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ATI Theater 650 Pro & Catalyst Media Center Preview
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Date: Aug 18, 2006
Section:Graphics/Sound
Author: Jeff Bouton
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Introduction and Product Specifications

 

In recent months, we've seen a major step forward in the image quality of TV Tuner cards on the PC.  As we recently saw with our review of NVIDIA's DualTV, an analog signal can now be cleaned up nicely with finely tuned comb filters and other technologies to bring clarity not seen with previous products.  As the technology has evolved, manufacturers now have the leverage to produce TV-Tuner packages with exceptional analog image quality along with other features, such as dual-tuners, using a single cable connection.

While NVIDIA impressed us with their DualTV card, ATI has been hard at work fine tuning their Theater 650 Pro processor.  Building on the successes of the Theater 550 Pro, ATI brings new enhancements to the overall technology for even greater image quality and performance.

Recently, we were provided with a pre-production reference card to give us a taste of what a Theater 650 Pro based TV-Tuner card is capable of.  Not to be out done by NVIDIA, ATI has upped the TV-tuner ante by integrating Digital and Analog TV-Tuners on a single card.  Topped off with a completely new Catalyst Media Center package, ATI aims to deliver a PCl TV-tuner product that can fit a broad range of uses with support for all versions of Windows XP and over-the-air digital content. 

Specifications of the ATI Theater 650 Pro
Serving All Flavors of Windows XP

Technical Specifications

* 125 channel TV tuner with stereo audio
* New worldwide video decoder
o NTSC, PAL, SECAM support
o 5-line 2D comb filter
o Motion adaptive 3D comb filter
* Worldwide audio decoder
* 3:2 pull-down
* Motion compensated noise reduction
* Edge enhancement
* Hardware MPEG compression engine
o MPEG-2 720x480 compression
o CBR and VBR from 1 to 15 Mbps
* FM radio reception
* Digital audio processing
* Hardware DRM engine
* VBI slicing
* Audio/video input support
* ATSC digital TV support (optional)
* DVB-T digital TV support (optional)
* PCI and PCI-Express 1X bus interfaces

System Requirements

* Intel Pentium 4/3/II, Celeron, AMD K6, Athlon or compatible
* Sound card and speakers
* Available PCI or PCI-Express 1X slot
* Cable TV signal or amplified antenna
* Digital TV antenna (optional)

Operating System

* Windows XP/SP1/SP2
* Windows XP Media Center Edition
* Windows Vista

TV-tuner Requirements

* TV signal from amplified antenna or cable
* Versions available for:
o NTSC (North America, Japan, Taiwan, Korea and Latin America)
o PAL/SECAM (European and International PAL/SECAM countries)
o NTSC/ATSC (North America, parts of Latin America)
o PAL/SECAM/DVB-T (European and International PAL/SECAM/DVB-T countries)
* Features may vary from country to country and depending on the television standard

Features:

Avivo Quality

* 12-bit video pipeline offer higher quality colors than the competition's 10-bit solutions
* Programmable hardware video and audio MPEG encoder offers HDTV quality with motion compensated noise reduction for the best possible picture
* Motion adaptive 3D comb filter offers crystal clear video on-par with a high-end television set

Worldwide TV

* Single chip support for NTSC, PAL and SECAM allows you to watch TV from Australia to Zimbabwe

Digital TV Support

* High quality ATSC HDTV powered by ATI's Theater 311 and DVB-T solutions available

Windows Vista Ready

* Prepare for the future - The Theater 650 PRO is Windows Vista premium logo ready

Software Support:

* Microsoft Windows XP Media Center Edition
* Microsoft Windows Vista
* ATI Catalyst Media Center
* Snapstream BeyondTV
* Cyberlink Powercinema
* Intervideo Home Theater

 


As we assess the technical specifications of the Theater 650 Pro processor, there are a couple of things to spotlight.  First is the support for digital TV, which brings over-the-air DTV capability to the mix.  Additionally, a 12-Bit video pipeline, enabled through Avivo and an X1000 series graphics card, looks to bring richer color representation.  And an adaptive 3D Comb filter aims to deliver the clearest picture possible, improving on the Theater 550 Pro in a number of ways.

