The leader in TV tuner technology up until now has been ATI's TV Wonder Elite. ATI's Theater 550 Pro video-processing chip powers the low-profile card and delivers decent TV image quality. The company's newest version of the chip--the Theater 650 Pro--was announced yesterday and offers incremental improvements over its predecessor. Tuner cards featuring the Theater 650 Pro chip will be available from manufacturers such as MSI and Sapphire, and those products should range from $100 to $150. The new chip offers enough of a boost to image quality that TV-on-your-PC fans should give it a serious look; just know that CableCard technology for PCs is expected to hit next year.
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.