by Tim Tscheblockov
06/02/2003 | 04:07 AM
Graphics cards from ATI Technologies have won many users’ respect due to their high performance in 3D games, but also due to their excellent video playback and picture output onto the screen.
The graphics card family from ATI is really wide and far-reaching. It includes entry-level products for office work, powerful gaming cards, professional 3D accelerators and also – combo-cards of the All-In-Wonder series. These fully comply with their name and combine a fast 3D-core with multimedia features. They allow viewing cable and broadcast channels on the computer, perform video editing with output onto a VCR or TV-set.
Today we will review an All-In-Wonder card based on the ATI RADEON 9700 PRO graphics chip. As every All-In-Wonder product is something more than just a graphics card, we use the term “multimedia card” to refer to it. We guess it suits best.
All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO is available only in retail and is supplied in a big colorful box that reads “Built by ATI”. ATI doesn’t produce ordinary gaming graphics cards under its own name anymore: it’s the job of the daughter company called SAPPHIRE that manufactures about 90% of all ATI cards. SAPPHIRE is not involved into All-In-Wonder cards production, however. So, we can’t definitely say who’s producing these multimedia cards for ATI.
The accessories coming with All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO are really numerous. We found the following items in the box:
Video appliances connection scheme via the given splitter:
A splitter from 8-pin composite Mini-Din connector to S-Video, one RCA video and two RCA audio connectors. This splitter is used to attach external devices to the input of the multimedia card.
HDTV alliances connection scheme via the given splitter:
This is a splitter from a 10-pin Mini-Din connector to four RCA connectors and one jack. Three RCA connectors transfer RGB channels of HDTV devices. One more RCA connector is a digital SPDIF audio output to connect to a Dolby Digital AC3 decoder. The jack outputs the Line Out of the multimedia card. ATI recommends you plug it into the Line In of your sound card.
Video appliances connection scheme via the given splitter:
One more, simpler, splitter cable serves to connect TV-sets to the output of All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO. It is plugged into the 10-pin Mini-Din output of the multimedia card and splits the signal into one S-Video socket, one RCA video connector, one digital SPDIF RCA connector and a jack plugged into the sound card.
The multimedia card also comes with one S-Video and one composite cable. Thus, ATI made sure that the user of All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO had no (or very little) problem connecting it to any modern video or audio device (either digital or analog).
The multimedia card comes with a remote control called Remote Wonder and powered by four AAA batteries. ATI introduced this thing about a year ago. Since then it’s been included with All-In-Wonder graphics cards and is also available separately as a nice addition to an ordinary PC, even without a RADEON-based card installed. Let’s look at it more closely.
First of all, the design. The control is very handy and sits well in the hand, while rubber keys with smoothed edges are right beneath the thumb. The control is much more ergonomic and pleasing than most remote control units for home TV-tuners. Even the remote control for Pinnacle TV-tuners, which I have considered best, yields to the Remote Wonder in comfort and ergonomics. But this is only a small part of the advantages of this remote control unit. As usual, the most important is hidden inside. Unlike remote controls for ordinary TV-tuners that work with infrared rays, the Remote Wonder uses a radio signal instead. It means you don’t have to aim the IR-receiver with the control each time you want to adjust the sound volume or switch between the channels. Moreover, the radio signal of the Remote Wonder can go through walls so you can make the broadcast louder even from another room!
The connection to the computer is established via a radio-receiver that fits into a USB port of the PC. As the receiver doesn’t have to be visible (unlike the case with IR-rays), you can place it somewhere at the back of the chassis. We will get back to the Remote Wonder in the end of this review to describe how you can remotely control multimedia functions of All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO.
We only want to add that besides the above-described accessories, the box of the multimedia card contains a manual and four compact disks with drivers, the Pinnacle Studio 8 program for video editing, the MatchWare Mediator 7 program for creating multimedia presentations and The Elder Scrolls III Morrowind for play.
As this All-In-Wonder multimedia card is based on the ATI RADEON 9700 PRO graphics chip, it has a lot in common with its gaming brother. In fact they differ less than RADEON 8500 and All-In-Wonder 8500 used to.
First, let’s take a look at the bracket of the card. It carries (from left to right, from top to bottom) an 8-pin Mini-Din video input, antenna input, 10-pin Mini-Din video output and DVI-I connector for the display. Unlike RADEON 9700 PRO graphics cards, All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO has only one display output. It is a DVI-I connector that transfers both digital and analog signals. As for the antenna output, it is intended for a coaxial cable with an F-connector. There is no adapter coming with the multimedia card that would allow attaching antennas with ordinary coaxial connectors that are used in many TV-sets and antennas.
