Original Link: http://www.anandtech.com/show/2123



In our first article we took a look at some of the upcoming reviews for the storage sector and today we take a quick glance at some interesting multimedia products. We will close out our series with a long list of motherboards and memory items. Our visits with various manufacturers yielded some interesting information as most expect the arrival of Vista to be a boon for memory and multimedia centric products. We completely understand the giddiness of the memory manufacturers as Vista will need at least 1GB of memory to operate decently, and 2GB will be recommended. We will go over this DRAM requirement and additional memory technologies in our next series but today's emphasis is on multimedia products.

Most of the multimedia product suppliers are gearing up for next year with new product designs and functionality improvements. They expect to see a heightened awareness or interest of the average personal computer user in using the PC for media centric applications. In essence, with most versions of Vista including native Windows Media Center capabilities that have been greatly improved over MCE 2005, suppliers are hoping for the PC to finally become a mainstream digital content appliance in the living room.

While we think this is still a ways off or might morph into something different, the mere fact that you will no longer need to purchase a separate operating system for Media Center functionality should help move the PC platform in this direction, and with CableCARD support arriving in Vista we think the market for HTPC systems and equipment will enjoy steady growth over the coming months. As this market grows we expect to see a convergence in the technologies utilized in your typical set top box and the PC that will result in a true media center hub for the home. We will delve into this more in our upcoming HTPC articles but for now lets take a look at some interesting products we have in the labs today with an eye towards products planned for early next year.

Multimedia Products:

Diamond Multimedia


Diamond Multimedia has been around for over two decades now and specializes in video graphics, computer audio, and communication devices for both the home and business office user.


The Diamond XtremeTV PVR660 USB 2.0 is a portable Personal Video Recorder (PVR) TV tuner with an MPEG-2 hardware encoder. The unit also features an FM radio tuner. The PVR660 comes bundled with USB, S-Video, RCA, and FM antenna cables along with a credit card size remote control unit. Diamond Multimedia also includes an excellent software package that features ArcSoft's TotalMedia that does a very good job of impersonating Windows MCE 2005, at least to a certain degree. This is a benefit for those who have Windows 2000 or XP as their base operating system. We tried the unit with MCE 2005 as well and it worked flawlessly. The software package also includes Orb and muvee.

In similar fashion to Windows MCE 2005, ArcSoft TotalMedia is a single program that provides TV, video recording, photo editing, and media conversion tasks within a simple user interface. You can watch and record TV shows, edit photos or video, listen to music, rip CDs to MP3 files, and export or import your files to various portable devices. Using the TitanTV electronic program guide is as easy as entering your zip code and selecting your service provider.

The unit is enclosed in a compact portable housing and features a USB 2.0 interface. The front panel features the RCA audio, S-Video, and composite-video inputs along with an illuminated power switch. The back panel features inputs for a coaxial cable and FM radio connections. The unit has two USB 2.0 ports with one for connecting the unit to your PC and the other for the remote control interface. A DC power input is included for those using the PVR660 with a non-powered USB 2.0 port. The unit is Auto Compatible with NTSC, PAL, and SECAM TV Systems which means you can pretty much travel the world with it.

We found the unit offered very good performance during testing, but the picture quality was not as good as our AMD/ATI TV Wonder 550 or Hauppauge WinTV-PVR-150. However, the differences were not as recognizable on screens less than 30" in size and considering it is using an analog interface, the artifacts and motion blur that we encountered at times was expected and present to some degree on virtually all PCI based analog tuner cards. The huge bonus factor for this unit is the fact that is portable, contains an excellent software package, and is auto compatible with all the major TV broadcast standards. The current price for this package is around $119 and until the CableCARD products become mainstream we highly recommend this unit for those who need portability or an extra TV tuner in the house.



Compro

Compro Technology has been in business since 1988 and has been providing interesting PC based graphics and multimedia products based on the latest technologies in both the OEM and Retail markets. Their retail products are marketed under the VideoMate name and can be found at leading e-tailors. We recently received several of their products for review with the Compro VideoMate S350 satellite TV tuner card and VideoMate H900 TV Tuner card being of notable interest to us.


The VideoMate S350 is a digital satellite TV tuner card based upon DVB-S standards. The card utilizes the Philips 9-bit ADC chip that provides full SDTV and up to 1080i HDTV digital TV watching, DiSEqC 1.2, Transport Stream, and MPEG-2 digital TV recording when utilizing free-to-air DVB-S TV signals. Compro has included their Picture Purifying Technology that improves both SDTV and HDTV reception on your PC. The unit also features Compro's Power Up Technology that can automatically boot up your system from the Windows Shut Down (ACPI S5), Stand by (ACPI S3), or Hibernation (ACPI S4) modes, record your favorite shows, and will then automatically shutdown your system when recording is completed.

