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PowerColor Theater 550 Pro PCI Express
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Date: Jan 27, 2006
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Matt Beauvais
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Introduction

The old crowd of PCI TV Tuners may need to step aside soon, as their PCIe cousins head into the market. Sure, there are still plenty of people without motherboards equipped with PCI Express expansion slots, but the old PCI bus is eventually on it's way out.

Today we're going to take a look at PowerColor's PCI Express based Theatre 550 Pro TV Tuner. Other than the way the card interfaces with a system, there's little difference between the newer PCIe based tuners over PCI, so we'll be focusing on the PowerColor card's performance, ease of installation, setup, and bundled software. Speaking of software, some of you may recall our relative displeasure with CyberLink's PowerCinema 3 software in our review of MSI's ATI Theater 550 Pro, so our experience with PowerColor's choice of PowerCinema 4, will weigh heavily on this evaluation. First thing's first though; let's look at the specifications before moving on to the more pressing issues.

Product Features and System Requirements
Package Contents
Package:
PowerColor 550 Pro PCIe Card
Remote Control
USB Receiver

Manuals and Books:

Quick Installation Guide

Software Packaged:

Theater 550 Pro Drivers
PowerCinema 4.0

PowerDirector
MediaShow
MusicMatch
PowerBackup(Trial)

PowerDVD
PowerProducer
Power2Go
PowerDVD Copy(Trial)

System Requirements:

Windows XP
Pentium 3/4 or Similar CPU
Television Source(Antenna, Analog/Digital Cable, Satellite)
Available PCIe Slot



Notable Features:

FM Radio Reception
16MB DDR memory and 3D Comb Filter Real-time MPEG2 hardware compression
Record from any video source (TV, VCR, DVD, Camcorder, etc.)
Skip Commercials on Playback
Auto and Full Channel scan
Scheduled Recording
Pricing and Availability:

Around $90

Warranty:

1 Year Limited Warranty

ATI Theater 550 Pro Technology:
ATI Theater 550 Pro Features:
  • Video Decoder
  • Worldwide Stereo Audio Support
  • Digital 12-bit IF demodulation
  • MPEG-2 Encoder
  • 12-bit Video Decoder w/ Hardware 3D Comb Filter
  • Hardware Noise Reduction
  • FM Radio
  • Closed Captioning and Teletext Support
  • Integrated Anti-Aliasing Filters



 

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Taking a Closer Look

PowerColor ATI Theater 550 Pro PCIe
Goodies Inside The Box

 

 

The PowerColor Theater 550 Pro looks like most other TV Tuners that use ATI's Theater 550 Pro chip, with the exception of the PCIe edge connector. With support constantly growing for the PCI Express interface, it was only a matter of time before PCIe TV Tuners hit the market. Sporting ATI's trademark red PCB, the card isn't large enough to be a concern for most of you, however, if you're running two video cards in SLI, you could run into some problems depending on the cooling solution on the graphics cards themselves and your motherboard's slot configuration. TV, FM, Composite, S-Video, and Audio ports are all found at the back of the card and we didn't have any problems getting everything connected.

  

 

The bundle is somewhat standard, containing all the necessary CD's and accessories to get everything up and running. You'll find a CD with the needed drivers and installation files, but CyberLink has also included another CD packed full of good software. Inside you'll find programs such as PowerDirector for video editing, and MusicMatch for MP3 ripping and playback. You'll also receive PowerProducer, and Power2Go, which will allow you to author and burn DVDs, and also burn data/music. PowerDVD is the DVD playback software, and MediaShow is used to create slide shows of your photos. Finally, they've included trial software such as PowerBackup for backing up data, and PowerDVD Copy which allows for one-step DVD copying. This is a nice assortment of software, especially if you're just getting into media creation. With some time and patience, you'll be recording and editing your own videos like it's second nature.

The Remote Control
Time to sit back and relax

  

Finally, there's the remote. While there's nothing outstanding about it, it is comfortable to hold and has all the functionality you'll need. Needing two AAA batteries (included), it offers good range, and makes using PowerCinema 4 a pleasure. A bad remote can hurt the overall TV on your PC experience, fortunately this remote helps give a smooth ride. It's basically your standard TV/DVD remote, with the top half consisting of navigation buttons, allowing you to easily switch between your music, videos, DVD, and pictures. The lower half contains the video control buttons, such as rewind, fast forward and pause. Couch potatoes should feel right at home.

