Introduction

TV Tuners are becoming more and more popular as home theaters and computers start to merge. Already, many countries outside the US are making the move to integrated computer and home theater/entertainment centers in their homes instead of separate components, particularly in parts of Asia where space is limited. Of course, many people in the US are also beginning to see the benefits of combining their TVs and computers into one unit, and it seems reasonable to predict that this will be the norm in the near future.

We recently reviewed NVIDIA's DualTV Media Center Edition TV tuner card, and in the article, we looked briefly at the ATI Theater 550 Pro (again). ATI has had success with their Theater cards in the past, and now they are unveiling a new addition to the series, the Theater 650. This is the newest TV tuner chip/card from ATI, and like the 550 it's still a single tuner card (unlike NVIDIA's DualTV MCE), but there are some new features with this one that set it apart from the rest.

One of the most notable features incorporated into this card is that it has digital capabilities and is one of the first solutions to properly combine digital and analog TV reception, recording, and encoding in hardware in one solution. It boasts much better filtering capabilities as well; for example, it has a new motion adaptive 3D comb filter for better image quality. There are a few other features of the Theater 650 and of course we'll be looking at all of them further in the review.

We've chosen to limit the comparisons to only cards that are compatible with Windows Media Center Edition, in order to keep consistency between TV tuner applications. We will be comparing the Theater 650 to the older Theater 550, as well as NVIDIA's DualTV MCE. We'll be looking at not only image quality, but also CPU utilization between these three cards.

We were very appreciative of all of the comments and suggestions from the last TV Tuner article (the NVIDIA DualTV MCE) and hope to provide better coverage of this card and it's features this time around. Reader feedback is very important to us here at AnandTech and we are very concerned with what our readers want to see in a TV tuner card review. That said, in this review of ATI's Theater 650, we'll be looking at the card, its features and how it compares to a couple of other solutions in both performance and image quality. So without further fanfare, let's look at the ATI Theater 650 Pro.

The Card
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  • dettociao - Friday, June 16, 2006 - link

    I have to say, this is nowhere near what I expected in the next TV-Tuner review from AT. After getting thrashed for the last one, you'd think they'd put some effort into it. Reply
  • Trisped - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    quote:

    We were very appreciative of all of the comments and suggestions from the last TV Tuner article (the NVIDIA DualTV MCE) and hope to provide better coverage of this card and it's features this time around.
    Yea! That last one really needed work.

    What is all that stuff around the big chip in http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/multimedia/tvt...">http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/mul...a/tvtune... (page 2, pic 2)? There is also the same looking stuff on the picture above it, around the 650 chip.

    http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/multimedia/tvt...">http://images.anandtech.com/reviews/mul...r650/the... (page 2, pic 3) is nice, but it would be nicer to view it at the original size so we can read the chart and url

    quote:

    For reference, the power draw of the system without a TV tuner card installed was 145 Watts.
    Thanks, I was just going to ask that.
    quote:

    , there wasn't a difference between the power load of the system while watching and watching/recording with the Theater 650.
    Are you sure that it isn’t always recording? I know with the latest MMC it is set to always record so you have the DVR functionality. I haven’t used MCE before, so maybe you can turn it off.

    With channel Switch Speed we know it is 2 seconds, but what about the latency between broadcast and display? Can you play games on it, or will there be the same 2 second delay? To test this I suggest hooking up a standard CRT to the same video feed and observing the time difference.

    quote:

    ATI provided us with a DVD that contains some test videos to compare image quality between these three cards. To allay any suspicions of foul play, these test videos were created by SMPTE (the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers) for the express purpose of testing analog television quality. (page 5)
    If you changed it to, “Provided with the card was a DVD from the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE). On the DVD were test videos designed for the express purpose of testing analog television quality.” Then people never think to question the source of the DVD.

    On page 5 the low quality .jpg make the quality look worse then it is. You could try setting it on 100-120 quality or saving it as a .bmp and zipping it so we can check it if we want.

    Compatibility checking would be nice, but I guess that is what the forums are for. Also, what software besides the MMC/CMC from ATI and WMCE does it work with? Can you use a 550 and a 650 in the same system at the same time(to get the dual tuner abilities)? Does the ATI MMC/CMC support dual tuner setups, or do you have to use WMCE?

    A review with a Hauppauge card in the whole thing would be nice, as a comparison of its picture quality and power drain would be nice. Still, I can understand the time constraints and the fact that you probably had to give the card back once you had reviewed it.

    This was defiantly a better review then the last one. There is still room for improvement, but it is not as noticeable as last time.
    Reply
  • Druthers - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    How did you come up with your power usage ratings?

    I find it hard to believe that the PCI bus can supply 150 Watts. I do not see any aux. power connectors on this board.