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The ATI Theater 650 Pro's Architecture & Key Features

 

Overview of the ATI Theater 650 Pro's Key Features
A Different Kind of TV Tuner

ATI has had a fair amount of success with its Theater 550 Pro processor, which is integrated into set-top components as well as PC based TV-Tuner solutions.  With the Theater 650 Pro, ATI continues to build on a good thing, adding several key features.  For a summary, we've compiled a comparison grid based on information provide by ATI, with the key changes highlighted in RED

Feature Theater 550 Pro Theater 650 Pro Benefit
IF Demodulator
Integrated Integrated Lower Cost Tuner
ADC Precision 12-Bit 12-Bit HQ Digital Conversion
2D Comb Filter 5-Line 5-Line High Detail Video
Audio Standards Worldwide Worldwide Worldwide Support
Video Standards NTSC, PAL NTSC, PAL, SECAM Worldwide Support
3D Comb Filter Adaptive Motion Adaptive Sharp Video, Less False Color
Auto Gain Control Single Stage Multistage, Multispeed Faster Brightness Adjustment
Auto Color Control Coarse Fine Brighter Color
Digital TV Support No Yes ATSC/DVB-T Support
Edge Enhancement No Yes Shaper Video
Non-Standard Video Support No Various View Out of Spec Video
Auto Standard Detect Software Hardware Faster Signal Detection
Noise Reduction Hardware Hardware, Motion Compensation Sharper Image w/Less Static
VBI Slicing No Yes Lower CPU Utilization
Bus Support PCI, PCI-E PCI, PCI-E Universal PC Support
Vista Ready Yes Yes Ready for Next-Gen OS

As seen above, ATI has added support for the SECAM video standard (Sequential Color with Memory), which is commonly used in France, as well as Eastern European countries, broadening the market potential of the Theater 650 Pro.  Adding Motion Adaptive algorithms to the 3D Comb Filter helps bring improved video quality to fast or slow moving video while Auto Color Control has been improved to a Fine detail compared to the Theater 550 Pro's Coarse detail.  Hardware Noise Reduction now brings Motion Compensation for an even sharper image, which also benefits from a newly added Edge Enhancement feature for greater detail.


Theater 650 Pro Block Diagram

The Theater 650 Pro will be offered in PCI and PCI Express 1X (using a PCI-E bridge) flavors, making it a compatible with a wide range of hardware.  MPEG2 encoding is handled in hardware to reduced CPU cycles, which improves performance.  The Theater 650 Pro utilizes a 12-Bit video decoder for playback while video recording supports MPEG2, MPEG4, DivX, WMV9 and H.264 formats.  Additionally, a hardware DRM engine is integrated for digital rights management.

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Closer Inspection of the ATI Theater 650 Pro

Closer Inspection of ATI Theater 650 Pro Reference Design
Good Things Come in Small Packages

The Theater 650 Pro reference card we received for evaluation came with the Theater 650 Pro processor at its core coupled with a Samsung TECC1149FG01A mini-can tuner.  The Samsung tuner supports both analog and digital signal in a single package while European models come equipped with a Philips TDA10046A digital demodulator to meet DVB-T standards. 

  

ATI's documentation lists North American Theater 650 Pro products as being coupled with their Theater 311 demodulator for DTV functionality, however, the reference card we received for review was actually equipped with a Theater 312 demodulator, which carries the same functionality as the Theater 311, while adding 64 and 256 QAM reception.  Whether retail models come with a Theater 311 or 312 demodulator remains to be seen.  Digital signal standards of ATSC and DVB-T are integrated, making the Theater 650 Pro a more globally marketable digital TV-tuner solution. 

  

The Theater 650 Pro reference card was also outfitted with 128MB of Samsung K4D261638I-LC40 GDDR Memory, which is rated at 250MHz, for buffering purposes.  Two coaxial inputs are provided, one for Analog signal input while the other handles FM and DTV (over the air) reception.  Additionally, an Audio/Video input is provided for external Audio/Video capture used in conjunction with ATI's proprietary A/V Block.

  

Lastly, select models of Theater 650 Pro based TV cards will come with ATI's Remote Wonder Plus, an RF based remote control that does not require line-of-sight to function.  We've reviewed the Remote Wonder Plus on several occasions with previously reviewed TV ready components, so we're not going to delve much further in this preview of the Theater 650 Pro.

