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Exploring the AIW 9700 Pro's VIVO/PVR capabilities

Kick out the noise, bring in the funk
— 12:04 AM on January 21, 2003

Manufacturer ATI
Model All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro
Price (street) US$379
Availability Now

FOR YEARS, ATI's All-in-Wonder "do anything" graphics cards have been the Swiss Army knives of the graphics card world. If they existed during the mid-80s, MacGuyver would have surely been running one in his PC. Probably with a pretty cool duct tape mod, too. But I digress.

What's the All-in-Wonder all about? Well, it involves two ingredients. The first is a dazzling array of video input and video output ports (VIVO) that enable video capture and output in a number of different standardized formats, and the second is a TV tuner that lets a system act as a personal video recorder (PVR), much like a TiVo. ATI takes a standard graphics card, sprinkles it with VIVO ports and a dash of PVR functionality, and an All-in-Wonder is born. Of course, there's a lot more to the process than that, and we'll be covering it all in explicit detail over the following pages.

We first previewed ATI's All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro back in September of last year, and even then, we were tempted by the prospect of an All-in-Wonder powered by ATI's revolutionary R300 graphics processor. Now that All-in-Wonder 9700 Pros are readily available from a host of retailers, we're taking a closer look at a production sample to see if the finished product lives up to its potential. Does the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro continue ATI's tradition of producing industry-leading VIVO/PVR-enabled graphics cards, and are those pixel shader-powered video filters really all that? Read on to find out.

The card
The Radeon 9700 Pro really needs no introduction, but if you've been living under a rock for the past six months, you can check out our extensive coverage of ATI's graphics flagship with our initial review of the Radeon 9700 Pro and subsequent comparison of Radeon 9700 pro-based graphics cards. Those articles will give you a detailed look at the R300 chip and its performance in 3D applications. Today, we'll only be touching on those subjects as they relate to the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's VIVO and PVR functionality.

The Radeon 9700 Pro gets more, um, stuff

The All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's VIVO and PVR capabilities do necessitate a few additions to the standard Radeon 9700 Pro board layout, but not much has changed. The board retains ATI's fire-engine red color scheme, and uses the same GPU and memory at the same clock speeds as vanilla Radeon 9700 Pro. Like the Radeon 9700 Pro, the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro also has an auxiliary four-pin power connector, and ATI recommends at least a 300W power supply.

For whatever reason, ATI has beefed up the heat sink on the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro. The card's heat sink provides almost a third more surface area than you'll find on the Radeon 9700 Pro, which is odd, because the standard Radeon 9700 Pro's heat sink seems to have no problems keeping the GPU cool. In any case, the fan speeds and noise levels between the All-in-Wonder and vanilla Radeon 9700 Pros are identical, so there's nothing to worry about. Unfortunately, ATI still insists on making heat sink removal difficult; a set of one-way push pins conspire to make heat sink removal far more difficult than it needs to be.

The new heat sink really doesn't really augment the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's VIVO and PVR capabilities, but two additions to the board do. Let's have a look.

The retooled Theater 200

ATI has revamped its Rage Theater chip for the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro and produced the brand-new Theater 200. While ATI has recently moved to integrate some of the original Rage Theater's video output capabilities right onto low-end GPUs like the R250, which is featured in the Radeon 9000 and 9000 Pro, many of the Theater 200's features would really be overkill for graphics cards not specifically targeted at multimedia applications. As such, it'll probably be a while before the Theater 200's features are integrated into one of ATI's GPUs.

The Theater 200 handles the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's audio and video capture capabilities from analog S-Video, composite, and component video inputs. New to the Theater 200 is a set of 12-bit analog-to-digital converters, which is an improvement over the Rage Theater's 9-bit ADCs. If the original video source's quality is high enough, the extra ADC precision available on the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro should improve the quality of captured video ATI has a few tricks up its sleeve for dealing with low-quality input signals, too, but we'll get to those later.

