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ATI's All-in-Wonder X800 XT graphics card

Jack of all trades, master of some
— 12:39 AM on June 15, 2005

THE PC GRAPHICS market is about as competitive as it comes, with ATI and NVIDIA constantly striving to one-up each other and capture the performance crown at each price point. Given that incredibly competitive environment, it's odd that ATI's high-end All-in-Wonder cards haven't really had much competition. It's not for a lack of trying on NVIDIA's part, either. The green team took a stab at the All-in-Wonder market with the Personal Cinema, but its software was way behind ATI's, and Personal Cinema products were largely confined to low-end parts. The Personal Cinema never really made the jump to the GeForce 6 series, either.

The Personal Cinema's effective demise has left the All-in-Wonder's blend of 3D performance, video capture, TV tuning, and remote control capabilities without any real competition. One can always get the same functionality by combining multiple cards and accessories, but the All-in-Wonder is the only card that wraps everything into a tidy and potentially more affordable package.

The latest Radeon to receive the All-in-Wonder treatment is the AIW X800 XT, which melds all the All-in-Wonder's multimedia capabilities with the Radeon X800 XT's formidable 3D horsepower. Inexplicably, the All-in-Wonder X800 XT is also less expensive than the Radeon X800 XT, despite the AIW's laundry list of extra features. That sounds too good to be true; read on to see if it is.

The card
As its name implies, the All-in-Wonder X800 XT is based on ATI's Radeon X800 XT graphics core. The All-in-Wonder's R420 graphics chip is identical to that of the Radeon X800 XT, as are its core and memory clock speeds, so 3D performance should on-par with the Radeon. However, unlike the Radeon X800 XT, which is available in AGP and PCI Express flavors, the AIW X800 XT is currently AGP-only. AGP support should make potential upgraders happy, but it's less than ideal for anyone looking to build a future-proof system from scratch. Unfortunately, ATI's only PCI Express All-in-Wonder is based on the dated Radeon X600 graphics core.

Although they share the same graphics chip, the All-in-Wonder X800 XT and Radeon X800 XT are very different cards. The All-in-Wonder, for example, comes dressed on a purple board with blingtastic gold trim. ATI graphics cards are normally red, but purple seems to be the new color of choice for the company's multimedia products. Perhaps members of the multimedia team are Laker fans, or maybe they just like Barney.

Apart from its unique color scheme, the All-in-Wonder card also has a slightly different layout than the Radeon X800 XT. The layout changes are necessary to allow the AIW to accommodate its extra multimedia hardware, including ATI's Rage Theater 200 video decoder chip.

Just barely visible under the All-in-Wonder's GPU heat sink, the Theater 200 is responsible for both video decoding and audio processing. The chip features a pair of 12-bit analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), an adaptive 2D comb filter, and support for component, composite, and S-Video input. According to ATI, the chip actually supports high definition input, although the All-in-Wonder X800 XT does not.

The Theater 200 is no stranger to the All-in-Wonder series; it's been around since the days of the All-in-Wonder 9600 XT, and it's getting a little long in the tooth. ATI's latest video decoder chips, such as the Theater 550, feature 3D comb filters and, more importantly, hardware-accelerated MPEG2 encoding. Hardware MPEG2 acceleration allows for high-quality recording with little to no CPU utilization, and is a must-have feature for serious home theater PCs. Hardware MPEG2 encoding is also a requirement of Microsoft's Windows XP Media Center Edition 2005 operating system.

Although its use of the Theater 200 video decoder has been consistent across the last few All-in-Wonder products, ATI has changed its, er, tune with respect to tuners. ATI used digital tuners back in the days of the Radeon 8500DV, but switched to analog tuners from Philips for more recent All-in-Wonders. For the AIW X800 XT, ATI has returned to silicon-based digital tuners, which supposedly offer higher quality and quicker tuning. Since the image quality of analog tuners has been good enough for recent All-in-Wonders, it seems likely that ATI made the switch to digital because smaller silicon tuners consume less board real estate.

The All-in-Wonder's considerable multimedia muscle feeds a bevy of video input and output ports, but the card's port cluster is pretty sparse. That odd-looking connector on the left handles all the card's multimedia ports, starting with a splitter that forks to provide cable and FM coaxial inputs, and 10-pin input and output connectors.

Those 10-pin video input and output connectors plug into one of three video dongles included with the card. Input and output dongles are available with composite and S-Video ports, and ATI also includes a component HDTV output dongle for those with high definition displays.

Although you can't use all three dongles at once, they snap together like Lego, which makes things a little neater. ATI also bundles composite and S-Video cables, and an antenna for the FM radio.