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Configuration with Windows XP MCE 2005

 

Configuration with Windows XP MCE 2005
Smooth Sailing

Installation of the Theater 650 Pro based reference card was surprisingly fast.  In the past, we've found the installation of ATI multimedia products a bit lengthy at times, especially with All-In-Wonder products.  With the Theater 650 Pro, however, installation was very quick.  The drivers installed in less than a minute and, after an obligatory reboot, we were ready to run Windows XP MCE 2005 through its configuration wizard.

While running Windows XP MCE 2005's initial setup, we should note that the Theater 650 Pro's analog tuner was all that was detected.  While the card does support DTV, Windows XP MCE 2005 did not detect this and behaved like a single analog tuner was installed.  This appears to be intentional as the setup documentation simply states to run Live TV and makes no mention of both tuners being available in Windows XP MCE 2005's interface.  To view DTV signal, the Catalyst Media Center software must be installed.

  

Under the More Settings menu of Windows Media Center 2005, ATI includes an Avivo TV Settings screen for fine tuning picture quality.  The menu is rather simplistic, with a simple slider to apply varying degrees of noise reduction to the image on screen.  There is also the option to adjust the input volume of the TV audio signal.

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Catalyst Media Center Software - Overview

 

Catalyst Media Center Software - Overview
A Slick New Look

The Catalyst Media Center software is a completely new package offered by ATI.  For over a decade, ATI has relied on their Multimedia Center software suite to handle all of its TV, Radio, DVD and Audio file needs.  Now, ATI offers a modern, streamlined product in the form of the Catalyst Media Center, which aims to build on Multimedia Center's successes while bring new life to its aging interface.

  

The main screen is broken down into six key segments including TV, DVD, Video, Radio, Extras and Settings.  The TV menu offers video input control, access to TV recordings and scheduling along with program listings and advanced settings.  The DVD menu is rather straight forward, launching a DVD when selected.  The Video section manages all recorded video as well as scanning, sharing and burning videos to DVD.

  

The Radio menu is home to the FM tuner's options, including station presets and management, advanced settings as well as recording options.  Under the Settings menu we find a collection of advanced options for all aspects of the Catalyst Media Center.  Advanced TV, DVD, Video and Radio options are all available in a single location for easy performance and preference adjustment.  From picture and audio quality to screen aspect ratio and recording settings, are all covered as we will outline in further detail on the next page.

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Catalyst Media Center Software - Under the Hood

 

Catalyst Media Center Software - Under the Hood
A Slick New Look

While the main interface of the Catalyst Media Center is clean and direct on the surface, do not be deceived, the interface has a robust collection of underlying features and settings that make it a complete multimedia package.  We'll highlight some of the advanced components in a bit more detail.

   

When we access the TV menu, options are provided to chose various video inputs, including Analog TV (Cable), Analog TV (Antenna), Digital TV (ATSC), Composite and S-Video.  A Recorded TV menu helps to organize recorded video as well as search the system for other forms of video.  Video files can be sorted by Name or Date and can easily be burned to a CD or DVD using the Burn to Disc feature.  Aside from simple burning of media files, Burn to Disc also offers a complete Authoring package with custom menu options and the ability to add audio tracks as well.  Supported Disc formats range from DVD, VCD and SVCD with quality settings from DVD Smart Fit, HQ, SP and LP. 

   

Catalyst Media Center brings full scheduled recording capabilities for both TV and Radio.  Schedules can be set for one time recording or recurring schedules based on the day and times specified by the user.  Once set, schedules are listed on screen by either frequency or date of the set schedule.  The Channel list menu offers a quick way to jump from one channel to another without keying in a channel or having to scan one at a time.  If the option was chosen during setup, the EPG menu lists the Electronic Programming Guide which downloads custom programming information from TitanTV.  Lastly is the Settings menu which allows for adjusting video input sources, region settings, audio quality (Stereo, Mono and SAP) as well as enabling or disabling Time-Shifting.