In addition to more precise ADCs, ATI has integrated a new comb filter into the Theater 200 to improve the quality of video capture from composite inputs, and they've also thrown in a dedicated stereo audio processor to handle audio decoding. In a world filled with 5.1-encoded DVDs and games, a stereo audio decoder sounds a little passe, but I can't imagine a scenario where you'd want to capture 5.1 analog audio channels using the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro. Serious sound mavens would want to use the card's digital S/PDIF input for six-channel audio.

Built to order by Philips

The Theater 200 isn't the only new component on the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro. ATI has also added a brand-new TV tuner to the board. Unlike the 8500DV's silicon-based digital tuner, ATI has gone with an analog tuner this time around. In theory, a digital tuner should provide a cleaner picture and more responsive channel surfing, but I didn't notice a difference between the two tuners' raw picture quality or channel switching speeds.

Philips' MK3 analog tuner isn't a particularly small component, so there's only room for one on the card. That's really a shame, because having only one tuner limits the card's PVR capabilities. With a single tuner, the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro can only tune in one channel at a time, which makes it impossible to use the card to watch live television while it's recording a program on another channel. The single-tuner design also limits the card's ability to record more than one program at once.

To get around the limitations of its single-tuner design, ATI has introduced mulTView, an awkwardly-capitalized feature that lets you use an All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro together with a separate TV Wonder PCI card. In addition to letting users watch and record independent TV channels at the same time, mulTView also provides picture-in-picture functionality with independent channel surfing and automatic audio switching depending on which TV window is in focus. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a way to get mulTView to record two TV programs at once, but even TiVo can't do that.

When used in conjunction with an existing TV, the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's single-tuner limitations can be mostly alleviated. However, those planning on replacing a TV and a VCR with an All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro-equipped PC will probably want to add a TV Wonder to that package.

ATI screws Hydravision, again

Limited PCI back plate real estate forces ATI go to with only a single monitor output on the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro. The DVI output can be used to power a single LCD or CRT monitor with an included DVI-to-VGA adapter, but not both at once, and not two CRTs. That's really a shame, especially since ATI has dual RAMDACs built right into the R300 GPU. Multiple monitors are supported through ATI's Hydravision software, but you're limited to using a TV as a second monitor, effectively killing any hope for a usable stretched or extended desktop.

I beat the multimonitor drum when I reviewed ATI's All-in-Wonder 8500DV, which also lacked a second monitor output, but ATI apparently didn't listen. This time, I'll try to be a little louder. IT IS SIMPLY UNACCEPTABLE TO PUT ONLY A SINGLE MONITOR OUTPUT ON A GRAPHICS CARD WHOSE LIST PRICE IS $449. Sure, a PCI graphics card can be added to a system to provide a second VGA output, but that's not the point. It shouldn't come down to that; ATI really needs to find a way to shuffle its video input and output ports to support a second monitor.

Also missing from the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's PCI back plate is the Firewire port that was featured on ATI's All-in-Wonder Radeon 8500DV. It's disappointing that ATI hasn't included Firewire on their flagship All-in-Wonder, but with new motherboards and small form factor PCs integrated Firewire ports, I suppose we can make do. If you're really stuck, ATI sells a DV Wonder Firewire card.

Standard and HDTV video outputs

Although the PCI back plate is missing a few useful ports, the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro does have support for S-video, composite, and HDTV component outputs. HDTV resolutions of 480i/p, 780p, and 1080i are handled by the Theater 200 chip and fed through the card's video output header for those lucky enough to bask in the glory of widescreen HDTVs wider than Henry Rollins' neck. The card's analog tuner doesn't support HDTV-encoded TV signals, but normal TV, DVD, or video playback works fine on a widescreen HDTV with the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro. Heck, even Quake III Arena supports widescreen gaming.

The All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's input block

The All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's input block contains the card's remaining ports, providing analog S-video, composite video, and stereo audio input ports. ATI also throws composite and S-video cables into the box to help connect your TV, VCR, or camcorder.