The S350 comes with a 37-key remote control unit and is bundled with ComproDTV 2, ComproDVD 2, and Ulead PhotoExplorer 8.5 SE software. The S350 will support 3rd party satellite TV PVR software as well. The ComproDTV 2 software supports timeshifting, channel surfing, still frame capture, digital EPG, subtitle and Teletext, advanced picture in/out picture to watch live TV or playback video files at the same time, and support for up to four digital channel windows in PIP mode. The VideoMate S350 is also a video capture card that can capture analog video (NTSC/PAL) from S-Video or Composite sources and can record in MPEG-1/2/4 formats.

In our initial tests we had a few minor issues with the first release of the ComproDTV 2 software that centered on digital channel switching times, but this has been fully addressed in the latest release. The clarity of both SDTV and HDTV signals has been impressive along with the ability to watch digital TV shows in the lab on our standard test bed (not that we ever do that). The software also has the capability to set up your main TV channel in wallpaper mode on the desktop while still providing picture-in-picture capability for up to three other windows. While we are still testing this card, the technology works very well provided you have the required digital dish and LNB for capturing the DVB-S signals. The included software is now mature and has some impressive features. Although this product is designed for a small and highly specialized audience we have to say we really like it so far.

BlueGears

BlueGears has been providing computer and home entertainment audio solutions into the OEM/ODM markets since 2000. They recently started focusing on providing retail products under the BlueGears brand name. We will be reviewing their recently released b-Enspirer sound card in the near future but would like to provide some first impressions today.


The b-Enspirer is powered by the C-Media Oxygen HD CMI8788 audio processor that features 8-channel support, 24bit/192kHz capability, and a 110dB signal-to-noise ratio. The package comes with an installation CD, TOSLink Fiber-Optic cable, and owner's manual. The card itself is very compact and has six RCA jacks and two Optical S/PDIF (in/out) connectors on the bracket.

The basic features of the card include:
  • DTS Interactive - a real-time 5.1 channel encoder that takes 2 or more audio channels and encodes them into a DTS bit stream.
  • DTS NeoPC - an up-mix matrix that turns any 2 channel audio into 7.1 channel surround sound.
  • Dolby Digital Live (AC-3) - real time 5.1 channel encoding.
  • Dolby Pro-Logic IIx - surround processor; converts stereo audio into 7.1 channel surround sound.
  • Dolby Headphone - converts 5.1 surround or 3D gaming audio for use over stereo headphones.
  • Dolby Virtual Speaker - creates virtual surround sound from a generic two-speaker configuration
  • C-Media FlexBass - configurable LFE channel crossover frequency (from 50 to 250Hz)
  • C-Media Magic Voice - provides the ability to disguise voices in online chatting (Ed: Unfortunately, it can't get rid of Gary's Texas twang....)
  • C-Media Xear3D - 7.1 Virtual Speaker Shifter technology
  • Supports EAX 1.0 & 2.0, A3D 1.0, and DirectSound.
The b-Enspirer is targeted to the home theater crowd and in our initial testing it excels in this area. In fact, this card has replaced our Creative X-Fi in our upcoming HTPC article. The gaming aspects of the card are very good and exceed the current on-board sound solutions but the card has limited EAX support. The CPU utilization rates were excellent in our game tests but frame rate losses in titles like Battlefield 2 were similar to the on-board solutions with FPS reductions up to 16% in some cases. While Realtek has struggled with their EAX 2 implementation as of late we did not find the same issues with the latest driver set in the vast majority of games we have tested. However, in BF2 we found turning off EAX resulted in the best audio performance and quality as the EAX implementation in this game (and BF2142) is still not as good as the ADI1988B audio codec and far under the Creative X-Fi series of cards.

Our feelings remain the same: if your PC is dedicated to gaming then the Creative X-Fi is still your best choice. The b-Enspirer offers an amazing number of features for the $109 price tag and is best suited for those who place a premium on HTPC features or audio quality in music or video titles instead of gaming. We are still completing testing with the new driver set but feel at this time that if you are looking for an all-around audio solution for your PC then this card deserves a serious look.

Final Remarks

This concludes our second Tech View 2006 article, and we will take a look at some interesting memory technologies and a whole host of motherboards in our final article for this series.

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