   

Under the main Settings menu, advanced options are provided for TV, DVD, Videos and Radio in a single location.  For TV, Display and Audio settings are accessible.  Here the screen ratio can be set to 4:3 or 16:9.  When viewing movies in 16:9, the display type can be set to Letterbox, CLPV or Pan & Scan.  There is also a Color Profile setting that can tweak the image from Original, Vivid, Bright, Theater and CLEV-2.  If an ATI graphics card is used in conjunction with the Theater 650 Pro, ThruView can be set, making the video transparent when set to full screen.  The last option is the Visual Effects which range from Off, Good, Best and Auto. 

In essence, the Catalyst Media Center software encompasses all the best that previous software packages offered in a slick new interface.  The features are many and the menu system is organized clearly, giving easy access to all of the Catalyst Media Center's functionality.

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Image Quality Samples and FM Reception

 

Image Quality Samples and FM Reception
Looking Good

Demonstrating image quality can be tricky, with a number of variables to consider, including camera, monitor type, screen resolution and the user's opinion.  Several screen shots are provided below as a reference, but we feel they do not truly show just how good the image quality is with the Theater 650 Pro.  Nonetheless, we've pulled together a few samples taken with what we felt were the best settings enabled for both Analog and Digital TV signal.

  Digital Signal


 

 

Analog Signal

In each image, the quality is very good, with sharp detail and great color.  Rather than trying to see just how good image quality is, however, take note at how good the analog images look when compared to the digital samples.  If it weren't for the labels at the top of each set of samples, determining the analog from the digital images would be difficult.  Once the full size images are viewed, it's more obvious, but still, the quality of the analog signal is very good when compared to the digital signal.

On a final note, another quality item to evaluate was the FM reception with the Theater 650 Pro reference card.  Overall, sound quality was superb and navigating from station to station had a rapid response, with channels loading almost instantly.  We did find the fullness of the FM signal surprisingly good, delivering a rich, full sound through standard PC speakers.

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Conclusion

 

After taking some time to get familiar with the Theater 650 Pro processor from ATI, it's clear that ATI has a another strong product in their multimedia line-up.  We were impressed with the overall image quality of both the analog and digital signals and FM performance was excellent as well.  Channel changing seemed a bit more snappy than the NVIDIA DualTV and ATI also has a leg up on NVIDIA with their Catalyst Media Center software, making it a more widely compatible solution.

From a practical standpoint, however, we have to ask the question, "what is more beneficial - two analog TV-Tuners that are cable ready or an Analog TV-Tuner and a Digital TV-tuner that can accept OTA signal?".  For those in areas with limited Digital transmissions, the digital tuner will be virtually useless and an antenna may be an additional cost as it is not clear if one will be provided with Theater 650 based cards.  Having two analog tuners seem to be a far more functional proposition, making it easy to record one channel while viewing another.  While it is a "hot" idea to have DTV on your PC, simply relying on an OTA signal can make the experience anticlimactic in the end.  Once DTV can be received on a tuner card through a cable/satellite connection, then DTV on the PC will be a true joy and surely render analog signal outmoded.  

If a dual TV tuner solution is desired, the NVDIA DualTV is a solid offering in a single card solution.  Some will argue that for the price of one NVIDIA DualTV card you can get two single-tuner solutions, and that would be valid based on existing products.  However, until we know pricing on Theater 650 Pro based hardware, there is little reason to debate the topic.  While it is true that two Theater 550 Pro based cards could be purchased for the same price as a single NVIDIA DualTV card, this does not help the HTPC enthusiast that may be using a small form factor PC, which typically has one PCI slot in most cases.

There is no denying the image quality of the Theater 650 Pro is superb, however.  Of course, when it comes to assessing image quality, the final say lies with the viewer, making it a subjective proposition.  While the Theater 650 Pro may product better images, unless you have the two cards side-by-side, I think most will be hard pressed to declare one better than the other in the vast majority of real-world situations. Regardless, the ATI Theater 650 pro appears to be yet another quality product in ATI's multimedia arsenal, and we look forward to testing retail-ready products when they become available.  Word is retail product could be out on the shelves in the next week or so, at an MSRP in the $129 price range.

  • Catalyst Media Center
  • Excellent Image Quality
  • Remote Control
  • FM Reception
  • Windows XP, MCE 2005 and Vista Support
  • PCI and PCI-E 1x Ready
  • Digital Tuner not detected in Window XP MCE
  • DTV Limited by OTA Signal Availability.

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