by Alexey Stepin
12/04/2003 | 08:18 PM
As you surely know, graphics processors from ATI Technologies don’t only come to us on gaming graphics cards, but also on multimedia combos under the “ALL-IN-WONDER” brand. Such cards have every right to be called the best multimedia products as they combine excellent performance with numerous extras to transform your PC into a multimedia entertainment center. Our today’s review is devoted to one product of the kind. It is the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO. The manufacturer, GeXcube, is a member of Gigabyte Group.
Before getting to the product, let us first try to define the basic evaluation criteria for a graphics card with multimedia functions. Some users may want to use an ALL-IN-WONDER as a basis of an inexpensive entertainment center, which is their PC. Others would prefer to install such a card into their office computer.
So, the home user needs:
The business user may want:
Now that we have limited our search criteria, let’s see if the ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro can satisfy the needs of different user groups.
Unfortunately we received an OEM version of the card, without the Remote Wonder II control. It was to be purchased optionally. Most users are likely to get a retail version of the product with the remote control unit enclosed. In our case we had just the main components of the ALL-IN-WONDER solution:
Besides the necessary cables and splitters, the accessories accompanying the card included three software CDs: with driver and system software, with the video-editing suite CyberLink PowerDirector 2.5 ME, and with a full version of the “Delta Force: Black Hawk Down” game.
I’d like to emphasize the fact that the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro can work with two monitors at a time, unlike its elder brother, the ALL-IN-WONDER RADEON 9800 PRO, but you have to forget about monitors with the DVI interface.
The rich capabilities of the card show up in its numerous connectors that couldn’t be even grouped together in the card’s bracket. The engineering team from ATI Technologies preferred not to create two-storied monsters, but installed a special square-shaped connector onboard, which takes in a splitter with several standard connectors. The video-input unit is implemented as a separate purple-colored box with a long and flexible cable. You can stick the box to the desk or the system case with the enclosed sticker.
In fact the card boasts very rich features dealing with the signal input:
As well as signal output:
The package includes two separate cables, RCA and S-Video. The manufacturer made sure that the users have no problems connecting and using the device. Nevertheless, I should warn the potential user of the ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO: if you break or lose the universal splitter, you may not be able to use the card at all.
With the high-frequency TV and radio receivers sitting onboard, the engineers had to change the PCB design:
You see the card differs greatly from the standard RADEON 9600 PRO because of its multi-functionality. The HF tuner unit from Philips can receive a television signal of any broadcast standard and radio signals in the FM band.
Below the TV/FM-tuner we’ve got an ATI Rage Theater 200 chip that is actually responsible for the multimedia functions of the card, except the VPU-supported TV-out. This chip is both a video-decoder and a stereo audio-processor. The Rage Theater 200 also supports power-saving functions and the S/PDIF interface. To connect your audio card to the ALL-IN-WONDER, you plug it into the connector above the HF unit.
The components of the card are densely crowded on the PCB, but the design of the cooling system remained intact. The graphics core is covered with an unassuming cooler like those that used to be installed on the RADEON 8500. The total of the graphics memory is 128MB (in chips from Samsung with 2.8ns access time). The memory frequency is 325MHz (650MHz DDR), which is higher than in the ordinary RADEON 9600 PRO, while the VPU frequency is standard and equals 400MHz. This card, just like any other RADEON 9600 PRO, doesn’t require any additional power.
When installing the card into the testbed, I had some concerns about its 2D image quality, since extra cables and connectors don’t lead to a better quality of the output image. Fortunately, my doubts never gained ground as the graphics card yielded a sharp picture in 1600x1200. I won’t claim this card is better in 2D than others (for example, than the FIC R96P), but the difference is too negligible to be perceived by the eye.
The noise level was very low. The cooler of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro was quiet compared with the noise produced by the PSU and the HDD.
The software enclosed with the combo-card constitutes a bulk of its functionality. So, after I installed ATI’s Catalyst, Control Panel and WDM driver, the operating system found the following devices:
The users of Windows 2000 and Windows XP have to install a patch from Microsoft to eliminate the problem connected with finding the TV-tuner. If you haven’t installed the patch, the tuner cannot be found and used. Besides that, you need to have DirectX 9.0 and Windows Media Encoder 9 already installed.
