card is about equal to those in that price range. If you really care about TV picture quality, you’re better off with a pricier TV tuner card. Hauppauge’s WinTV PVR 250 (check prices), as well as ATI’s own TV Wonder Elite (check prices) (with the new Theater 550 chip) runs circles around this All-in-Wonder.
There are several ways ATI could have made this a more attractive card. A newer Theater 550 chip would have made the TV quality stand out. Component inputs and outputs—even if the card can’t do high-definition capture—would have been great. And of course, an X700 series graphics cards instead of the slow and old X600 3D core would have given 3D gaming a much needed kick in the pants. ATI didn’t need to do all these things to make this a best-in-class product, but it’s hard to recommend it when they didn’t do any of them. The All-in-Wonder we hope to see soon from ATI will be the All-in-Wonder X700, which might bring together the 8-pipe Radeon X700 GPU with the company’s new Theater 500 video processor.
Check out our review on the All-in-Wonder 9800 Pro.
If you have no room for a stand-alone TV tuner card, and you can’t afford a card outside the $200-250 price range, this is still probably your best bet. There just isn’t a lot of competition. It is by no means a bad product, but we can clearly see numerous ways for ATI to make it far more attractive.
All-in-Wonder X600 Pro
Improved cable management and recording software; affordable price.
Sacrifices too much 3D graphics horsepower; uses last-generation Theater 200 chip.
It’s not like there are better $250 graphics cards with TV tuners, but ATI could still do a lot better.
Copyright © 2005 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in The Channel Insider.