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Installation and Setup

Installation
A few clicks is all it takes

Most current hardware has a very streamlined installation process. Since TV Tuners have become so popular, the installation process needs to be easy to satisfy every type of customer. After inserting the installation CD, you'll be prompted with a menu with your available setup options. Everything is clearly marked, and the whole process takes about 5 minutes(including a reboot). The drivers should be installed first, and then you'll need to go through the equally easy PowerCinema 4.0 setup. After a few clicks of the mouse, you'll be on your way to channel surfing on your PC. If however, watching TV on a single PC isn't enough for you, you'll notice the option to install the I-TV Server, which allows you to broadcast your TV signal across your home network, or even over the Internet.

  

Once the PowerCinema software is installed, you'll need to configure a few things. The setup will carefully walk you through each step, letting you choose different options such as screen ratio, and speaker setup. The setup will also give you the option of letting it auto detect your cable channels, as well as radio stations. After asking you a few more questions about setup preference, and registering your information, you'll be ready to start your media adventure. Now, the next big test for PowerColor's package, is to see how well PowerCinema 4 performs...

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Software and Features

Introducing PowerCinema 4.0
An Improvement over PowerCinema 3.0

   

  

Equally important as the hardware, is the software necessary to control it. PowerColor has decided to bundle Cyberlink's PowerCinema 4 with their TV Tuner. Last year we reviewed MSI's Theatre 550 Pro product, which came bundled with PowerCinema 3, and we were not terribly impressed. The software was sluggish, and brought down the generally great experience of using a quality TV Tuner. Fortunately for us, and all of you, PowerCinema 4 appears to be void of the problems we had with PowerCinema 3. The interface is responsive, and never once made our system hang for more than a second. While using the TV Function, volume control, channel changing, replaying live TV, and recording video all acted as they should; without a significant delay. Software can make or break a TV Tuner package, and PowerCinema 4 will provide a pleasant experience.

 

On the feature side, there are no outstanding features that will set this package apart from the rest. As far as video options, you're given the ability to change the screen ratio, movie display type, and select from a few different color profiles. The audio screen consists of speaker environment, output mode, audio channel expander, and dynamic range compression. Dynamic range compression offers normal, quiet, and noisy which covers just about any type of situation. For recording video, you can select 3 different quality settings, and choose where to save your recorded videos. The radio options allow you to change the fine-tuning frequency to .05MHz and .1MHz, and you can also choose the recording format (WMA-32K, WMA-64K, WMA-128K). Bottom line is, with an easy to navigate and responsive interface, you'll enjoy using PowerCinema 4. TV channel listing is also available with PowerCinema 4 and while the full subscription service will cost you annually, a free trial is available.

Image Quality
Pretty pictures, or a blurry mess?

  

So how pretty are the pictures? Image quality isn't bad at all, and that's what we've come to expect from ATI's affordable Theatre 550 Pro chip. As we've stated before, you'll find no increase in image quality related to the new PCIe interface. The images you see here will not reflect everyone's experience, however, as much of the quality simply depends on the quality of your incoming cable signal. All of our cable channels are not perfectly clear, but we tried to select the channels that came in best for this showcase. You'll notice a bit of background noise in each of the pictures, as well as a slight amount of blur. This is common with TV Tuners in this class.

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Final Thoughts and Conclusion

The TV Tuner market now has another excellent contender in PowerColor's ATI Theater 550 Pro PCIe. We know the use of the PCIe interface will be a big selling point to many of you, and it's one of the reasons we looked at this product. Though the new interface brings no real benefits in terms of image quality, features, or performance, it is the new standard, which is important to those of you looking for a long term investment. While PCI certainly isn't going anywhere at the moment, PCIe is the way of the future. Fortunately for us, and all of you, PowerColor has taken a good first step.

Everything considered, we walked away with a fairly good view of PowerColor's Theater 550 Pro. There's little in terms of features and accessories to set it far apart from the competition, though the fact that it uses a PCIe interface certainly helps. We were a little hesitant about how well CyberLink's PowerCinema 4 would perform, given our relatively unpleasant experience with PowerCinema 3. But fortunately PowerCinema 4 is a much better piece of software, with an easy to manage interface, and without the sluggish performance of PowerCinema 3. We actually enjoyed using PowerCinema this time. With a good software suite, comfortable and functional remote, and no installation or operating hassles, HotHardware awards PowerColor's ATI Theater 550 Pro PCIe an 8.5 out of 10 on the Heat Meter.

_Good software bundle
_PCI Express Interface
_PoweCinema 4.0
_Smaller Market with PCIe enabled motherboards

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