I have already mentioned the exuberant functionality of the cards from the ALL-IN-WONDER series, and now it’s time I told you about the software you use to enjoy it. The software package comes under the name of ATI Multimedia Center (MMC) and I dealt with the version 8.7. I installed all the components of the MMC, so let’s now take a closer look at them.
If you choose the full install of the MMC, the ATI Multimedia Center LaunchPad is also installed. It is a kind of nerve center of the MMC allowing you to launch and configure other applications of the set from one easy-to-use panel.
The LaunchPad can take any shape. For example, it can stick to any border of the Desktop as a thin bar with application buttons. The bar can be made always visible, or can come out of the screen border when you approach it with your mouse pointer. The LaunchPad can also take the shape of an independent column or row located in any part of the screen. The first black icon atop serves to configure the MMC:
The DVD page contains DVD-related options and a button to enable dual-monitor configurations. In the TV page you can choose the source of the input TV signal. The EASYLOOK section is for setting up the namesake function, which is only available for the owners of the Remote Wonder control. Skins to be used by the MMC programs can be selected in the Skins section. The File Types tab is for associating multimedia files with applications, and the PC Check page tests your PC for compatibility with the MMC.
The next system icon is called Desktop Settings. It opens up the standard Display Settings window. Then, the next icon sends you to ATI Technologies website. The icons with the cross and the question mark are self-explanatory, I guess.
Now, let’s see what software you can run from the LaunchPad:
ATI Technologies website contains something like a list of technical characteristics of the MMC:
Let’s start out by inspecting the first application in the list, ATI DVD Player. That’s what you see when you launch the program:
The new “Modern” skin is a default one and quite a beautiful one, I should say. If you still prefer the previous version, you can switch to “Classic” anytime:
By the way, you can switch between the skins in any player from the MMC.
The configuration flexibility offered by the ATI DVD Player is rather narrow. Anyway, we do have the necessary settings concerning the audio output, the aspect ratio and parameters of the reproduced video. The player can save still images at a push on a hot key; the still can be then sent to the gallery for viewing or saved into a file, stored in the Clipboard or printed. There are a couple of interesting functions like ThruView Window and ThruView Desktop available. The first makes the playback window translucent, the second turns the playing video into the background of Windows Desktop.
As for the playback quality, it is good enough, although with a slight flicker on some details. Thanks to the VPU, the peak workload of the central processor was only 13% when playing DVDs. The quality of sound, both with 5.1 and stereo speaker systems, was high enough for a PC.
Overall, the ATI DVD Player is a nice tool, simple and efficient, and without a misleading bunch of various settings. This is a player for people who want just slip a DVD-movie into the drive and watch it, never bothering about any technicalities.
The next program I would like to single out is the ATI TV Player. It is for watching TV-channels, as the name suggests. On its first run, the program will ask you to choose between two scan-for-channel modes: Fast or Exhaustive.
The first mode takes less time, but may overlook some channels. The second mode scans the entire range and remembers each channel found. Then, the TV Player offers you to select your country and the broadcast type: cable or antenna.
Again, the fast scan takes only a minute to complete, while the thorough scan is performed in about five minutes. Then, you are asked to enter a password to limit the access to the TV channels and settings. You can only use digits in the password so that you could enter it from the remote control later. Regrettably, when finding TV channels, the ATI TV Player organizes them into one irrevocable order. You cannot organize the channels at your wish as any modern TV-set allows.
After the scan process is over, the correctness of the audio cable attachment is tested; you can then choose the audio source and an option of disabling sound in scheduled recordings. After that, the TV Player offers you to select the format video recordings will be saved onto the HDD in.
I think the best option is “MPEG” that allows saving videos in the widespread formats, such as MPEG-1 (VideoCD) and MPEG-2 (DVD). The ATI VCR format provides a similar quality, while the AVI format allows you to use third-party codecs like DivX. The Windows Media format should only be used when the small size of the resulting file is all-important. You can also fine-tune each of the formats, but that is recommended for experienced users only. The VideoSoap function is available for every format, which improves the quality of your videos.
The program then asks you to select the disk to accommodate its temporary files and select the quality of the TV-On-Demand function. It is only then that you get to that ATI TV Player itself.
In its modern skin, it looks very much similar to the DVD Player. The TV Player is a multi-functional tool for watching TV broadcasts and saving them onto your computer hard disk drive.
