On the surface, ATI's new MultiMedia Center 8.0 software doesn't look all that different from the previous version 7.5, but a little digging reveals that ATI has made quite a few changes under the hood. Some of these changes are minor or cosmetic, but others make MultiMedia Center 8.0 much more powerful than its predecessor.
MultiMedia Center 8.0's interface is carried over from MMC 7.5, and if you're familiar with the previous version, you'll be right at home with the latest. All the TV tuning, time shifting, and video playback controls are the same as previous versions. The GUI and skinning options have remained, but ATI has modified the video decoding algorithms to improve the signal-to-noise ratio of the decoder. Honestly, I couldn't see a big difference between the quality of video played back on MultiMedia Center 8.0 versus the previous version, but that's a subjective judgment based on fairly high quality source video. MMC 7.5's picture quality was pretty good to begin with, anyway.
If the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro does indeed produce noticeably better video captures, some credit has to go to ATI's "bob and weave" de-interlacing technology. The All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro is actually capable of encoding interlaced formats destined for television, but to view video on a non-interlaced PC monitor, ATI's adaptive de-interlacing should come in handy. De-interlacing is typically done with either a "bob" technique that works well for high motion objects, or a "weave" technique that's better suited to still shots. Blanket bob de-interlacing tends to blur still images, and weave can introduce feathering artifacts to high-motion objects, so ATI combines the best of both with an algorithm that chooses whether to bob or weave on a per-pixel basis. This "bob and weave" de-interlacing technique gives the user the best of both worlds, and the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro has the power to crunch through the per-pixel calculations without breaking a sweat.
Adaptive de-interlacing is new, but the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's ability to accelerate MPEG decoding in hardware is not. Even NVIDIA's GeForce4 MX series is capable of hardware MPEG decoding, so that's nothing special. What sets the All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro apart from other consumer-level graphics cards is its ability to accelerate 15-20% of the MPEG2 encoding process on the graphics card. This won't result in a 15-20% decrease in encoding times, but it should drop the number of CPU cycles dedicated to MPEG2 encoding by 15-20%.
The All-in-Wonder 9700 Pro's ability to accelerate video encoding in hardware is currently confined to MPEG2 formats, but a recent strategic partnership with DivXNetworks could eventually result in DivX decoding or even encoding acceleration being added to the card's list of credentials. I've got my fingers crossed.
Hardware acceleration is certainly useful. I'm not sure how many users will find ATI's THRUVIEW translucency feature an essential feature, although it's certainly geek-chic. With MultiMedia Center 8.0, a user can make TV, DVD, or video file playback windows translucent while viewing. As neat as THRUVIEW looks, it's a little too hard to read text under the translucent playback window for the feature to have much appeal. THRUVIEW is not much use while browsing the web or even chatting in TR's IRC channel, unless the playback window is layered over a largely unused part of an application's desktop footprint.
While THRUVIEW is neat to look at, MultiMedia Center 8.0 has a few less sexy but definitely useful features lurking under the hood. Particularly helpful is an extended set of variable bit rate controls for video recording. With MultiMedia Center 8.0, a maximum bit rate ceiling can be set to ensure that video isn't encoded with a bit rate beyond a target format's display capabilities. A target average bit rate can also be set to make writing to fixed-size recordable media like CDs and DVDs a little easier. DVDs, for example, have a bit rate ceiling of 9.8 MBit/second and a single-disc capacity of 4.7GB. There's little point encoding a video that will eventually end up on a DVD with a maximum bit rate higher than 9.8 MBit/second, or an average bit rate that will cause the final file size to be greater than the 4.7GB available on a single disc.
Another less glamorous but certainly important element of MultiMedia Center 8 is its improved media library management software. Today's massive hard drives are capable of storing days worth of video content, and ATI's developers have done their best to make wading through and cleaning up a PC's media library a little easier. MultiMedia Center 8.0 will automatically create a media library based on a system's existing media content, sort it, and even offer a set of filters to help the user decide which files to get rid of if storage resources are running low. The library cleanup filters are particularly useful for managing recorded TV programs, since options exist to delete content based on how long it's been sitting on a hard drive and whether or not it's already been watched. If a particular recorded program is a keeper, the media library can protect that file from deletion, regardless of whether or not it qualifies for deletion according to a cleanup filter.
Rounding out MultiMedia Center 8.0 is a robust suite of closed-captioning and subtitle options. The closed-captioning options are particularly diverse, since closed-caption text can be used to generate HTML "magazine" content, complete with periodic screen captures. MultiMedia Center can also automatically start recording a program if a specified hot word appears in the closed caption text of that program. Once a program is recorded, the user can search through the closed-caption text for specific words and automatically jump to that point in the video feed rather than having to fast forward through the video manually.
As if that weren't enough, fans of foreign films should be impressed by MultiMedia Center 8.0's ability to display not one, but two sets of subtitles, each in a different language. I have to admit I'm scratching my head over why this functionality is included at all. Maybe it's there to satisfy one of Quebec's ridiculous bilingual language laws.
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