We should start seeing retail cards using the Theater 650 Pro chip in July, but ATI sent us a reference board that we hooked up, via a simple PCI slot, to a Media Center PC in CNET Labs. In our hands-on tests, the Theater 650 Pro was the best TV tuner hardware we've seen to date. The Theater 650 Pro boasts a new video decoder along with several picture-quality tweaks and performance improvements. Some of the highlights include support for NTSC, PAL, and SECAM signals, plus digital TV via ATSC and DVB-T (the European digital standard), and hardware MPEG-2 encoding to spare your CPU from doing all the heavy lifting.
Watching a standard TV signal, as well as sending DVD test footage from a set-top DVD player, we saw evidence of the improvements ATI made to the Theater 650 Pro. On a standard moire pattern test screen, we were able to see fine, detailed lines that were blurred out on last year's Theater 550 chip. On a video clip of moving patterns made up of fine black-and-white lines, we saw the expected false colors (like seeing someone in a black-and-white striped shirt on TV), but the color artifacting was less pronounced than we saw on the older 550 chip. Still, no TV tuner for a PC--the Theater 650 Pro included--provides the image quality you get with even the most basic cable-box-to-TV hookup.
The Theater 650 Pro ushers in additional changes; ATI's long-standing Multimedia Center software has been renamed Catalyst Media Center, and notable features include support for dual analog/digital TV tuner cards; a nice translucent video window effect, called ThruView; and the ability to record to a number of formats, including MPEG-4, WMV9, and H.264.
Many consumers will choose to use Windows XP Media Center Edition as their front end, and our Theater 650 reference board hooked right up to the Media Center OS with no problems. ATI claims the Theater 650 Pro will be compatible with Windows Vista, although the future introduction of CableCard (essentially a mini cable box decoder that will be built into systems) will make that a moot point for most people who are looking to make high-quality TV recordings on their PCs.
The Theater 650 Pro is also compatible with Media Center alternatives such as Cyberlink PowerCinema and Snapstream's Beyond TV. In fact, a new version of that software, Beyond TV 4.3, is launching on Thursday, June 8, and Snapstream is touting its Theater 650 Pro compatibility as a major selling point.
Recording TV on a PC is a tricky subject that often leaves casual users either confused with the multitude of hardware and software choices out there or else disappointed with the less-than-stellar results of their recordings. When standard-definition cable signals are sent to your PC, the final image quality ranges from merely passable to downright ugly, even with a card powered by the excellent ATI Theater 650 Pro. Over-the-air HD recording is better but requires a compatible TV tuner card and the patience to hang an antenna out of your window and find an HD signal.
Of course, all this is expected to change sometime next year when new PCs are CableCard compatible. From what we've seen, it will produce recordings on a par with high-end set-top box digital cable, include HD programming where available (albeit with still-undetermined levels of Digital Rights Management).