You can also capture still images, view the teletext and use the Channel Surf function, which helps you learn what is being broadcast over all the channels. The screenshot shows what it actually looks like:
Of course, the contents of each channel are not updated in real time; it is rather like a puzzle of still images, regularly updated. By double-clicking any of the stills, you switch to the corresponding channel.
The software supports the TV-On-Demand function that allows you to watch broadcasts with a delay. When this function is activated, the TV Player starts recording the TV program to the hard disk. You can return “into the past” later and watch any segment of the recorded program. The importance of TV-On-Demand is indisputable: you can leave your PC without missing a minute of your favorite TV show. ThruView Window and ThruView Desktop functions are fully supported as well as the so-called MULTIVIEW. If you have a second TV-tuner in your system (the ATI TV WONDER), you can watch two broadcasts simultaneously; the window of the second broadcast can be either in the first broadcast window (Picture-in-Picture, PiP) or outside it (Picture-outside-Picture, PoP).
The quality of the image as provided by the TV Player greatly depends on the quality of the TV signal in your area. In my case, although the program found every available TV channel, it didn’t give out a sharp picture: it was all noisy and grainy. It is also related to the noise pickups in the system case as well as to the relatively low sensitivity of the HF-tuner. On the other hand, this might have been the fault of the local cable TV network, if it did send an insufficiently powerful signal.
Image quality during TV broadcasting (Click thumbnails to enlarge)
Some of the channels broadcast in the SECAM standard were recognized well, but the TV Player assigned the PAL standard for them. I had to change this setting manually.
As for the quality of sound, the audio section of the ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro was very sensitive to external noises. The mouse moving, windows minimizing, HDD addressing – you could easily hear all of that in the moments of silence. Moreover, these noises were always present when the mixer had the line input enabled, where the sound from the combo-card was actually sent. I am afraid you will have to put up with it, since there are powerful noise sources nearby like the VPU, graphics memory and central processor.
The recording of broadcasts is implemented very simply in ATI’s TV Player: push the button with the camera icon to record and push it again to stop recording. The One Touch Record function allows you to define a time interval for the recording or set a time point when the recording should stop automatically.
The program can record the video stream from the composite S-Video input, not only from the TV-tuner. Moreover, you don’t have to use the software from ATI Technologies to record video from the external source. The WDM driver can work with any video-capture software. Well, you don’t have to go far for this program: the software bundle includes a nice video-editing suite aka CyberLink PowerDirector 2.5 ME. Tastes differ, of course, and you may prefer some other application as well.
The settings of the ATI TV Player are very rich; you can set up the recording quality and the parameters of each channel, select the video source and define the aspect ratio. Unfortunately, the program is not free from drawbacks. For example, you cannot fine-tune the frequency of each channel separately.
So, the summary sounds as follows: we’ve got a good program for watching TV channels, although not free from drawbacks like the inconvenient channel setup. The main positive feature of the ATI TV Player is undoubtedly its One Touch Record function which works correctly (unlike the iuVCR, for instance).
This program is not listed among the software tools that constitute the ATI MMC 8.7 for one simple reason: the developers forgot or refused to include this radio player into the new version of the Multimedia Center. So, to use the radio features of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO, you have to download the previous version of the MMC (8.6) from ATI Technologies website. I did the same, installed it and ran the ATI FM Radio to see the following window:
As you see, the program interface follows the style of other multimedia applications from ATI. Features? Not too many, but quite enough. There is memory for 5 stations, FM-On-Demand function (similar to TV-On-Demand) and recording. Curiously enough, only one recording format is supported: MPEG-3, 224Kbit/s, 16bit stereo. The receiver would be downright bad, if it didn’t support the alarm-clock function. It is present, so you can start your day with the sounds of your favorite radio station.
As for the receiving quality, it is hard to say anything definite, since our area is dense with various stations and the stereo sound was excellent even though I used just a cut of wire as an antenna.
Overall, the ATI FM Radio is one of the programs the owner of the multimedia combo is going to use really often. Unlike TV broadcasts, radio ones can be listened to even at work as they don’t require you to concentrate on them. Light music and latest news are all offered to the owner of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro. Again, the ATI FM Radio is only included into MMC version 8.6, and I think this is a drawback of the entire ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 PRO product. I only hope the developers will take note of this in the upcoming version of the ATI Multimedia Center.
I decided to cover these three programs at a stroke as they have a lot in common.