    Thank you,

    Druthers
    Reply
  • BigLan - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    That is total system draw, not just the card. The system without the cards drew 145 watts, so recording accounted for an extra 25-30 watts, some of which will be from the hard drive and cpu. Reply
  • DerekWilson - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    this is correct Reply
  • Josh Venning - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    Just wanted to say thanks to all those who offered construcive criticism about the article. We always are concerned with what our readers want to see in our reviews so we can make them better. That said I'd just like to mention that as Jarred said, this article is written more as a preview of a part that isn't available yet, and so there is only a certain level of depth that we can go as far as testing and such. But again, thanks to all who posted and rest assured we will continue to work on improving our reviews based on your comments. Reply
  • BigLan - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    If this is really a preview instead of a full review, you might want to go back and do a find/replace. It looks like you've made some changes to the text already, might as well finish the job.

    Page 1
    There are a few other features of the Theater 650 and of course we'll be looking at all of them further in the review.

    we are very concerned with what our readers want to see in a TV tuner card review. That said, in this review of ATI's Theater 650,

    Page 3
    but for this review we will be adding a section on CPU utilization

    Page 6
    We haven't included one in this review either
    Reply
  • Pandamonium - Thursday, June 15, 2006 - link

    I still can't believe you left out Hauppauge's product line. Hauppauge is the industry standard for discrete tuner/capture cards. ATI only released the 550 about a year or two ago.

    I thought our comments actually had weight? The review only addressed the most blatant error in the first review: comparing image quality with two completely different images. You can't run a scientific experiment without a control - it's a pretty elementary truth. The (slightly) more subtle error was the omission of Hauppauge's product lines. Most HTPC owners run Hauppauge PCB, it would make sense to include the products for readers' reference.

    Lastly, why did we not see photos of the rear ports? The reviewer wrote that there are "Antenna/FM and cable TV inputs, as well as an audio/video input at the bottom." Antenna typically (AFAIK) refers to OTA television. This statement would imply that there are at least 4 inputs. The images appear to show that there is only room for 3 inputs. Besides, what kind of AV input includes audio and video in one small jack? The only one I know if is HDMI. If reference boards feature HDMI inputs, it'd be good to know. Perhaps it's better this way: I'm sure the competent boys at newegg will have a backplate photo.
    Reply
  • edlight - Wednesday, June 14, 2006 - link

    Since so many of us have cable, it would be better to try it out with cable and see if it gets rid of the video noise and makes a nice picture, or the usual fuzzy, grainy, washed-out, dark picture. How can we know what it does? Reply
  • JarredWalton - Wednesday, June 14, 2006 - link

    [Warning: Lengthy post follows. This is a general response to many of the comments in general. I figured I would put it on it's own thread as a convenient place to put together all of my thoughts on the matter. Maybe this will clarify a few things as well.]

    I think it was made clear in the article that cards using the Theater 650 chip won't be available until July at the earliest. That means the software and potentially hardware used for this test is not in final form, which also accounts for the reason why some testing wasn't done. In particular, I'm pretty sure the Catalyst Media Center application is not yet ready for final testing, but since I'm not the one doing the article I can't say that for sure. As you can't actually go out and purchase this card today, it should be pretty clear that this is a "preview" instead of an actual review of final hardware.

    Basically, we as reviewers are often put in a "chicken versus egg" situation: do we hold off writing an article about some new hardware because it's not yet available for purchase? What if the BIOS still has a few bugs, or some of the software isn't ready? Obviously, you can't go out and purchase a Theater 650 card right now, but if we didn't at least tell people what's coming in the near future, we're also failing to do our job as journalists. This card definitely looks to be better than the Theater 550, with DTV support, some new image quality enhancements, and software that will allow you to enable/disable filters as you see fit.

    As for the Hauppauge cards not being included, two links were provided to a http://www.anandtech.com/video/showdoc.aspx?i=2393">previous
    article where the Hauppauge PVR-250 was reviewed. Quoting from that earlier review: "Without a doubt, our two favorites from this review are Hauppauge's WinTV PVR-250 and ATI's TV Wonder Elite [a Theater 550 card], with the overall win going to ATI for the TV Wonder Elite." And elsewhere: "Compared to the second place Hauppauge card, the differences are much more subtle, but in back-to-back comparisons, you do notice differences between the two cards. The Hauppauge does appear to have higher levels of color saturation, but the TV Wonder Elite seems to produce a more 'correct' image." Minor differences in taste might make others prefer the Hauppauge, so what we're saying is that between the two it is very close to a tie.