I can’t say definitely how the wiring for this DVI-I output is laid out. The card can probably output two independent signals onto the single DVI-I connector so that you could connect two displays at a time by means of some special splitter. Still, the card comes only with a standard DVI-VGA adapter that allows attaching an analog display to the card. Thus, it seems like you cannot use the HydraVision capabilities implemented in RADEON 9700 PRO chips, that is, dual-display configurations. On the other hand, there is a possibility to have both: a display and TV-set connected to the computer with a different picture on each. But still, it’s not quite good to use a TV-set as a second display. It doesn’t suit well for text or graphics.
An analog signal receiver, or, simpler, TV-tuner from Philips, takes a lot of the PCB area. This tuner also influenced the placement of some other components of the card. For example, the power supply circuit of RADEON 9700 PRO includes two chips that are placed on the back side of the card and covered with a heat-spreader. Here, this power supply circuit is on the front side, below the tuner. You can recognize the two chips by their heat-spreaders.
Under the tuner block, there is a four-pin connector. It is CD-Out that must be connected to the CD-In of the sound card to transfer the sound of the received channels.
Rage Theater 200 chip is soldered to the back side of the PCB. It is responsible for video input implementation of the multimedia card. Rage Theater chips are not installed on ordinary gaming RADEON 9700 PRO based cards because these cards don’t support video input, while TV-Out functions are implemented in the graphics chip itself. Let’s see what this Rage Theater is like.
ATI Rage Theater 200 combines a video-decoder and a stereo sound-processor. The video decoder delivers a number of functions necessary for analog television signal decoding, like smoothing filters and so on. The flowchart below shows the operation scheme of Theater 200.
As the diagram shows the analog signal comes to the input multiplexer, is converted to the digital form and is divided into video and audio signals. After that the video signal is processed by the video decoder that has two integrated 12-bit ADCs, while the audio signal is processed by the audio demodulator. The decoded video signal goes to the “Video Scaler” unit that adjusts the video image size. The audio signal goes to the digital signal processor, which outputs it in the digital form to the S/PDIF port. The communication between Rage Theater 200 and the graphics chip is carried out across the I2S bus. The principal scheme of their intercommunication is shown in the following diagram.
We see that Rage Theater doesn’t direct the video onto the video output: it is the task of RADEON 9700 PRO. As we have said above, RADEON 9700 PRO has integrated digital-to-analog converters that can output the image onto the TV-set and other video appliances. But as RADEON 9700 PRO is a graphics chip, Theater 200 should process the sound. Fortunately, ATI paid proper attention to the sound part of Rage 200. This chip has an integrated 16-bit codec that produces sound with 32, 44.1, 48 or 96kHz sample rate. One of the features worth mentioning is automatic volume control. It means that the sound volume will remain the same as set by the user whatever the volume of each reproduced channel is.
Rage Theater 200 was developed not only for All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO multimedia cards, but also for TV-sets, displays with TV functions, video-conference equipment and so on. That’s why Rage Theater 200 supports all modern standards for analog signal transfer:
There is only one thing to be mentioned: Rage Theater 200 supports power saving technologies, so all currently unused units of the chip are simply turned off.
The All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO multimedia card has 128MB of DDR SDRAM onboard. The memory is kept in eight BGA chips, soldered to both sides of the PCB.
The memory is made by Samsung, which also supplies chips for ordinary RADEON 9700 PRO. By default, the memory works at 620MHz frequency.
Just like RADEON 9700 PRO, All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO requires additional power for work. It is supplied via a 4-pin connector for 3.5” devices. The package of the multimedia card includes a splitter cable from 4-pin PCPlug connector so that every user could connect the card even if there are no free power connectors in the computer.
Overall, we have got only one gripe about the card: you cannot connect two displays to the card simultaneously.
The CD that comes with All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO contains the Catalyst 3.0 drivers and Multimedia Center version 8.0. The Multimedia Center is a bunch of programs for watching TV-channels, and playback of video and audio files from various mediums (CD, DVD). By default, a rather handy control panel is installed along with the Multimedia Center 8.0.
This panel can be visible as shown in the screenshot above, or attached to the border of the screen and hidden. In this case it pops up when you poke it with your mouse. Let’s see what programs constitute the Multimedia Center.
