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If you want to turn your desktop into a gaming machine and a TV and don't want to go broke in the process, the ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 XT, the latest in ATI's line of TV-tuner/3D graphics cards, belongs on your list. With strong graphics capability, the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT also features an electronics store's worth of A/V connections, including TiVo-like DVR capabilities and ATI's robust Multimedia Center software suite. And if you know your way around an overclocking utility, you tweakers can turn this good deal into a great one. Continuing to outstrip the multipurpose graphics card competition, ATI's All-In-Wonder 9600 XT is a worthy addition to the All-In-Wonder line, at a relatively reasonable $299 price. As a multimedia device, the 9600 XT turns your PC into a full-fledged digital-video-recording, FM-radio-playing, desktop entertainment center, and as a 128MB 3D card, this middle-of-the-road solution delivers adequate performance for casual gamers. We'll let you in on a dirty little secret, too: if you're curious about the world of overclocking, this is a great card to start with. The core graphics chip is essentially the same as that of the higher-end card, the major difference being the clock speeds and the 9800 Pro's eight-pixel pipeline architecture, compared to the 9600 XT's four-pipe design. You won't be able to totally match the 9800 Pro's performance, but with a third-party overclocking utility, such as PowerStrip, you can likely bump the 9600 XT's 500MHz core clock speed closer to that of the 9800 Pro model.
We found the installation of both the hardware and the software simple. The All-In-Wonder 9600 XT has more-modest power requirements than higher-end cards, so you won't need to connect the card directly to your PC power supply. A special adapter is included with the package that plugs into a proprietary port on the back of the card, providing connections for two VGA ports, coaxial SPDIF audio, S-Video, composite video, and a sound jack to plug into your audio card, which you'll need for the FM-radio function. Sadly, the package comes with neither a DVI dongle for LCDs nor an HDTV adapter, although both are available from ATI's online store for $5 and $29, respectively.
A separate port on the back of the card handles video input via a four-jack A/V adapter, which can receive S-Video, composite-video, and RCA audio and video connections. We were impressed with the latest version of ATI's Multimedia Center 8.8, which incorporates a software DVD player, a complete media library for easy access to your system's pictures, music, and movies, and most importantly, Guide+, the TiVo-like channel browser that enables the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT's DVR capabilities, such as time shifting and automatic recording. Unfortunately, those of you with cables boxes remain out of luck, as the cable-TV industry keeps a tight lock on the boxes' signal encryption, rendering the channel guide, and thus the DVR functionality, useless unless you receive your TV signal from another source, such as an antenna or a dish. At least you'll still be able to use the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT to listen to the FM radio; its software even allows you to replay and record broadcasts to MP3. Another cool feature from the Multimedia Center software is the EasyShare function, which lets you use any All-In-Wonder-equipped PC to serve live video to another Radeon-equipped PC on your home network, handy if you want to watch TV on a PC in a different room than the host system's.
Two additional bundled software apps help facilitate home movie editing: for involved work and Muvee AutoProducer 3.0 for quick home-video assembly. MatchWare Mediator 7.0 also comes with the 9600 XT and creates multimedia presentations, such as slide shows, photo albums, and rudimentary AVIs or MPEGs.
Sadly, the 9600 XT's driver software doesn't come with an overclocking utility. Instead we used PowerStrip, a free shareware program. We were able to clock this card's core memory to 600MHz and 370MHz with only slight corruption, up from defaults of roughly 525MHz and 325MHz, respectively. Your mileage may vary, of course, because no two chips have the same tolerance for speed increases. But the clock speeds we were able to attain with our review card speak well for the overall possibility of a do-it-yourself performance boost with the 9600 XT.
Finally, ATI includes its revamped radio-frequency (RF) remote control, the Remote Wonder II. The new remote offers improved range, more responsive mouse control, and configurable buttons, all of which make for easier interaction with Multimedia Center than the original Remote Wonder. Disappointingly missing, however, is an IR blaster, which would let you change channels with the remote on a cable box (the Remote Wonder II's USB RF receiver contains two IR blaster ports, should you decide to add one yourself). ATI also had the foresight to include an FM radio antenna. Essentially, the ATI All-In-Wonder 9600 XT is a great mainstream card for gaming, and while it might choke on the latest, hottest DirectX 9.0-enabled 3D titles at the highest settings, most games should play fine at the medium-detail levels. Despite the overclocking-friendly nature of the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT card, it would not be very helpful to test with those settings. Since no two chips are alike in terms of heat tolerance, you folks playing along at home might not be able to repeat our results if we overclocked the chips. Therefore, we tested with only the card's default settings, which delivered, as expected, midrange performance.
As our testing indicates, you should be able to play most current games with the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT at the industry sweet spot of 60 frames per second or better using a 1,024x768 resolution, 32-bit color, and with varying degrees of antialiasing and anisotropic filtering. As you would expect, the higher-end 128MB All-In-Wonder 9800 Pro card beat the 9600 XT card soundly on every test, most notably on the Unreal Tournament 2003 1,024x768 benchmark. The 9600 XT card also placed well against its main competition, the Nvidia GeForce FX 5700-based BFG Asylum card, with the two finishing in a statistical dead heat.
|1,600x1,200 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering||1,024x768 with 4X antialiasing and 8X anisotropic filtering|
|1,600x1,200 with high-quality settings||1,600x1,200 with medium-quality settings||1,024x768 with high-quality settings||1,024x768 with medium-quality settings|
|1,600x1,200 with high-quality settings||1,600x1,200 with medium-quality settings|
Find out more about how we test graphics cards. Support and warranty coverage is always somewhat limited with hardware accessories, but you should find that where ATI has gaps in its customer support policies, there is enough written material both online and offline to sufficiently back up the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT. ATI includes the requisite card and Remote Wonder II manuals with the All-In-Wonder 9600 XT, as well as a simple setup poster detailing how to get your various connections up and running. While all are sufficient to get you on your way, ATI's Web site offers even more, including driver updates, online hardware manuals, and troubleshooting FAQs on a number of different topics. Helpful guides to all of the included A/V applications are also available online, so be sure to browse through the Multimedia Center and Guide+ FAQs if trouble or a lack of information get you down.
The card is supported by a three-year limited warranty, which includes repair or replacement of the card with the same model. Online support remains free for the duration of the coverage, but telephone support is free within only the first 30 days, assuming you remember to register your card. After that, you'll need to either pay $20 per incident or call a $1.25-per-minute number.