Viewing and recording TV signals through your PC is at best a messy affair, with a wide variety of hardware and software combos attempting to replicate the simple utility of the popular TiVo set-top box. Even when everything works out perfectly, you're usually stuck with a signal that's seriously degraded when compared to that of a basic cable-box-to-TV connection. ATI's new flagship TV tuner is the $125 TV Wonder 650, and thanks to its use of ATI's new Theater 650 Pro chip, it provides the best signal quality we've seen to date from a TV tuner card. Since budget TV tuner cards aren't much cheaper, this should be your go-to choice, especially if you're using a large display where errors are more readily apparent.
The ATI TV Wonder 650 includes inputs for both cable/satellite signals and over-the-air (OTA) HD signals. The latter requires an antenna correctly positioned to receive OTA transmissions but is the only option right now for HDTV content through a PC TV tuner. An external connection block that plugs in to the card provides composite and S-Video inputs.
The latest version of ATI's software, Catalyst Media Center, is cleanly designed and easy to navigate. While you can watch and record TV and access music and videos through it, there is no tab for photos, which keeps it from being a full substitute for Microsoft's Media Center Edition (MCE) OS. It does include a handy transcoding app that converts video files for use on, for example, a PSP or a video iPod.
Unlike ATI's new budget card, the TV Wonder 200, this card can also be used with MCE, as well as with other programs such as ArcSoft Total Media, a Media Center clone that does a great job mimicking the simple interface of MCE. ArcSoft's app also adds some nice additional functionality, such as basic photo editing.
Through the Catalyst Media Center, image quality was slightly fuzzier than what you would expect to see from a standard-definition TV signal on an HD display (which itself can be a poor viewing experience). Compared to the results from other TV tuner cards, however, the TV Wonder 650 produced a definite visible difference, giving us the most watchable image we've seen, even when using our 32-inch LCD.
It's a slight step down in image quality, but the Diamond XtremeTV PVR660--available for as little as $75 online--is a good substitute if you don't want to crack open your PC or your system lacks a free PCI slot and you need an external USB TV tuner.
The ATI TV Wonder 650 doesn't include a remote control; instead there's an offer for a free remote by mail. To take advantage of this offer, you must to go to a page on ATI's Web site and enter your serial number. Note that the serial number is physically on the card, so jot the number down before installation. With the offer, you can get either a Microsoft Media Center remote or an ATI Remote Wonder for free, plus shipping charges--$12.90 for standard three-to-five-day shipping. The normal retail cost of the remote is $39, so while it's not exactly free, it is deeply discounted.