First of them is a TV-channels viewer: you can set up and watch any broadcast channels. This program is full of useful options, those that distinguish ATI’s TV-tuners from the ones designed by competitors. For example, there is an option to make the broadcast window transparent or set it as the wallpaper of the Desktop. Thus, you can view TV programs without moving the broadcast window all around because it covers the buttons of office programs in Windows.
The TV viewer can also save the video clip into a file anytime. All you need is to click a button on the program interface or press a corresponding button on the Remote Wonder.
The second program in the bundle is a media player. It can play video and audio files stored on the hard disk or any other medium. The File Player understands VCR (ATI’s specialty format), AVI, MPEG, MPEG-2, ASF. MP3, MIDI and WAVE files. So, File Player allows you to listen to MP3 files downloaded from the Web and to watch the Video disks recorded in MPEG, MPEG2 or MPEG4 format.
This player can play video in a transparent window, too. Of course, you can’t save the video into a file here, but there is an option to save most interesting moments as still images in the BMP format.
Three more programs resemble the File Player or rather some of its functions. One of them can play only VideoCDs, another – only AudioCDs, the third – DVDs only. Their functionality is limited compared to the File Player, but they are easier to use.
Next comes TV Guide Plus+. This is an electronic TV-schedule for downloading weakly show times. It works only in the United States and Canada.
The Multimedia Center from ATI has an integrated utility for organizing and managing a media-files library. The Library program stores all recorded and saved media-files: BMP screenshots and video clips.
The files can be sorted by their type or creation date. The Library has no previewing options and calls for other utilities of the ATI Multimedia Center to play the selected files.
The All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO multimedia card can be used for some simple video editing. It has an analog input and output, and the splitter-cables allow connecting it to any household video devices.
For those people who don’t just watch TV, but also want to do something over recorded video clips or add some effects to a family video footage, there is a powerful and flexible program in the software bundle. It is Studio 8 ATI Version ver.8.4 from Pinnacle Group, a leading company in the video editing field.
Studio 8 ATI Version allows capturing video, editing it, applying special effects and writing the result onto the hard disk or back to a VCR. Studio 8 ATI Version can capture video in AVI or MPEG formats with adjustable quality level. When editing, you can use video clips in AVI, MPEG or MPEG-2 formats as well as still images in DTL, BMP, JPEG, TGA, TIF and WMF formats. The project may be output as an AVI, MPEG, RealVideo or Windows Media file. This program can even produce VideoCDs and DVDs (or course, if you have a CD-RW drive or DVD-R/RW, DVD+R/RW). Although Pinnacle Studio 8 ATI Version is targeted for a beginner, it has enough options to satisfy even the most demanding user. This article is too short to describe all the features and capabilities of the program, so let’s say bye-bye to Studio 8 ATI Version now and move on.
MatchWare Mediator is a tool for creating various multimedia presentations.
Actually, it’s not quite clear what it has to do with the VIVO functionality of a graphics card and why it is included into All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO.
The remote control unit of the card, called Remote Wonder, allows controlling the computer from a certain distance, and even from another room as the Remote Wonder uses a radio signal that can penetrate through the walls. The control has 42 ordinary keys and a multi-positional one that can be pressed in eight different ways. This key is a substitute for the mouse. At the sides of this big key there are two small ones that emulate the left and right buttons of the mouse. Of course, the remote control unit is less handy than the mouse, but it may be irreplaceable during presentations or other occasions like that.
Six keys on the control unit are programmable for a certain action or keystroke. For example, you can assign them the close active window command (Alt + F4), Clipboard actions (Ctrl + C, Ctrl + V) or something else. Four keys are programmed to emulate arrow keys (they are in the lower part of the remote control unit), while the “OK” key between them serves as the “Enter” key on the keyboard.
Five more keys are programmed for quick launch of programs from the Multimedia Center: TV-Player, DVD-Player, media-files Library, and Web-browser.
As the Remote Wonder uses a radio channel to connect to the computer, it’s quite natural that two Remote Wonders in one room or in two neighboring rooms would collide and conflict. To avoid this, the software of the Remote Wonder can assign a personal number (16 in total) to every remote control unit “in da house” and perform code modulation.
The number is programmed from the remote control unit following the instructions given in the Remote Wonder drivers. It’s hardly possible that there may be more than sixteen computers in a room with Remote Wonders in each. So, these 16 personal numbers should be quite enough, even for a big office.