    The Hauppauge cards haven't really changed at all in over a year. Do we need to include socket 754 Athlon 64 and Pentium 4 478 in current CPU articles? Do we need to talk about the Radeon X800 and GeForce 6800 cards in new GPU reviews? That's basically what you're asking us to do, and while some people might find information helpful, it's not an effective use of time. The Hauppauge cards are very good in terms of image quality, but we still give the ATI Theater 550 a slight edge. Should we re-review both cards periodically to see if things have changed?

    Basically, it sounds to me like a bunch of people already own Hauppauge cards and simply want us to confirm that they are the best card on the market. Well, that depends largely on what you plan on doing with the card, and there are definitely some differences of opinion on which card is actually best. If you want to use a tuner with Linux or OS X, Hauppauge is certainly a great choice - probably the best choice, thout I can't speak from personal experience. If you already own a Hauppauge card, I definitely wouldn't upgrade to a Theater 550, because the differences are too small to really bother me. If you're buying a new TV tuner, however, then you probably want to purchase what we consider to be the best product. In terms of image quality, we would still give the edge to the Theater 550, and the Theater 650 slightly improves on that (but isn't yet available). The DTV support definitely puts it ahead of the competition.

    The bigger problem with image quality is going to be using a standard analog signal in the first place. If you're truly concerned with image quality, upgrade to HDTV, because even the best analog tuner looks like garbage when compared to an HDTV signal. Of course, that also means you need to live in an area where you can get reasonable OTA HDTV reception.... I don't, which is why I wrote http://www.anandtech.com/multimedia/showdoc.aspx?i...">this article
    - yes, I'm still bitter about the fact that I can't get OTA DTV reception. I think we've pretty much maxed out on analog TV quality, so all of the best analog tuners are relatively similar. (There are still plenty of tuners available that have very poor quality, but I don't think any of these cards fall into that category.) If you really want image quality there's no competition between analog TV and HDTV -- and the same can be said of TV tuner cards.

    So why didn't we review the DTV capabilities of this card? Time constraints, location, pre-release status, and the fact that we would then be comparing apples and oranges. If you can actually get OTA HDTV reception, the fact of the matter is that it doesn't really make a difference what card you use to receive the signal. You are still capturing an MPEG-2 transport stream, so provided your signal is clear you will get the same quality. The difference will then come down to decoding hardware/software, but even the worst HDTV decoder will look better than the best analog decoder. You simply can't compete with videos that contain about six times as much data. I mean, what's better: a 1280x720 medium quality JPEG image, or a 512x384 ultra high quality JPEG image? Now what about 1280x720 high-quality JPEG versus 512x384 high-quality JPEG? My experience with DTV, however, is that OTA reception only matters if you live in/near a really big city. Otherwise, you will probably be getting an HD signal from your cable or satellite provider anyway.

    This is a lengthy post, and I'm not simply defending one of our writers. I read and reread this article, and a couple of us (Derek and myself) edited things a bit. Is the article perfect? No, but then few articles are. I could nitpick a few areas, but they really wouldn't change the overall content of the article. This article could easily be summarized with: "ATI is releasing a new Theater 650 card that should match or exceed the quality of the Theater 550 in all areas. That should make it the best single tuner analog TV card on the market, and as an added bonus you get digital TV reception." The article is basically an elaboration of that statement, with some testing to back it up.

    That's pretty much what most of our articles are: background information, technical overview, real-world testing, and a conclusion. Do we really need an official statement saying Hauppauge makes good TV tuners? Do we need to do testing on every single OS that's currently available? Do we need to talk about the benefits of dual tuners over single tuners? Do we need to test "every card currently available"? Again, there are time constraints that come into play, and we would simply end up testing until the proverbial cows come home, with nary an article in sight. If you already own a good-quality TV tuner and you're not unhappy with the performance, I wouldn't be worrying about upgrading anyway. Unless of course you're thinking about adding digital TV reception.

    I hope that explains at least my perspective on this type of article. We're trying to provide additional coverage of the HTPC market, but we can't simply start out and compare new products to every single product on the market. We don't do that with any of our product reviews, as we assume our readers understand the transitive property of mathematics. If A > B and B > C, how does A compared to C? If A ~= B and B ~= C, A ~= C. I think you get the point. The short summary:

    *ANY* OTA HDTV signal >>> Analog T650 >= T550 >= Hauppauge >= DualTV :)

    I've used quite a few TV tuners, I've used some HDTV tuners, and if I were seriously in the market for a device to do recording and timeshifting of TV content, I would still just pay Comcast $10 per month for the upgrade. It might cost a bit more in the long run, but the convenience factor is definitely still on the side of consumer electronics. I really hope that CableCARD changes all that, as the biggest problem with cable TV PVR devices is that they rarely include enough hard drive space, and they charge you obscene amounts for HDD upgrades.

    Regards,
    Jarred Walton
    Editor
    AnandTech.com
    Reply

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