ATI File Player
ATI Video CD Player
ATI CD Audio Player
The three programs do what their names oblige them to. They could have been easily united into one universal player, but the software people from ATI Technologies never did it for some reason. So, the user has to launch a different kind of player to play an AVI-file, a VideoCD or a CD-DA. The programs work without any errors, though. The ATI File Player is not very handy because of the inconveniently organized playlist. The first two players support ThruView Window and ThruView Desktop functions.
The next topic for discussion in our list is the interactive digital TV-schedule, Gemstar Guide PLUS+. You can look up the time of your favorite program in it just like in a “paper” TV schedule. Its integration into the MMC makes it very easy to use:
The program is full of functions (there is even a crossword!), but its interface is rather featureless and humble. Note that only the people from the USA and Canada can enjoy this feature to the full. Residing in Europe, I can’t add anything more on the matter. Note only that the program allows you to record TV broadcasts by schedule.
The last piece of software to be discussed is the MMC Library, which is going to help you organize and control your media assets in the easiest manner. The program interface is most simple:
Of course, the library is empty on the first run. You can scan the hard disks of your PC for multimedia content to populate the library.
After the scanning is over, you can work with the library. You can play and sort the files, create playlists and even burn VideoCDs, Super VideoCDs and DVDs (use the Create Media Layout function for that). Alas, the program was not stable when working with the burn-ready projects: it generated an error message and closed down several times. The library keeps a statistics entry for each file telling you how many times this file has been watched and the time of the last access.
I guess the MMC Library will come in handy for owners of huge video and audio collections. If your collection is on the hard disk, this program can make your life easier, but you are unlucky if you have it on CD and DVD disks. :)
So, the ATI Multimedia Center is really an indispensable portion of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro multimedia combo: the software suite comprises all of its functions. It is not free from a few drawbacks, but anyway allows using the entire features range of this product.
Since the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro is a multimedia combo, its performance in 3D applications is not the guiding factor when you are considering this purchase, although it is still an important one. The memory of this card works at a higher frequency than that of the ordinary RADEON 9600 PRO cards, so I expected the performance of the GeXcube to be higher, especially in high resolutions. I have run a full cycle of gaming tests to offer you the results:
The miracle hasn’t happen. Notwithstanding the higher memory frequency, the difference in performance never exceeded 1-3 frames per second. Overclocking improved the situation a little: I notched 490MHz/720MHz frequencies, but with an additional powerful 120mm fan. I would like to warn you against overclocking the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro without additional cooling. Otherwise, you will be running the risk of damaging the card. The standard cooler is too weak for this experiment.
The multimedia GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro combo proved to be a good product with numerous attractive features. Alas, there is always a fly in the ointment. The card is not free from a few drawbacks that need to be mentioned.
My biggest concern is the audio tract of the card. The level of pickups and noise it too high to be acceptable. Add to that the low sensitivity of the TV-tuner, resulting in a degradation of the received image. These are two main complaints about the hardware part of the product.
As for the software, it does what it has been written for, although minor errors would still occur. I also want to express my regret about the ATI FM Radio missing in the current version of the software bundle.
The performance of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro is up to the mark: the card will suit both gamers and multimedia fans. Coming at $249 (recommended price), this product is probably the best choice for a user who’s into multimedia and fast 3D. Overclockers, on the contrary, should look somewhere else, as the cooling system of the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro won’t stand your cruel experiments!
Basing on the criteria, formulated at the beginning of the review, I would say that this product is not perfect for a business user. Notwithstanding its wide functionality, the card doesn’t support monitors with the digital (DVI-I) interface that are often used in a modern office. Otherwise, this card meets the demands of this user group.
As for a home user, there is only one serious flaw: the package doesn’t include a remote control unit. The thing is indispensable for those of us who like to control the multimedia combo from a soft sofa ;). However, you shouldn’t forget that I talked about the OEM-version of the product, while the retail version is sure to have a remote control unit with it. The high quality of the TV-out, typical of all cards on ATI VPUs, allows using this product with TV-sets. The owners of HDTV-receivers can also order a special D-Sub-to-YPbPr adapter on the ATI website to attach the receiver to the card.
So, here’s my verdict: the GeXcube ALL-IN-WONDER 9600 Pro is the best multifunctional combo now produced, capable of outputting the picture onto two monitors, boasting high performance, although not free from certain drawbacks. I hope the drawbacks will be corrected in the future versions of the product.