Now, let’s go over to the most interesting part – the integrated TV-tuner as well as the related software. Unfortunately, the high-frequency module used in All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO doesn’t support the SECAM standard we have in Russia. This problem cannot be solved by any BIOS, drivers or utilities updates. That’s why we had to substitute ATI All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO with a card from Sapphire for the TV-tuner tests. The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO multimedia card from Sapphire repeats ATI’s reference design with minor differences like a SECAM-supporting high-frequency module and a few changes in the PCB wiring layout.
As we have included this card into the review, let’s say a few words about it. Its retail version comes in a colorful paper box:
The accessories set is less rich than the one coming with All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO from ATI. The package includes the Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO and the following items:
As we see the remote control unit is missing among the accessories provided by Sapphire. However, both: ATI and Sapphire offer the Remote Wonder as an option, so there is no problem to purchase the control unit separately.
ATI All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO and Sapphire The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO require the same software to be installed, so there is no difference between them in this respect.
Well, we’ve got everything set up and running and have the following newcomers in the device list:
After plugging in an antenna (we used a community one), we are setting up the TV-tuner. TV Channels Initialization Wizard is going to help us here. First, the country must be chosen. In other words – the range of frequency bands for TV channels:
Russia was not present in the list, so we chose the frequency range of Albania following the advice on Sapphire’s website (Albania must be close to Russia in this respect).
Step two. Finding TV-channels. “Exhaustive Search” can find more channels, but it takes much longer than the ordinary search.
Channels are spotted. You can set various parameters for each of them, like video, audio, teletext and so on.
You can leave most parameters by default for a while, but the video settings panel needs messing up with: somehow the card couldn’t recognize the broadcast standard automatically. It has to be set for each channel manually:
So, we set the TV-tuner up. We kept the screenshots for all twelve channels found by Sapphire The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO to evaluate the quality of received and decoded TV-signal.
Even the best screenshots show that there is a lot of noise in the signal: it is grainy. There are also tails tracking behind areas colored bright red. Worst screenshots have a lot of noise that kills the image altogether. It also turned out that once in a while the tuner loses the sync on a couple of channels and produces rudiments of frames colored most unexpected colors.
The high level of noise may be caused by pickup from other computer components as well as by certain flaws in the card’s PCB layout: the tuner stands next to a powerful graphics chip and memory chips clocked at the frequencies of the standard RADEON 9700 PRO card. It also may be that the high noise level is a peculiarity of this given card we had in our test lab. For example, ATI All-In-Wonder 9700 PRO, that was reading the TV-signal as NTSC or PAL, produced a black-and-white picture, but without much noise.
Overall, we can grade the quality of TV reception by our Sapphire The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO as satisfactory, no more.
Although Sapphire’s card proved far from best at receiving TV-channels, it left a good general impression mainly due to excellent software, especially its TV-related part.
All TV-tuner settings are hidden in the control panel you can pop up by right-clicking in the video playback window.
The Display panel contains controls for outputting the image onto the screen:
The most curious output mode is ThruView. This mode displays video “translucently” right over the Desktop and application windows, so you can work and watch video at the same time. Still, this mode is no good for doing anything: working or watching. You just can’t work on an Excel sheet or read a Web page in the browser when there is video seeping through. And you can’t enjoy watching videos, because the application windows interfere.
Next comes the Video panel, including the standard gamma settings:
The TV Tuner panel displays a list of all channels found. Here the user can choose favorite channels, name them, set up each of them independently:
Extra settings are accessed by clicking the Details button. You can set up video, sound, teletext and closed caption options for each of the channels. Moreover, it’s possible to switch a channel to another station or lock it up:
Among extra settings you will probably want to adjust the gamma and decoding type:
The tuner supports closed captions (descriptive text included into video signal for the hearing impaired). The Closed Caption panel helps to set this feature up.
The Schedule panel serves to make the tuner record any TV broadcast to a file.
The Stills Gallery serves to set up still image capture options. The captured frames can be directed to the gallery, or saved to a specified folder, or transferred to the Clipboard, or simply printed out:
The Personal Video Recorder panel is the last one. It contains video capture and recording options. There are four presets: “DVD”, “Good”, “Longer”, “Video CD” that differ in video quality and the size of the produced file. At the right part of the panel, each of the presets is explained:
Of course, you don’t have to stick to the presets, but can make your own ones with customized encoding parameters, specifically for your own needs.
First of all, you choose the codec, resolution, interlace mode, and audio capture format:
Next, the maximum size of the file should be indicated. If the recording goes above this size, it will be automatically divided into chunks of this specified size:
Video encoding parameters come next (for our example, we chose ATI VCR). You choose the bit-rate of video and audio streams:
And set up the alteration of I-, P- and B-frames in the video-stream:
By default, certain filters are applied “on-the-fly” to the video signal during capture. This feature is called VideoSoap technology (this soap must wash away all the mud from the picture, that is – the noise). You can either choose a preset:
Or customize it:
As you see, there are a lot of options that you can play with. To somewhat limit ourselves we chose the four presets: “DVD”, “Good”, “Longer” and “Video CD” and recorded a few test videos using the tuner of Sapphire The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO as the video source.
The first example is a static image – a standard TV-tuning table:
You can see in the screenshots that the picture becomes “fuzzy” as we move from “DVD” to “Video CD”. Besides, the colors in the recording differ from the original in “Longer” and “Video CD” modes. Note also that the “Video CD” preset produces a smaller-resolution video – 352x288 against 768x576 – so we had to enlarge the screenshot to the size of the other three.
For a dynamic scene we chose a wrestling broadcast: there is enough action there :).
By default, the “DVD” preset doesn’t use de-interlacing and we can see those lines in the black and red shorts on the wrestling guys. The “Good” preset uses de-interlacing and makes the figures blurred. The “Longer” recording produced compression artifacts, while the referee’s black-and-white shirt has now red and blue colors on it. This shouldn’t happen ideally. The “Video CD” mode is the worst: you can’t discern anything at all. Actually, we haven’t hoped for anything more from a thing called “Video CD”.
It’s also a nice thing that there have been no dropped frames or other problems in any of the modes that might have been provoked by the computer hardware. During our tests we used Sapphire The Beast All In Wonder 9700 PRO in a rather average system according to today’s standards: Intel Pentium 4 Celeron 1700MHz, 256MB RAM, a SiS648 based mainboard, Seagate Barracuda ATA IV 40GB hard disk drive.
So, what’s our opinion about the All-In-Wonder cards from ATI and Sapphire? Yeah, we have got more positive than negative impressions, so let’s start with what we liked…
Firstly, although we didn’t mention anywhere in the article the performance of our testing participants, it’s evident the speed of these cards will satisfy the most demanding gamer. The RADEON 9700 PRO graphics chip and 128MB of graphics memory clocked at the frequencies of ordinary RADEON 9700 PRO based cards mean high performance and support of all modern 3D technologies. That goes without questioning. By the way, you can read our RADEON 9700 PRO Review for more details.
Secondly, the two cards are fully-fledged “all-in-one” combos: the integrated TV-tuner allows watching and recording TV broadcasts, while video in- and outputs offer basic video editing options. There shouldn’t be any problems connecting various video appliances to the PC as well as capturing, editing and playing video clips.
The third, and the most important property of All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO as it comes from ATI and Sapphire is the easy and comfortable use: starting with the Remote Wonder, which is much handier than an infrared control, and finishing with simple and functional software.
I guess there is a strong trend now towards home computers becoming ordinary household appliances like microwave ovens or TV-sets. An example is right here: the fashionable small form factor PCs. Graphics cards like All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO will fit into such a system quite well making it both: a powerful gaming station and a multimedia center. Talking about my own experience, I had no problems installing this card into my own home SFF PC. I was using the card for a week, although the system (made by Shuttle) had only a 135W PSU (my respects to Shuttle making such reliable systems :)). Still, you would be on the safe side following the manufacturer’s recommendations: All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO will surely feel better in a system with a more powerful power supply unit.
Compared with graphics cards based on NVIDIA’s GPUs (GeForce FX 5900/5900 Ultra/5800/5800 Ultra), RADEON 9700 PRO based ones consume less power, produce less heat and much less noise. The last thing to mention is that the cooling system installed on All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO cards doesn’t take a neighboring slot and thus can be easily accommodated into a majority of today’s PC cases.
Among the disadvantages of All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 Pro from ATI we should mention no SECAM support, while Sapphire’s card had too much noise in the picture from the tuner. This may be caused by flaws in a particular card, or by the absence of Russian TV frequencies support (it turns out Albania doesn’t resemble Russia well enough). Hopefully, this drawback will be eliminated soon.
The last, but surely not the least, is the price. All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO cards are priced from $420 to $500 and more. One might think it’s a way too much, but I would say it’s quite appropriate: All-In-Wonder RADEON 9700 PRO has no real rivals today in its class.
However, as always, it’s you who decides.